Some say he does; some say he doesn’t.
It started with the New York Post running a front-page exclusive yesterday claiming that celebrity chef and croc fashionizer Mario Batali, fed up with overzealous city health inspections, plans a new weapon at his eateries — a hidden alarm that alerts kitchen workers that an inspector has arrived so they can quickly trash any meals they’re cooking and scram.
A button at the hostess stand triggers a loud buzzer in the kitchen, said a Batali employee, and gives staff a chance to toss out what’s on the stove or in the oven and go on break before the inspector enters.
The story claims that without meals or chefs, a kitchen is less likely to get nailed, since infractions often involve dishes being held at improper temperatures and food workers not following rules. Fines can top $5,000 per visit and result in a “B” or “C” grade.
The alarm system is coming to each of Batali’s nine city restaurants, says the employee. A manager at Lupa and a hostess at Babbo, two of Batali’s eateries, told The Post last night the system was in place but hadn’t been used yet.
Batali did not return repeated calls for comment. But Batali partner Joe Bastianich denied such a system exists.
“You don’t have to throw away food. The rules are not that idiotic,” he said.
Asked if his eateries intended to evade inspectors, he said: “None that I know of. It’s not something I would condone.”
But he’s now convinced that violations are arbitrary and unfair, the employee said.
A Health Department spokeswoman said an eatery found engaging in such evasive practices would have its inspection halted and be cited for obstruction, a 28-point violation. Eateries with 28 or more points fail inspection and could be shuttered.
But restaurant insiders say the tactic of quickly closing up shop is increasingly common.
“Completely ditching everything in the kitchen and stopping service is something we’re hearing about now,” said Andrew Moesel, a spokesman for the New York State Restaurant Association.
Grub Street accurately characterized the Post story as doing “a spectacular job of perpetuating misconceptions about what happens when the Health Department shows up at a restaurant’s front door. …
“One of the most recognized chefs in the country trains his cooks to adhere to a two-minute drill for very purpose, and many more restaurant servers still use the early warning system of ringing in fake table numbers to tip the kitchen off to the presence of DOH brass. A push button system, if it exists, may be new, but there’s nothing particularly novel or particularly stealthy about a restaurant’s staff making a little extra noise when the health department comes through.”