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Feature Mon Nov 21 2011

Inspecting Chicago's Kitchens: Two Views on Some New Developments

Stories from the front line (no pun) provided by Gapers Block contributor Alan Lake, in italics.

In what has long seemed to be the labyrinthine (and at times Byzantine), world of Chicago restaurant inspection, two recent developments seem to promise a glimmer of sense in the new world order of Rahm Emanuel's administration — at first glance, anyway. Kitchen inspections generally make me think of two things: Gordon Ramsay's "Kitchen Nightmares," and that episode from "Friends" where Phoebe dates a health inspector and feels the thrill of "Shut it down!" years before Tina Fey and company would popularize it on "30Rock." It seems clear, then, that my knowledge of kitchen inspection is pretty media-conditioned, and most likely a bit fanciful.

Fives Guys on the line

My other, non-prime time impression of kitchen inspection in Chicago specifically, is that the health department occasionally...how to put this...seems not to exactly know what's going on in the city's kitchens. Not in a "what's this E. coli business I hear so much about" sort of way, of course. But I find that when I'm reading about the city health department's relationship with local establishments and vendors, it's more often in the context of the Andersonville produce delivery cease-and-desist incident, the ongoing struggle to change food preparation rules for food trucks, and the (needlessly?) wasteful misunderstanding of operations in shared-use kitchens. All told, this feels much less, "we'll protect you from lysine-filled cantaloupes!" than, "what's a CSA again?"

But that was an older administration. A new day, we're told, has dawned. So I have to hand it to them: the first of the city's new health inspection initiatives did much to remedy my confidence and interest on this point. For the first time since 2009, the city's kitchen inspection records are available online. And this database. Is. Fascinating. Searchable across several criteria, with a variety of data manipulation tools that make kitchen inspection reports map-able, filter-able, and visually sensible (which one imagines has great potential from an epidemiology perspective), it's a robust database bursting with robust detail on any given establishment. Notes detail everything from appropriately labeled food containers, to acceptable placement and types of grease traps, to the construction and materials of floors and surfaces. Some are obvious (checking evidence of rodents or other pests), some are things I'd never really considered before ("Shellfish tags in place"). So while part of the fascination for me comes from looking up my favorite eateries and daring myself to a taste of too much information, part of it also stems from the vast array of food and cooking environment practices that I, your average dining room patron, know little to nothing about.

When seeking the final Health Department inspection to open your restaurant, you must be ready. It helps if you've been through it before and know what is expected. Workmen can't be working, scaffolds must be gone — you have to be set up as if you were going to open. Tables must have appropriate china, glass and silverware. The fire suppression system must have been tested and signed off on by the fire department, food must be stored properly, signs must be in place and menus printed. If you're serving rare beef or raw oysters, the proper warning notice must be given in print on the menu. No exceptions.

In this case the general contractor had scheduled the inspection without my knowledge, and we weren't ready. By "we," I mean him. The kitchen was good, but the front of the house was not. Assorted carpenters were still working on their punch lists. Shortly after we discussed this, I see a clipboard come round the corner by the door.

I know if the inspector enters, he'll be pissed off for wasting his time and things will go downhill. You do not want to get an inspector mad at you. I hurry out the door, diverting him around back to the receiving dock.

Having been through this quite a few times, I know to have glasses of ice water in each refrigerator — the international sign that I know how to calibrate a thermometer, as ice water is 32°Fahrenheit (put your thermometer in it, zero it out and you're good to go). Just one of many tricks of the trade. While we're in back, the GC has the restaurant cleaned, and the workmen make themselves scarce. By the time we finish the kitchen, maybe 20 minutes later, the front of the house is presentable and the inspection continues.

We appear to pass, sitting down while the inspector does the final paperwork giving us permission to open. But it's not over. He starts asking me questions and proceeds to drill me on any and all sanitation minutia that comes to his mind. The proper temperature to cook chicken to? 165. What is the danger zone for bacteria growth? 41-140 degrees. What government agencies are responsible for food safety in America? The FDA and USDA. What three hazards can be introduced to food? Chemical, biological and physical. This continues for at least a half hour, with me scoring 100%. Never in my three decades of being a chef have I been subjected to an extensive verbal quiz. Why did he do it?

As he's signing off on the final inspection, he turns to the owner (who couldn't have answered even one of the questions) and tells him the he owes me a big thank you. "If it wasn't for that ringer you hired, I would have flunked you when I saw the workmen" prior to me intercepting him. Not as slick as I thought, but we passed.

It actually seems the "Friends" episode is oddly prophetic in a way — like a first date going awry, once the health department notices your snaggletooth and propensity for flossing with your own hair, they're likely to take a much closer and less generous look at your dirty fingernails and start demanding proof that you washed your hands after returning from the restroom. Except, when the date ends badly, the Chicago dining public benefits on their own first dinner dates and any number of other reasons for eating out. It's nice to see more transparency in putting inspection details online — if for no other reason than to draw back the curtain of ignorance and TV-saturation that veils my (and likely, maybe some of your) understanding of health and law in Chicago's restaurants.

The other new change to the inspection rules affects certification processes for inspections. Under the new regulations, owners of "low-risk food establishments" (sort of like, snack stands, or mini-marts — places that sell pre-packaged foodstuffs) will be able to self-certify to check their own wares and cut down on health inspectors' time and energy expense away from full-service kitchens. This seems positive on its face — less stretch on the existing human and capital resources of the health department. But unlike the new, highly searchable and malleable online database of inspection reports, the self-certification program is a cost-cutting rather than transparency-enhancing measure. And this is where it gets tricky.

If I run a corner quickie mart, my job is to sell my product, track my expenses, and stay on top of my procurement — I'm not trained as a chef, a food-handler, or server, and certainly not as a health inspector. It is literally not my job to deal with the things that inspectors are obligated to objectively (even if we can all agree that "objective" is a slippery devil) notice and report about. If we're cost-cutting here to improve service and create a more manageable workload for the health department, that's respectable, though this may not be the best solution. But if we're cost-cutting to lay off some city workers who happen to be the people whose job it literally is to know what to do and look for to keep consumers safe — that rubs me a different way.

Food safety manager badgeThinking about these jobs as the livelihoods of actual people calls another reality into account. Health inspection rules and regulations are, by and large, the product of a long history of having to deal with the vagaries of the industrial farming system. The painful and unhealthy realities of factory farming have a nasty way of expressing themselves far from the CAFO pens and corn fields, as increasingly resistant bacterial strains attempt to sneak onto dinner plates. The kitchen (and front of house) is literally the last line of defense from many of these threats. And while these issues are at the core of national and local food safety certification providers, to say nothing of some concern over the congressional super-committee's re-certification of the American farm bill, these are not the core concerns of the average snack vendor.

Restaurant inspectors are an odd lot. Most are all business, and efficiently do their job while yielding the power to shut you down or at least make life difficult. Occasionally they may be friendly, instead of solemn and professional. One such inspector had me leading a tour of my kitchen and doing a dance routine for his benefit. Throughout our pas de deux, we had been chatting about some recent events in the industry and it appeared that all was well.

I'd pointed out the litmus paper test strips by the dishwasher that measure proper chlorine content, proudly displayed our color-coded cutting boards (green for veggies, red for meat, yellow for poultry) leaning in a vertical rack so as to dry correctly. I offered up the thrice daily temperature logs for all refrigeration and the tags from all shellfish that had been duly kept and documented. Walk-in refrigerators were stocked properly a la FIFO (first in first out) with each item signed, sealed and dated. Fish was iced from above in perforated hotel pans set into larger solid ones to catch the melt, and all raw foods were stored on shelves below cooked foods so as not to drip and cross contaminate. No debris was on the floor, paper towels and soap were at every hand sink and we were on the money.

The kitchen was up to code, with a few minor violations — but nothing that would endanger us from passing. If you look hard enough, you can find a violation anywhere. Quite literally, there's a thousand of them, and it's up to the inspector's discretion to accept or challenge whatever they find. If you're not in good shape things can deteriorate quickly. Nearly all restaurants are at some point in time non-compliant with code, however brief. It happens, and to think otherwise is folly.

As we conversed, we made our way out through the restaurant towards the bar to finish his inspection. While poking around, he noticed some of the bottles did not have the proper tax stamp for resale. For whatever reason, it seems the owner had purchased wine from an unauthorized distributor (e.g. Costco), which is fine for your home, but not for a restaurant where different laws and taxes apply for on premise consumption.

Evidence in hand, his mood darkened. Time to play hardball. It seems that something I said while chatting earlier, he now construed as an attempt to bribe him. He'd seen some oxtails braising in back and when I described the final dish (braised ox tail ragoƻt with chanterelles and roasted shallots, paired with seared day-boat diver scallops) he mentioned that it sounded delicious and he would love to try it sometime. I in turn glibly offered him a sample and we continued the inspection.

Sitting at the bar 10 minutes later, out comes a badge that he flashes in my face with the threat of arresting me for the attempted bribery of an officer of the court — and one better, for tax evasion. He was quite serious and threatened to call the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms under whose jurisdiction the bar violation lay. I had no knowledge that the owner (who at that moment had just walked in the door onto the scene described) had circumvented the law; the inspector turned his scrutiny away from moi and towards the responsible party.

Apologies were offered and promises made while numerous violations were cited and fines eventually levied. Inspector's ire avoided, I snuck back to my kitchen and went
back to work.

* As a side note, the owner was out of business a few months later (I'd already left). He missed payroll twice, burned every purveyor we had been using for tens of thousands of dollars and wrote nearly 400 bad checks. Didn't do a day in jail though.

A strange lot, perhaps. But perhaps a necessary lot, Phoebe Buffay's dating preferences notwithstanding. If you're unsure, check out the new inspection database. But don't say I didn't warn you if you see your favorite late-nite greasy spoon slapped with a high-risk failure notice.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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