Gabrielle Hamilton of The New York Times reports that the 1990’s, restaurant inspections by the New York City Department of Health were famously lethargic and intermittent. A bill palmed to the inspector got one’s establishment a cursory inspection every other year or so and often a phone call in advance — giving the proprietor a chance to straighten up and the inspector a chance at a token of gratitude.
During the Giuliani administration, that all changed. Jaywalking, turnstile-jumping and peep shows in Times Square were no longer tolerated, and neither were restaurants that recycled the butter in bread baskets. Exhaustive unannounced inspections became the rule. Fines flowed into the city’s treasury. Gone were the cartoonish, winking inspectors who enjoyed free meals at the restaurants they were supposedly scrutinizing; in their place were hard-working, computer-toting “public health sanitarians” with college degrees. You should not even offer these inspectors, who now work for the revamped and renamed Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, a glass of water during their visit.

At the same time, the profile of the average restaurant worker also changed significantly. When I started working as a prep cook in 1982, the city’s kitchens were filled with ex-cons and chain-smoking dead-enders. Today’s chefs, like their health department counterparts, have college educations and science degrees. They also constantly push the limits: seeking new ingredients, developing close relationships with the producers of the foods they buy — some have their food grown and butchered expressly for them — and innovating with cooking techniques.
What’s been fascinating the city’s chefs lately is a technique long used in France called sous vide, in which serving portions of seasoned and vacuum-packed food are submerged in barely simmering water. This long, slow and low-temperature cooking makes the food taste more intensely of what it should taste like, preserves its nutritional value and often creates a texture of unspeakable silkiness that everyone ought to experience.
Except the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene won’t allow it. In recent weeks, having caught wind of the use of this new technique — not by a single report of food-borne illness but rather through the restaurant coverage of newspapers and magazines — inspectors have shut down the system at many restaurants, standing by to make sure that chefs have destroyed the shrink-wrapped food, fining them for serving sous vide dishes and forbidding the use of the equipment used in their production.
You may feel about sous vide the way most New Yorkers apparently feel about squeegee guys, turnstile-jumping and graffiti on subway cars. But for those of us who still cherish the right to order a rare steak and a raw oyster (in the right restaurants), who have been known occasionally to cross the street in the middle of the block instead of at a crosswalk, the health department’s attitude toward food safety feels alarmist.
I am not against health standards, by any stretch, and I, like all chefs, am prideful when the inspectors arrive at my restaurant and are pressed to find anything more perilous than an empty roll of paper towels in the holder above the hand washing sink.
But serious chefs are compulsively clean by nature. We don’t go into this business for the money, I assure you; we are driven by the desire to feed people, to nourish them, to take care of them, to show them how delicious and exciting and satisfying food can be. Cleanliness and hygiene are the foundations of that satisfaction.
We are particularly interested in unadulterated food, food that has not been killed with pesticides or made to grow faster and bigger and rounder with genetic engineering, or injected with carcinogenic preservatives or has had the life cooked out of it. Not one of us would imperil a diner — and so far as sous vide is concerned, not one of us has. Not one of us would serve a customer something that we ourselves would not relish to eat.
If it were up to the sanitarians, there would not be known in this country a cheese with its distinguishing mold, a naturally yeasted loaf of bread, a country ham left to hang for 110 days from the barn rafters, and not even a perfect tomato, still warm from the day, unruined by the harsh environment of a perfectly hygienic 38-degree temperature-controlled walk-in refrigerator box.
The city requires that all restaurants of every class, from the four-star prom queens to the egg-on-a-roll griddle-top delis, have on their premises during all hours of operation a certified food handler who has completed the city’s sanitation class. This is a good thing. I am keenly partial to hygiene and surely averse to food-borne illness.
The class, itself, however, is like a 15-hour horror movie spread over five days in which the chain-saw wielders and silence-of-the-lambs serial-killing psychopaths are played by microbes, botulism, salmonella, standing water, pots of soup at a tepid 130 degrees, toast buttered by an ungloved hand and so forth.
The perils and menaces that supposedly lurk in every kitchen practicing sous vide cooking are like the weapons of mass destruction — rumored but not found, yet still cause enough for the sanitarians to invade your restaurant — and pocket hundreds or thousands of dollars in fines out of your daily receipts.
The five-day course is an indoctrination rather than an education. The only reason you can still get a rare steak and a raw oyster in this town — the temperature danger zone is between 38 degrees and 140 degrees — is that you the customer request that it be served that way, thus implicating yourself in the food-borne illness you stand to suffer by not adhering to the department’s mandate.
Violations of the regulations of the Department of Health (none yet exist for the sous vide technique) incur steep fines. Like the parking ticket that was $55 in 1999 and is now $115, the schedule of fines for kitchen offenses has soared in the past two years.
The empty roll of paper towels that might not have been fined at all in 1999 now draws a $300 fine. The fine for a piece of toast buttered by an ungloved hand also starts at $300. There are certain types of restaurants where you want this kind of severity — maybe a place that serves a lot of dubious chicken for an even more doubtful $1.95 and is staffed by underpaid 17- year-olds who don’t know or care about good food or good sanitation.
But these are not the restaurants practicing sous vide. 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.
Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef and owner of Prune, is working on a food memoir.