Like Sherman through Atlanta, the NYCDOH (New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene) has marched through the city this season, stranding many restaurants in its embarrassing – and sometimes horrifying – wake.
Recently to be shuttered was the Café at Country, the casual end of Geoffrey Zakarian’s three-star restaurant in the Carlton Hotel. Reopened on Tuesday, after a weekend off to comply with set DOH standards, Zakarian offered this statement:
“In our quest to work directly with local, artisanal farmers and purveyors to bring our customers the best food possible, our restaurant violated some codes. Over the last several days the restaurant has been working diligently with the Department of Health to rectify these outstanding violations.”
Now it’s back to business, and what lingers in the air isn’t whether or not Zakarian’s troops got their act together – for any dubious emends would sacrifice any face saved – but whether or not, or to what practice, sous-vide will be executed.
On the grievous Friday when the kitchen was ordered knives and spoons down, hundreds of pounds of raw, vacuumed sealed meat were tossed for improper procedure.
The method implicated was sous-vide (under vacuum), where by food is vacuum sealed for low temperature cooking. A technique used widely in high-end kitchens, it has met criticism from health officials over the years, specifically in 2006 when the practice came under governmental regulation.
The concern over bacterial growth, primarily the production of botulinum toxin, which can cultivate in conditions absent of oxygen, has led health officials to demand strict guidelines. The submission and approval of a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point plan is now mandatory in order for a restaurant to prepare food under sous-vide. According to officials, Mr. Zakarian and Country, although warned in 2006 of the regulation, failed to submit plans for approval.
“They never came back to us, and when we went back there we found that they were still using the machine,” said Elliott Marcus, an associate commissioner of food safety.
Inspected criteria set by health and food officials include:
- process – packaging, internal temperatures, detailed labeling
- equipment – water immersion units, convection ovens, industrial vacuum-packaging machines
But even with external pressures to a point that some chefs deem excessive, sous-vide remains pertinent in many kitchens, enabling cooks to produce flavor-rich dishes with consistency.
Dan Barber, the chef of Blue Hill restaurants, hallmarked for the utilization of local and fresh ingredients, voiced proclivity for the method, as so many chefs do, telling the NY Times:
“I think it allows the diner to taste more of the flavor that you’re cooking. “When you braise a lamb shoulder, you’re allowing flavor to escape in steam or heat. What sous vide does is trap the protein or the vegetable or the fruit in an environment where those flavors can’t escape.”
It is not likely chefs will shy from the sous-vide method any time in the future, not even under the most arduous demarcations. But at the same time it’s guaranteed that the DOH will continue marching on, fining and slapping violations for noncompliance.
As a food safety professional, I am horrified by the current cachet of sous vide fad. Just like “underground dining,” it is so hip that everybody wants to jump right into it, whether they know what they are doing or not. In the hands of the unqualified, it can and will be deadly.