Out of Control Policy Blog

Welcome to New York's new regulatory nightmare

If you thought building inspectors were bad, read about what's happening to restaurants in New York City. Chef Gabrielle Hamilton recounts the regulatory nightmares that have become rourtine since Rudy Guiliani thought he could revitalize New York City by inviting city regulators into every nook and cranny of local businesses.

During the Giuliani administration...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.

One of the victim's of this new found regulatory zeal has been innovation.

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.

Chef Hamiltion concludes:

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.

Samuel Staley is Research Fellow


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