There’s nothing like sitting down at your favorite greasy spoon for a nostalgic plate of chicken fingers and fries when you notice a tiny mouse friend scuttle on by and disappear into a small black hole. Or when listlessly perusing the donut selection at your favorite coffee chain, only to witness a furry masked bandit make way with the last Boston cream.
While some health inspection violations are pretty obvious, depending on the individual inspector, even relatively innocent mistakes could cause a restaurant to enter health inspection crisis mode.
Like most things, health inspections are subjective. Beyond the individual health inspector, even the rating system can affect the grade a restaurant is given. In New York, LA and coming soon to Boston, restaurants are evaluated based on a points system and must place their health grade in the window; ‘A’ being the best and ‘C’ being the worst.
While the goal is to give customers the information they need to make an informed decision about the restaurant’s cleanliness, the entire system itself is viewed as slightly controversial. Some reports have shown restaurants with rodent problems still made an ‘A’ grade because their record is otherwise clean, and, as you’ll see in some of the examples below, relatively innocuous actions or centuries old food preparation methods can cause even the most reputable establishments to come under fire and temporarily close their doors.
While the grading system is one way to determine health and safety, other cities have an approach that’s more cut and dry. In Toronto, for example, the notices are a pass, conditional pass or closed. Conditional pass meaning there has been a significant infraction – usually handling and storage issues - that the restaurant must fix within 24-48 hours of an inspection. A fail means an infraction considered crucial – like contamination or health hazards – was found and the restaurant will be closed until the problem is corrected.
What’s the damage of a failed inspection? Well, one thing’s for sure: the media will run with it. And the fancier and more acclaimed your palace, the bloodier the take down will be. In 2013, out of 55 Michelin star restaurants in NYC, five received a B rating and four received a scary C grade in their health inspection.
In this article we’ll look at two cases of reputable and loved establishments who bore the heat of an inspector’s scarlet letter and how they recovered.
Top chef Thomas Keller’s high-end restaurant Per Se had a kitchen culture, which was once described as the following:
“When one cook peels a carrot, his chef de partie is going to make sure that carrot's being peeled over a bowl to catch the shavings, because no one wants to incur the wrath of a sous chef. But it's not just about hierarchy: If a bit of paper towel falls on the floor from a cook's station, it might be the dishwasher tapping him on the shoulder to make sure it gets picked up. Everything is labeled, everything is sanitized. The kitchen gets a deep clean on a nightly basis; the plancha is literally sanded down to its original luster. This is how it works: Sloppy kitchen employees stand out, and the rest of the staff will have no problem letting them know they don't belong.”
Not the kitchen culture you’d think would be served with the lowest possible grade on the NYC health violation spectrum. And yet in 2014, Per Se earned a “grade pending” after it received a total of 42 violation points during its health inspection, knocking it well into the C grade (the C threshold starts at 28 points.)
But Per Se didn’t get torn down for reasons you would think would be “close” worthy, like vermin or rodents. Their big red violations were improper hot and cold food temperature, improper hand washing, a charge of either tobacco use or an open beverage, and a dirty wiping clothing. These violations were released in all their ambiguity to the public, with plenty of room for interpretation. Was someone smoking in the kitchen? Was food being left to spoil in the kitchen heat?
Keller himself made a statement responding to the violations to give them context as he appealed the grade:
“2b) Potatoes that were in the process of cooking in a pan of canola oil registered between 112- 118F , which is below the hot food recommended temperature of 140F (as per Pommes Rissolee, a classic French technique used for generations in kitchens around the world)
4a-b) A chef drinking water in the kitchen from an open container
10f) Leaky faucet / dusty fan guard”
Obviously, Per Se recovered. They’re still one of the most recognized restaurants in NYC. And as of October 2015, they have a grade A health inspection sign in their window.
The Daily Mail: “Jamie's Kitchen Nightmare: Celebrity chef's deluxe London butchers closed after health inspectors find mouse droppings.”
The Evening Standard: “Jamie Oliver's Barbecoa butchery closed for 24 hours after mold is found on meat”
Jamie Oliver – one of the biggest advocates for food quality and healthy eating – had his name dragged through the mud when health inspectors came knocking at his butchery, Barbecoa, which is also the supplier of his restaurant upstairs that goes by the same name. Barbecoa was one of 12 London eateries to be closed down for 24 hours in 2014. While Per Se’s violations were relatively ambiguous according to the report, Barbecoa’s were not: mouse droppings, moldy meat, out-of-date wagyu beef, dirty slicers, and old chicken relabeled with a later use-by date.
The press went mad. Oliver’s authority was questioned and of course, his reputation temporarily bruised. Of course, any mistake a celebrity chef – or their empire – makes comes under a microscope – and has the habit of digging old skeletons out of the closet and back into the public’s eye.
The Daily Mail Reported: “The scandal is the latest of many to plague the celebrity chef's restaurant empire. In May last year, the Portsmouth branch of his successful Jamie's Italian chain was forced to pay £17,000 after pleading guilty to breach of the Food Safety Act. The case came a year after staff were filmed pointing and laughing at dying mice in the Edinburgh branch. Recently, the branch London's Square Mile was berated by hygiene inspectors for poor staff cleanliness and access to washing facilities - scoring a two out of five. Out-of-date food has since been found at a Canary Wharf branch and raw burgers at an Oliver eatery in Leeds.”
How did Oliver’s team at Barbecoa respond? In the best way they could. First, they closed shop voluntarily to immediately address the concerns of the report. But then, like Thomas Keller, they also released a statement in an attempt to absolve themselves of some of the violations and quell the fears about moldy meat. The statement read, “The longer the meat dry-ages, the more the mold occurs. This is a natural process and is safe to eat.”
Barbecoa, it seems, has recovered well. It has 4 out of 5 stars on TripAdvisor and 3.5 out of 5 stars on Yelp, but a Google Search will for the near future continue to bring the ghosts of the food inspector’s past into the minds of hungry searchers.
In conclusion, while a negative health inspection review is certainly not desirable, it’s not impossible to recover from. Health inspections aren’t always fair, and don’t always take into account food preparation methods that represent “how things have always been done.” The best thing to do? Be stringent about hygiene and familiarize yourself and your staff with all the small complexities of health and safety. Make sure to educate yourself on the health code rules that are specific to your city and make these rules an important part of your staff training.
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