Giving an F to New York's Restaurant Grading System

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Krista Kennell / Sipa

A restaurant in California displays its letter-grade health-inspection certificate

Starting this week, New York City will implement a new food-safety grading system. Like the one in Los Angeles that inspired it, the new system calls for a letter grade to be given to every restaurant, which will then have to hang it on a big sign in the front. Those proprietors whose kitchens harbor fruit flies — or raw fish of less-than-frigid temperature — will be shamed like Hester Prynne for all the world to see. (Although, unlike poor Hester, they will be given a chance to clean up their act before the ritual marking takes place.)

I found this development odd, given the tenor of our times. Right now Americans seem to be clamoring to dismantle the government, and in many states, the most basic regulatory apparatuses have fallen into disuse. But New York and L.A. have become downright draconian in their urge to oversee the inner workings of small businesses like restaurants. Is this the rise of a countercultural oasis, nanny-state bastions in two of the country's most liberal cities? Or is it just that people are more worried about what goes into their bodies than they are about getting the government back to Gilded Age levels of intrusiveness?

I can't pretend to know, but I have my own (hostile) feelings toward the new food-safety grading system. I'm no libertarian; part of what irritates me is that some guy making tacos is now subject to more stringent oversight than BP. Plus, I hate to see regulation enforced in such an arbitrary and imperious way. It's not simply a matter of saying, "If you keep on the straight and narrow, you have nothing to fear." Every restaurant has fruit flies in the summer; now they're going to slammed for it. Prospective patrons will have to go online to find out what specific violations led to a restaurant getting a bad grade. Obviously, a decomposing corpse in the sink will hurt the inspection a lot more than an off-temperature walk-in, but most scores will consist of a bunch of tiny violations added together. One gentrified health-food restaurant in Harlem even got written up for having a crack on its sidewalk!

Then there is the matter of the food. The health department functionaries who oversee these matters have about as much interest in cookery as the stone-faced meter matron does in my explanation of why I was about to move my car. But the truth is that their indifference to cooking actually ruins a lot of food. The regulations require that food be stored at such cold temperatures and served at such hot ones that the vast out-of-bounds territory in the middle means only frozen food and steaming victuals lie safely on either side.

Case in point: fresh mozzarella, one of the greatest gifts of Italy to the world, is instantly and irretrievably ruined when it goes into a refrigerator. It's meant to be eaten warm, with tepid, salty milk-water dripping profusely from it. In New York, even when experts make mozzarella in-house from curds and warm water, they are forced to plunge it into ice water, turning it into a white rubbery blob good only for sealing window cracks.

A more significant example is the city's ongoing refusal to learn how sous vide works. This is probably the single most important advance in cooking in the past 100 years, and it has been proven to be absolutely safe when done competently. It allows you to cook food at low temperatures over a long period of time with a precision and reliability that neither pan nor pot nor grill could ever achieve. But for years, the culinary establishment has strived in vain to get the health department to look at the scientific proof. Chefs who want to use the technique need to draw up a hazard plan worthy of Three Mile Island.

In a similar spirit, many of New York's most skilled chefs have been forced to hide their lovingly house-made charcuterie away in locked closets, like hydroponic marijuana plants, for fear of the meat police. The new letter-grading system will only further encourage the big chain restaurants that are serving crappy food zapped by microwave. Tender mozzarella and piquant salami will become luxury underground items, like raw-milk cheese and smuggled lardo. It's sad.

Still, as imperious and ill-advised as many of the city's health-department rules may be, no one would argue that there shouldn't be any oversight of what we're fed in restaurants. Chefs left to themselves won't take the time to keep pork from rubbing up against chicken, despite the manifest hazards of salmonella. But to grade restaurants using a system that rewards nuked food over slow cooking? That seems merely mean. Is it some thwarted, fugitive Tea Party impulse that I feel kicking inside me? Or simple well-earned skepticism, as I wonder, Who grades the graders? I need the health department to watch out for me. I know that. But I don't need them to publicly humiliate small businesses in order to do so.

Josh Ozersky is a James Beard Award—winning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. His food video site, Ozersky.TV, is updated daily. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders.