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NYC Restaurants vs. NYC DOH, Sous Vide Edition

It would be foolish to suggest that the NYC Department of Health is trying to ruin our fair city's status as an international food capital. Or that they're in cahoots with the State Liquor Authority to do so. It does seem like a stretch. But on the other hand, restaurateurs and agencies are butting heads with an increased frequency of late. This, in light of the fact that great chefs, especially those not yet sitting at the top of an empire, are having a tough enough time finding and keeping an affordable lease, makes for a dicey situation.

The latest point of contention: sous vide practices. (Lightening fast primer, for the kids in the back who are uninitiated: French for "under vacuum," sous vide is a technique of cooking food in vacuum sealed bags in water at highly controlled, and often comparatively low, temperatures. Keller's a fan; 'nuff said. Further reading here.) As the Times reported today, the DOH has been making unannounced and somewhat impulsive visits to some of our top restaurants and slapping fines on them for using sous vide equipment. This is all well and good except that there are no regulations on the books regarding the use of sous vide equipment. From Dana Bowen's A1 report:

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has quelled the sous vide revolution, for the moment. In the past few weeks inspectors have told some chefs to throw out shrink-wrapped food, forbidden them to use the equipment used to make it and told them to stop cooking and storing food sous vide until they have a government-approved plan for it.

In some cases, inspectors are handing out fines, which start at $300 per offense. The department's actions seem to represent the first time a city agency has singled out the technique, and how chefs use it...

"It's wholly ironic, because the goals of the chefs using these techniques for cleaner, healthier, better tasting food, and the goals of the health department are one and the same," said Dan Barber, chef of Blue Hill in Manhattan and Stone Barns in Tarrytown. "A complete restriction of any use of sous vide would feel like we were going back 10 years."

To be fair, the city is saying that it has to establish acceptable guidelines in cooperation with chefs like Keller and Bouley to ensure that the codes are reasonable. But, isn't it somewhat asinine to go after sous vide-ing restaurants, of all places, for exactly the reason Barber identifies? Does the city not have anything better to do? Plus, isn't the city, slapping venues with fines for offenses not on the books, just begging to be named as defendant in a class action suit?

Mayor Bloomberg, perhaps you want to step in here before some of your regular haunts take your favorite dishes off their menus.

We appreciate the city's efforts to keep our food safe. Really we do. Hopefully, though, while the DOH develops a set of codes, the chefs that make NY a world-class food destination will be allowed to resume doing that thing they do and the inspectors can pick fights with Improper personal hygiene practices and poor food-worker health offenders.

Also, to those of you with a reservation at Blue Hill in the next week or two: tough break.
· With City Inspectors in Kitchen, Chefs Can't Cook in a Vacuum [NYT]