Are chefs trying to kill us? (Asks the Boston Globe). Probably not. But might not be focused on public health

‘Every place has a closet behind lock and key that has a lot of that kind of stuff in it,’ The stuff – usually something fermenting, curing or some unapproved (foraged/home produced) food is back there.

According to the Boston Globe, Today’s menus are filled with foraged food, fermented food, food that bubbles, food that molds, food that looks almost exactly like another thing that should probably not be called food because it is poisonous. It’s all perfectly safe, when sourced and prepared properly, under sanitary conditions, by people who adhere to proper procedure and take rules seriously. (Note: This last does not necessarily always describe chefs.)
“You shouldn’t be fermenting and jarring everything without a HACCP plan,” says Brandon Baltzley, chef and co-owner of Falmouth’s Buffalo Jump and a forager for Poplar. “But people know how to get away with it. Every place has a closet behind lock and key that has a lot of that kind of stuff in it.” He once visited a restaurant in Ohio that had a fermentation lab in a hidden attic that was just as big as the production kitchen itself, he says; a restaurant in another country had an entire secret facility a few blocks from the restaurant. 

When he cooked at Ribelle, a Brookline restaurant that has since closed, he would sometimes bring foraged ingredients into the kitchen. Several chefs, under condition of anonymity, reported it is easy to find workarounds when it comes to foraging. One recounted bringing a haul of mushrooms to a wholesaler, who then “sold” them back to the chef with appropriate documentation for a nominal fee. Another, appreciative of the flavor of wild clams from a particular area, purchased other clams, used their tags on the wild shellfish, and served the purchased ones for staff meal. The wild clams went to the customers.

Regulations, can sometimes be burdensome on the regulated party. Especially they aren’t familiar with the consequences. States set restaurant food safety laws, based on the federal FDA food code, and most jurisdictions have a process for variances to that code; there’s already a way for businesses to opt out, via variance, if they feel overburdened by the law as long as the outcome is the same.

Stuff like wild-grown mushrooms, ramps and game carry different risks because they aren’t in a managed system or environment. Misidentify a mushroom and a customer can die. Hunting morels are big business and many of the foraged fungi end up in restaurants sold on somewhat of a black market.

One way to encourage [better risk management] is to build more collaborative relationships between chefs and inspectors, says Bridget Sweet, executive director of food safety at Johnson & Wales. “So many people hate the health department and don’t even know why,” she says. She’s heard the horror stories about people operating in secret and hoping they don’t get caught. She finds them immensely distressing. “It’s such a risk. Inspectors don’t want to shut businesses down. If they have a really good discussion, it will remove the barriers. The answer’s not an inherent no, it’s ‘How can you do this safely within the food code?’ ”
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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is an associate professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.