For germaphobes, Eater Vegas can be a scary read. The culinary website reports on the Southern Nevada Health District’s restaurant inspections, and over the past year or so, the news hasn’t been good. And we’re not just talking about greasy spoons failing inspections. Some of the town’s most prestigious chefs have also fallen victim.
On Nov. 2, Julian Serrano’s eponymous tapas restaurant in Aria was shuttered for part of the day because SNHD inspectors found an imminent health hazard. One day earlier, celebrity chef Scott Conant’s posh Italian eatery, Scarpetta, in The Cosmopolitan, was closed for a day after a reinspection showed repeat violations. On Sept. 12, the Monte Carlo’s fine French restaurant, Andre’s, came within one point of being shut down after receiving 40 demerits. And just in the past two months, popular off-Strip restaurants Monta, Origin India and Bar + Bistro were all temporarily closed following inspections.
Just looking at the raw numbers, Las Vegas seems to be in the midst of an epidemic of restaurant health hazards. During the first 11 months of 2012 (the latest period for which figures have been compiled), 631 restaurants were closed by the SNHD. That’s up from 365 during the same period in 2011 — even though the number of inspections was actually down slightly last year. The number of restaurants that had their overall grade lowered during that period was also up, from 1,943 in 2011 to 2,850 in 2012.
So what exactly is the problem? It depends whom you ask — and how you ask them.
When asked formally about the incidents at Julian Serrano and Andre’s, a spokesperson for MGM Resorts International issued a thoughtfully worded reply about how “the health and safety of our guests is our top priority.” Talk to the guys in the kitchens, however, after work and off the record, and their comments aren’t always so polite. Some believe the SNHD is intentionally running up the number of closures to raise money. Others feel inspectors have become stricter. Still others cite new, cumbersome regulations. Eater Vegas editor Susan Stapleton has spoken to many chefs about the situation.
“I feel like they’re very nervous,” she reports. “But they’re trying to work with the health inspectors to have a safe kitchen. I mean, that’s the whole point — they want to have a safe kitchen and serve safe food. But I think they’re a little nervous about what’s gonna happen when an inspector comes in.”
Metro Pizza owner John Arena has operated in Las Vegas for 33 years and knows many chefs and restaurateurs. “We’re definitely seeing what seems like a more adversarial relationship between the restaurants and the Health District,” he says. “And I think a lot of it is a combination of misunderstanding between the two parties, and new regulations that we were forewarned about, coupled with the fear because of the economy.”
The regulations Arena refers to were adopted in late 2010, but weren’t actually enforced until 2012. According to Amy Irani, the SNHD’s environmental manager of food operations, they’re nearly triple the size of the old regulations, and are more in keeping with federal guidelines. They focus on, among other things, the handling of foods and the proper temperature of meats during cooling, cooking and other special processes.
Irani says the new rules were instituted in part to govern new techniques and processes. One example is sous vide, a popular process of cooking food in vacuum-sealed bags at very low temperatures for extended periods of time. Another is the rise in chefs who cure their own meats, using traditional mold cultures and storage conditions that might not conform to outdated regulations. In each case, the new rules require intense monitoring and record-keeping — something many chefs find burdensome.
“From the operator’s standpoint, we think that we’re spending more of our time monitoring temperatures and keeping logbooks than we are paying attention to our customers and our food, and running our businesses,” says Arena, who has had some downgrades at his restaurants, but has never had one closed. “And it just comes at the wrong time. It came at a time when we were already under a tremendous amount of [economic] pressure.”
Chefs also complain to Stapleton that when the new rules are strictly enforced, they can lead to extremely arbitrary-seeming results. “I think that chefs feel like it depends on when inspectors come in,” she explains. “If you have a big shipment of food coming in, you can be shut down right there if an inspector walks in, just for the way that the food is out in your kitchen [because] you haven’t put it in the refrigeration yet and haven’t done that kind of thing.”
While nobody will say it on the record, many chefs privately accuse the cash-strapped SNHD of using stricter enforcement of these new rules to raise money. When a restaurant is closed, it must pay $716 for a reinspection before it can reopen. Similarly, restaurants downgraded to a C grade must pay $477 for a reinspection. (Restaurants downgraded to a B and those that voluntarily close don’t pay any fee.)
“The restaurateurs are up in arms because [the enforcement of the new rules] coincided with this economic downturn, and they feel like, ‘Oh sure, they don’t have income from new restaurant openings, so now they’re coming down on me,’” Arena says. And while he doesn’t subscribe to this theory, he concedes, “You can certainly see how some restaurateurs would feel that way, especially when you see things like restaurants that you know are exemplary getting downgraded.”
Irani admits her department is operating on a reduced staff, down 20 inspectors from its peak. But she rejects any suggestion that budgetary concerns influence grading.
“It takes $7.5 million to run the program,” she explains. “The money that comes in from downgrades and closures is about 3.5 percent of our total budget. If that was my ultimate goal, I don’t see where the dollars are matching up.”
Moreover, she insists the SNHD has done its best to minimize downgrades and closures. After the regulations were passed, and through 2011, she says her organization assigned two officers to train the industry to understand and comply with them. “We did this across the board,” she says. “We sent out fliers, contacted the Nevada Restaurant Association, The National Restaurant Association, made all the possible links we could make to get the word out there. And we ended up training 8,000 people in the industry.”
In reaction to the disappointing results in 2012, the agency posted training manuals, educational documents and videos on its website. And in January, it went a step further and set up an audit system. Now, if a restaurant has enough demerits for a downgrade, but doesn’t exhibit any of the district’s five major food-borne-illness risk factors, it will retain its A grade for 15 days while the SNHD educates it about how to correct its demerits. If it then passes a reinspection, the downgrade will never be reflected on its record. Unfortunately, she laments, not everyone takes advantage of this second chance.
“What we have found is that those that normally would have received a B or C downgrade, unfortunately, don’t use the opportunity of this pass to make a change, and they end up still getting the B or C.”