March 6th, 2014
01:00 PM ET
Share this on:

Chefs with Issues is a platform for chefs and farmers we love, fired up for causes about which they're passionate. Josh Grinker is the executive chef at Stone Park restaurant in Brooklyn, New York. He has previously written about five things chefs don't want you to know.

The New York City Department of Health has outdone itself by giving a "C" health inspection grade to Per Se, one of the finest - and most expensive - restaurants in the world, because of violations of the department's arbitrary and punitive letter-grading program.

The grading system and presence of grade cards in the window, required since July 2010, “provides diners with easily interpretable information" and "gives restaurants the incentive to maintain the highest food safety practices," according to Thomas Farley, the former Commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

While clarity and food safety are certainly laudable goals, consumers should realize that these "A," "B" and "C" letters are poor indicators of a restaurant’s cleanliness and the quality of its operation.

Inspections in New York City are among the most rigorous in the country, and the Health Department inspectors take the mandate of compliance seriously. Keeping the consumer safe is unarguably good public policy in a city with more than 24,000 restaurants, but the size and scope of the health code makes the grading system inherently flawed.

The problems stem from too many points in the health code and too many interpretations by inspectors of those points. With more than 1,000 points at an inspector's disposal (some of which have nothing to do with actual food), the violations game is completely open to the whims of the given inspector on the given day.

For instance, the employee bathroom may not have a lid on the trash, or a choking sign might not be properly displayed. A combination of these and similar violations could earn a restaurant a "B" (let's not forget, it only takes a deduction of 14 points out of that possible 1,000 to get you that grade).

Plus, proactive sanitation efforts of a restaurant are completely overlooked by Health Department inspectors. Does it matter that a restaurant exactingly educates its employees in food safety practices? Or that it hires only trained culinary and service professionals? Does it matter that it sources antibiotic- and hormone-free meats and/or organic produce? The short answer: Nope.

Different inspectors with different levels of experience can have vastly different focuses during their inspections. That is why a restaurant like Per Se can receive a “C,” while nearby Gray's Papaya receives an "A".

This is not meant to be elitist about the issue, only to point out that culinary professionals who have devoted their lives to sourcing and preparing high-quality food probably aren't going to serve you something worse than a hot dog that’s been slow-roasting on a roller for who knows how long.

The system forces restaurants to focus on relatively picayune and whimsical infractions rather than focusing on the real issues that do impact public health.

Since the Health Department began its letter-grade system, revenues generated from fines have climbed from $31.2 million in 2008 to $45.6 million in 2011.

If one of the city’s stated objectives behind the grades is to provide an incentive for restaurants to clean it up, then the strategy has failed, as reflected in the sheer number of violations issued since the program’s inception. However, if this is simply a new way to raise more revenue at the expense of one of the city’s premier industries, then the city is doing very well indeed.

A public survey by Baruch College Survey Research, that was commissioned by the Health Department, found that 88% of New Yorkers consider grades when they are choosing a restaurant and that 65% consider the grades all or most of the time. The stakes are high and some will be forced out of business. Is this penny wise and pound foolish?

New Yorkers overwhelmingly believe that the letter grades are a good thing for consumers, so grades are unlikely to disappear. However, an overhaul of this system is in order. The stated objectives of the letter grading system are to empower the consumer to make informed choices while creating an incentive for food professionals to be more sanitary. Unfortunately, the current system achieves neither goal. The consumer is more misinformed than ever and restaurants are unfairly stigmatized and burdened with crippling fines.

Our public officials must recognize that grading, while not wrong per se, is sorely in need of reform.

The opinions expressed are solely those of Josh Grinker.



soundoff (46 Responses)
  1. Doodie

    NYC is filthy. Period!

    April 26, 2014 at 11:26 am |
    • NYer

      While I have been to PerSe, and found it to be wildly overrated, I think it safe to say that your preferred meals are served in the form of McNuggets.

      June 19, 2014 at 2:18 pm |
  2. Kelly

    To no great surprise, I passed Josh Grinker's empty restaurant on an otherwise busy night in Park Slope.Hiding in their enclave: their B grade. Sour grapes?

    March 12, 2014 at 11:07 am |
  3. ismael

    I agree, the grade system its design to raise revenue for the doh and do nothing for public safety, the A grade letter gives customers a false sense of safety, I have worked in restaurants for ten years and believe me I know whats going on inside the kitchens. When a restaurant gets an A its next inspection its in about a year and most of the time owners don't care about food safety at all for the next 10 months because they know they won't get inspection in that period of time,and on the other side when a restaurant owner really cares about food safety and keeps The restaurant clean and handles food properly a poorly trained inspector might come up with ridiculous fines like lettuce should not be cut until time of use or look for grease inside equipment where its impossible to clean unless you get it dismantled by a professional. So don't get fool by the letter instead read reviews and choose a restaurant with a good reputation.

    March 11, 2014 at 1:35 am |
    • Issah

      That's wat u write for knowing the grading system and the industry? I beg to differ

      March 11, 2014 at 8:46 pm |
  4. Partisan

    Given that the ownership of this place are also major Obama supporters, this is no surprise. The only real shock is that they are being held accountable...

    March 10, 2014 at 12:16 am |
    • Kat Kinsman

      I don't actually understand what you're saying. Which place, and what part of the equation are you referring to?

      March 10, 2014 at 12:33 pm |
    • Carn E. Vore

      Obvious troll is obvious.

      March 10, 2014 at 6:28 pm |
  5. Hillary Clinton

    What difference does it make?

    March 8, 2014 at 7:12 pm |
    • dave

      IT matters if you are eating rat infested food.

      June 19, 2014 at 1:36 pm |
  6. Fred Evil

    "Does it matter that it sources antibiotic- and hormone-free meats and/or organic produce? The short answer: Nope."
    Nor should it, organic is code for 'hipster-bait,' being both more expensive AND less healthy.

    March 8, 2014 at 6:23 pm |
    • carlee44

      I dont know about organic being less healthy, but I know I am glad the only meat we eat is our own.Same foe vegies except bananas.ZBut I know people who wont eat certain foods (like pre-packaged lettuce because they been to the fields where its grown and seen that the field workers only have porta pottys and hand wipes. Tell me thats healthy.

      March 9, 2014 at 3:19 pm |
  7. SixDegrees

    Well, that certainly explains why Per Se was written up for employees smoking in the food preparation area; the lack of handwashing stations in the kitchen and other key, required areas; and the lack of soap elsewhere.

    March 8, 2014 at 3:55 pm |
  8. capnmike

    New York is also famous for pure corruption. The grade your restaurant gets is probably also influenced by how big a bribe the inspector got, or who in the "famiglia" you know.

    March 8, 2014 at 10:32 am |
    • Issah

      Inspectors don't take bride. Get your facts right

      March 8, 2014 at 7:20 pm |
      • Little Timmie

        Get your typos "right." He's definitely not talking about taking a "bride" doofus. You're point is the same as what your wife said about your performance last night: weak.

        March 10, 2014 at 7:30 am |
        • Issah

          Talking abt typos, did u read wat u wrote? Do u even understand wat he wrote? Go back to schoo

          March 25, 2014 at 6:39 am |
        • Remedial Comp Teacher

          Now, now Issah. Let's not call the kettle black ...

          March 25, 2014 at 7:36 am |
      • dave

        YES, I AGREE WITH YOU, BUT THEY GOT THE POWER TO SCREW YOU OVER.

        June 19, 2014 at 1:38 pm |
  9. Carn E. Vore

    "Does it matter that it sources antibiotic- and hormone-free meats and/or organic produce? The short answer: Nope." Good! Arbitrarily assigned, trendy labels catering to pretentious d-bags should have no bearing on a Health Department's grade. Nice of the writer to let his biases be known, though.

    March 8, 2014 at 10:27 am |
  10. DP

    > Does it matter that a restaurant exactingly educates its employees in food safety practices?

    and then you do not have a lid on the trash ? are you joking dude... who cares about yout alleged education if you there is no real lid in place... stop whining and correct the issues like this first, then do you "education"

    March 7, 2014 at 11:52 pm |
  11. Marc Florida

    The grading keeps restaurant managers on their toes. They want those high scores. Serous infractions are minimal with the grading system. Infractions that may not be serious are ignored without the grading system. It makes for safer restaurants. .

    March 7, 2014 at 9:57 pm |
  12. Hubert

    Stop trying to marginalize Per Se failing...what are you trying to get into Thomas Kellers VIP list or something? Here are the things they failed for..and it isn't as arbitrary/stupid as you try to make it sound in your article..

    -Hot food item not held at or above 140º F.
    -Cold food item held above 41º F (smoked fish and reduced oxygen packaged foods above 38 ºF) except during necessary preparation.
    -Hand washing facility not provided in or near food preparation area and toilet room. Hot and cold running water at adequate pressure to enable cleanliness of employees not provided at facility. Soap and an acceptable hand-drying device not provided.
    Tobacco use, eating, or drinking from open container in food preparation, food storage or dishwashing area observed.
    -Wiping cloths soiled or not stored in sanitizing solution.
    -Plumbing not properly installed or maintained; anti-siphonage or backflow prevention device not provided where required; equipment or floor not properly drained; sewage disposal system in disrepair or not functioning properly.
    -Non-food contact surface improperly constructed. Unacceptable material used. Non-food contact surface or equipment improperly maintained and/or not properly sealed, raised, spaced or movable to allow accessibility for cleaning on all sides, above and underneath the unit.

    March 7, 2014 at 5:59 pm |
    • marsha

      "Hand washing facility not provided in or near food preparation area and toilet room."

      Well, did Per Se build a new area? Because if they didn't, then they had the hand washing area on their last review, where they received an A. How is it that a hand washing area disappears? Did someone rip it off the wall?

      Something smells very fishy here, like someone getting paid off to discredit Per Se.

      March 8, 2014 at 1:13 am |
      • Leigh

        You're take is amazing. Maybe someone was letting them slide and inflating the grade? Every think of it that way?

        March 8, 2014 at 9:18 am |
      • Issah

        I checked the violation. They were not cited for not having hand wash sink. They were cited for not having either soap or paper towel at the hand wash sink. The template says HAND WASH SINK INADEQUATE

        March 25, 2014 at 9:10 pm |
  13. David Hoffman

    I think it is hilarious that the writer brought up the subject of organic, antibiotic free, and hormone free foods. The srtandards are supposed to be scientifically based on actions the restaurant staff does that impact the safety of the food they buy and prepare. Bad refrigeration of regular beef or fancy free of antibiotic and hormone beef results in the same sick customers, thus refrigeration is judged, not the way the raw beef is grown and prepared for wholesale. That is for the USDA and FDA inspectors to work on with the meat packig companies.

    March 7, 2014 at 12:09 pm |
    • josh

      No genius it's about health. That's why it's called the "Health Department".

      March 7, 2014 at 4:41 pm |
      • DP

        in most cases it's about you bottom line... feeling the heat, Josh ?

        March 7, 2014 at 11:54 pm |
      • Fred Evil

        Then why is there any mention of 'organic' food at all? It's LESS healthy than real food, and costs more to boot.

        March 8, 2014 at 6:27 pm |
        • RC

          Good Lord. What have you been reading? Oh, that's right. Everything on the internet is true.........

          March 8, 2014 at 7:34 pm |
  14. Brian

    Wow. Apparently the author is unaware that anyone can look at the actual inspection report. The author would have us beleive that the violations were trivial things like no lid on a restroom trash can. Here are the ACTUAL violations:

    1) Hot food item not held at or above 140º F.
    2) Cold food item held above 41º F (smoked fish and reduced oxygen packaged foods above 38 ºF) except during necessary preparation.
    3) Hand washing facility not provided in or near food preparation area and toilet room. Hot and cold running water at adequate pressure to enable cleanliness of employees not provided at facility. Soap and an acceptable hand-drying device not provided.
    4) Tobacco use, eating, or drinking from open container in food preparation, food storage or dishwashing area observed.
    5) Wiping cloths soiled or not stored in sanitizing solution.
    6) Plumbing not properly installed or maintained; anti-siphonage or backflow prevention device not provided where required; equipment or floor not properly drained; sewage disposal system in disrepair or not functioning properly.
    7) Non-food contact surface improperly constructed. Unacceptable material used. Non-food contact surface or equipment improperly maintained and/or not properly sealed, raised, spaced or movable to allow accessibility for cleaning on all sides, above and underneath the unit.

    The first 5 of those are CRITICAL violations.

    March 7, 2014 at 12:00 pm |
    • Joe

      Having worked in Per Se's kitchen in the past and knowing their food safety practices, it is most like a lot less benign than this woman makes it sound. especially since they have had hand washing sinks for 10 years and all of a sudden the soap dispensers disappear? something isn't right. I've witnessed restaurants get violations for not refrigerating a tomato. I also heard that the open container violation was an employee getting a sip of water from a disposable plastic cup. the fact that drinking water is under the same category as alcohol consumption and tobacco use in and of itself indicates something is wrong with that point system.

      March 7, 2014 at 5:09 pm |
      • Joe

        also, i forgot to tell you that after working in restaurants for many years, I have yet to encounter a kitchen as clean as theirs,, as anal retentive about documentation, sanitation, general cleanliness. serve me their 310 dollar meal on their floor and i would still be in seventh heaven

        March 7, 2014 at 5:11 pm |
        • Issah

          Yeah, they're the cleanest in the city but it baffles me that even in their previous inspections, they have to result to the tribunal to get their A. Do you know wat that tells me? Smh

          March 8, 2014 at 7:27 pm |
  15. Fifi

    Be lucky you live in N.Y. Where you have signs of grades on the door,here in Missouri we don't have them. We dont know if a health inspector every looks at a restuarant (I have been assured they do) in Lebanon,Mo we have a chinese rest that if you order food with hot chilis,make sure what you crunch is a chili. Also Stuart Little might run through while your eating. Just tell the young manager so he can run to the phone and call the owners again. The health board is working on this. Its just taking maore than 2 years!!! I'de love signs in the windows. Bring'em on.

    March 7, 2014 at 9:53 am |
  16. Boo

    The author is in the restaurant business. I'm shocked that he doesn't like NY's rating system....PLEASE NOTE SARCASM.

    March 7, 2014 at 9:52 am |
  17. -betsy

    When I worked in a private Club in Houston, Tx, we were visited by the food inspector. All he wanted was a free buffet lunch after a few games of racquetball. The F&B manager was new, and didn't know the ropes. So, he promptly threw out the inspector. Which ended up with the Club being photographed and broadcast on the Friday evening restaurant news with a, well, terrible review. Which would probably get a "C" rating.
    Inspections in the US vary from state to state. Yes, in some places it is a violation not to have a lid on a garbage can. I've had two businesses in PA, and before I opened, I went to the Health Department and asked them what they wanted. I never was cited for anything.
    As well – thank you gastronomiette. After working in some of the finest restaurants in the US, I moved to Europe. And worked at the Viktualienmarkt, one the finest markets. I was astounded with the "lack" of sanitary habits. Then I became amused.
    As one of my businesses dealt with tea, I've seen tealeaves being dried on a cement road, and run over by a truck, to crush the leaves. No, I did not source from them. But if one is going to do ratings on restaurants, why not on our food?
    A Chaiwallah in India stoops to brew tea for the train passangers. It|s not sanitary, but it sure tastes good.

    March 7, 2014 at 2:13 am |
  18. gastronomiette

    Yeah so I've eaten in Vietnam where the dishes were done squatting in the street, the meat was left unrefrigerated, the sauce fermented... yeah nothing phases me anymore. If it's good food, just bat an eye :)

    March 7, 2014 at 12:41 am |
  19. Issah

    Dear Josh Grinker, next time before you rush to judgement or make an input on something, do some research and study. First of all, a violation of not having a lid on trash can and not having a choking poster (zero points) can't stop a restaurant from getting grade A. Take a food protection class from the health department and educate yourself. Violations are categorized under critical, general, administrative etc. general violations carry a minimum of 2 pts like say dirty floor. Critical violation like food temperature and rodent activity carry more points. Inspectors cite what they see during inspections. Stop lying to the public about different focuses and experiences influencing inspection. How can a renowned restaurant operate without a hand wash sink? It's very simple. It's a SANITARY iNSPECTION not a food tasting or decor inspection. Get it right

    March 7, 2014 at 12:13 am |
    • josh

      You get it right. I've taken the class three times. I've been inspected by the DOH over 40 times in my career. It is certainly possible to get a "B' grade for a variety of non food related violations. Your question is a good one indeed. How can a restaurant operate without a hand sink? They cannot. But appartently no inspector up until this one has pointed that out to Per Se in their ten or so year history. You see? Different inspectors, different violations.

      March 7, 2014 at 4:48 pm |
      • kwdragon

        I think you are just mad because the consumers, who like the grading system, are disagreeing with your expert opinion. I understand that you have worked in these places, but I have eaten in them. I want them clean all the time for the money being charged. If the system is crooked, work on changing it. If you are just mad that a top restaurant had an off day, too bad. They can fix (or dispute) the items and get re-inspected, right?

        March 8, 2014 at 9:03 am |
      • Issah

        You see, the difference between me and you is the level of experience. You've been inspected more than 40 times but believe it or not I've inspected more than 8000 restaurants in the city and I can school you on the inspection process. I've seen unimaginable things that don't come up in the media. One thing I've realized about so called high priced eateries is that, they spend a lot of money into making the place appealing to customers and the food prep areas notably kitchen are made to look like 3rd world kitchens. They go crying to the media whenever they fail an inspection. For instance, the Chinese restaurant always gets A and I can't get one. Lol. Back to your question, hand wash sink was missed on previous inspections but do you know why? Do you know if that area was a food prep area in prior inspections? Do you know if it was removed? Things change rapidly in restaurants, food temperatures fluctuate, vermin activities multiply, workers get changed, plans change, menu changes and so on. So the score an establishment gets in an inspection might not be the same the following day and especially if the follow up inspection is conducted weeks or months later. You need to retake your food protection class again. Different inspectors will translate into different or same violations depending on conditions at the time of the inspection. All inspectors abide by the same rules and regulations and use the same health code for violations. Again, get your facts right. Trust me, after all I've seen in nyc restaurants, I find it hard to eat outside but there are some clean and good restaurants out there

        March 8, 2014 at 10:53 am |
        • another insp

          Glad to hear from another inspector. Issah is totally right. I have had restaurants remove handsinks. All food service employees should take a food safety class. They will understand so much more. Inspectors are there to educate and help – the last thing I want is a Noroviurs outbreak and a bunch of people sick. Restaurant owners, managers, and chefs should look at inspectors as source and not as a problem. We eat out too. Like in all professions there are good employees and bad employees. I have been inspecting for over 25 years and I have never taken a bribe, let alone offered one. The owners know that they are not getting anywhere with me by doing that.

          March 12, 2014 at 9:13 am |
        • JellyBean@another insp

          Spot on. I kept my restaurant so clean my inspector used to eat there regularly.

          March 12, 2014 at 9:45 am |
    • DP

      > Critical violation like food temperature and rodent activity carry more points.

      point ? the place has to be closed on the spot and then people like Josh will start doing their job seriously

      March 7, 2014 at 11:56 pm |

Post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Pinterest
 
| Part of
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,990 other followers