Chefs Sound Off On Health Department Woes

Yesterday, the New York Post reported that most fines levied against restaurants by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene were primarily due to problems unrelated to food, and today, Bloomberg reports that 40 Bronx restaurants are suing the city over "excessive fines" from health inspectors.

While the DOH maintains that their rules and regulations have led to an improvement in food safety over the years (more than 80 percent of restaurants now earn A grades, a spokeswoman told Bloomberg), it seems like recent reports find the DOH a bit too stringent.

The Post's reports found that 65.7 percent of mark-offs in this fiscal year were related primarily to walls, ceilings, and equipment being "poorly maintained." The Bronx restaurateurs' complaint accuses the inspectors of being improperly trained, calling the system "intrinsically unfair" thanks to hefty fines that they claim have put multiple restuarants out of business.

We chatted with three chefs about their views on the Department of Health last night at the filming of upcoming series Moveable Feast with Fine Cooking; read on below for their views.

Anita Lo, Annisa: "One of the biggest problems is that you have so many different people [inspecting]; you don't have consistency. You can be marked off for one thing and the next one will say something completely different. It's totally subjective, which I think is a big problem... We have a three-pot sink. One of them pointed to one sink and said, this must be the hand sink, so we changed it. The next one said no, no this other one must be the hand sink. We're a very highly rated restaurant, we're not making people sick. Am I really making someone sick because, like, the hand sink is there, or the hand sink is over there? Is that really that important?"

Matt Lighter, Atera: "Regulation should be regulated but it should be consistent; it should be there to help benefit the restaurant to be better, to be clean. There are rules out there that don't quite make sense but it's a process, It's a buearucratic process, there has to be information, it has to be passed down. Maybe as a whole, some of the rules are a little crazy, but you can't really blame any individual health inspector because they just have their job to do. At the end of the day, they're just doing their jobs; these are the rules and the guidelines. But imagine a world where every restaurant doesn't have any rules... it might be a little scary."

Andy Ricker, Pok Pok: "I don't have any beef with the letter grade system, I don't have any beef with inspectors showing up whenever they show up. What I do have beef with is them attaching a monetary fine to a violation because all that does is incentivize the people who work for the DOH to fine people, to find problems. They look for problems, they manufacture problems, they will go for the jugular because this generates a huge amount of money for the city and that's why it's not going to change."

While all the chefs acknowledged the purpose of the Department of Health, it seems like they primarily want more consistency in checkups. Ricker, for one, suggested the Portland model, where everyone in the restaurant industry is required to obtain a health card (in New York, only one person is required, but the process is much more laborious), and monetary fines are not tacked onto violations.

There are other things that the chefs which would change; "They might wish it was a ltitle more lenient on things like the meats and cheese and the things we can get because we want to give our customers the best produt we can," Lightner said last night. Lo agreed, noting that after working in France, she thinks cheese should be left out.

And even though most well-regarded restaurants follow the DOH guidebook to a T, "I don't know anyone who's gotten 100 percent," Ricker said. "You can get an A, but it's still going to cost you."