Thursday, April 27, 2006

Restaurant Innovation and the Health Code

It sounds like New York has very stringent requirements for restaurant hygiene, and, as one would expect, that can interfere with innovative cooking techniques and the quality of food produced. A chef comments,
While the inspector is mandated to have a single-minded focus on the Department of Health's taste-killing rules, a good chef is driven by many concerns — the health and well-being of her customer paramount among them — and it is in her hands that I would rather entrust my eating experiences.
While I agree with the chef that "serious chefs are compulsively clean by nature" and Not one of us would serve a customer something that we ourselves would not relish to eat, and also with his observation that sanitarians would regulate a range of delicacies and specialty foods out of existence, the health code is not just about what happens inside the restaurant. No matter how carefully food is selected, there is a chance that it will have been contaminated prior to its introduction to the restaurant kitchen.

The temperature requirements imposed across this nation ensure that most bacteria are killed in the cooking process, and that hot food is maintained at a high enough temperature that it does not become a breeding ground for bacteria. It also prevents certain innovative food preparation techniques, and limits the ability of restaurants to preserve hot food in a palatable form. Under a heat lamp or on a warming tray, even the best of food is quickly reduced to cafeteria fare.

That said, I think that professional chefs should be able to experiment with innovations such as sous vide - but they should first propose a set of health regulations to govern the innovation and have them passed by the health department. The consumer should also be made aware of any additional danger posed by the food preparation technique. Warnings about raw and undercooked food haven't scared customers away from the sushi bar. After all, the greatest danger is not so much that the best chefs in the best restaurants, working with the highest quality and most carefully selected ingredients, will put their patrons at undue risk. The greatest danger is that the same cooking techniques will be applied by chefs and restaurants which don't act with such care. There's a reason that health regulations are aimed at the lowest common denominator.

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