Should New York Restaurant Critic Rush to Defend Per Se?

The restaurant world staggered a bit this week when Thomas Keller, perhaps the most respected and important chef in America, took a public beating from New York’s Department of Health. Per Se (where meals cost $300 per person or more) dropped from A to C in the city’s public grading system.

Within days, much of the industry rushed to the chef’s defense, spearheaded by an unlikely hero in New York Post restaurant critic, Steve Cuozzo. In a scathing piece, Cuozzo refers to the inspecting agency as “health Nazis” and picks apart the Per Se inspection as ludicrous and part of an inspection system designed to garner fines for the city government, not protect public safety.

While I agree with Cuozzo that Per Se is a clean safe place to eat, I think most chefs here in Minnesota recognize the violations listed. Although most chefs would support Keller, if they were being honest, they would admit the violations don’t look particularly outlandish or complicated. They are just part of the normal inspection conversation. Cuozzo’s take down, highlights why the grading system includes the public in a discussion without enough information to be useful. Most of his points seem inaccurate and without a real understanding of how inspections work and why the rules exist.

Food safety focuses on three areas where chefs and cooks can have the most impact: personal hygiene (wash your hands, stay home when you’re sick, keep hair and band-aids out of people’s food), cross contamination (don’t put raw chicken near salad, wash your hands if you touch raw chicken, change your cutting board if it had raw chicken on it), and time and temperature abuse (don’t let food spend time in the “danger zone,” 41-135 Fahrenheit, or if you do, keep it to under four hours and toss it after that).

In reading Cuozzo’s article, the points listed for Per Se fall within the three big no-no categories: “hot food held below 140” ( time and temperature abuse), and “no hand washing facility in the food prep area” (personal hygiene). Later he lists the New York code for cooling sous vide foods, as if it were overly complicated and onerous. Chefs in Minnesota are asked to do much more rigorous HAACP plans to support the same cooking techniques and would probably look at those cooling regulations as normal procedure.*

I do not for a moment believe that Thomas Keller runs a dangerous or C level sanitary restaurant. Likewise the offenses listed don’t give enough information to be useful to a consumer and neither does the grade. Was the handsink violation a matter of an empty soap dispenser, or a trash bin blocking access? Was the time and temperature abuse a single incident or systemic?

The public nature of the grading system, used in New York and many cities, seems to foster misinterpreted information to the public and overarching power to inspectors. If restaurants fall outside the range of safety and pose a threat to customers, shut them down. If not, let the chef and inspector go through the process of keeping food safe without getting the public involved.

*Cuozzo’s best point, perhaps, is that the temperatures in the danger zone are “inimical to first-class cuisine and ignorant of modern cooking techniques.” He is right, mostly. Much of the food at a restaurant like Per Se is served at or near room temperature (within the temperature danger zone). What Cuozzo misses is that it’s not just temperature that matters. It’s time and temperature. Foods can stay in the danger zone but only for certain amounts of time. It is possible to serve foods at these temperatures and still stay within the safety guidelines.