Sous Vide, the City, and You: The Health Department in the Restaurant Kitchen

No baggies for Babbo!
No baggies for Babbo!

We diners may be acutely aware of the bold new letter grades popping up in the windows of our favorite haunts. But you're unlikely to see a restaurant plastering up the Health Department plans they have to file to keep within code.

As restaurants' report cards are becoming more publicized, one long-standing struggle of kitchens and the health departments remains surprisingly obscure. HACCP plans (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) have been causing chefs and managers acres of paperwork for decades, especially as the Health Department reacts to chefs' new techniques and regulates them.

Implemented by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the plans require chefs to map out a convoluted strategy for avoiding food-borne pathogens in potentially dangerous cooking techniques. The task, in addition to sounding like a bore, seems best left in the hands of a species more highly evolved, or at least patient enough to deal with things called PICs, SOPs, CCPs, and HCs. Basically, a lot of OMFG.

One technique that has been around since the 1960s in European nouvelle cuisine and gained popularity here in the last 10 years is sous vide -- cooking food in sealed plastic bags. Sous vide came under scrutiny and was even banned temporarily in 2006 while the Health Department decided how to regulate the newfangled method. Cooking raw proteins in lukewarm water had, funnily enough, raised some eyebrows. Now restaurants desiring to use the sous-vide method must have an approved HACCP plan to do so.

It's not only understandably risky techniques like sous vide that draw Health Department fire, says Elizabeth Meltz, director of food safety and sustainability for the Batali-Bastianich group, which includes Babbo, Del Posto, and food emporium Eataly. "There was one E. coli outburst from apple cider, and now there's a HACCP plan required" for its mass-market production.

Maybe things have gone a little too far.

The HACCP plan for sous-vide approval is so involved, it's been a deterrent for many. Though sample plans are available on the Health Department website, some restaurants just don't bother. Like Batali-Bastianich's. "We don't do sous vide," says Meltz. "We weighed the pros and cons, and when it came down to it, it wasn't that important to us" to go through the hassle of getting approved since they don't use the technique often enough. In their case, "cured meats was important."

Now that sous vide is no longer the of-the-moment technique and restaurants have consultants like Meltz to help them attack their labyrinthine HACCP plans, the days are over of rolling the Cryovac machine out the back door when the Health Department came in the front, Meltz says. Even still, the saga continues: "The Health Department is at the mercy of the latest food-borne illness outbreak or in-vogue cooking process." Note to chefs, picklers, sausage makers, and cheesemakers: Whatever craze captivates you today may be regulated tomorrow.

Have a tip or restaurant-related news? Send it to fork@villagevoice.com.

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