Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare is one of the most acclaimed restaurants in New York City. Reservations must be made over a month in advance to sample Chef Cesar Ramirez’s signature dishes and the restaurant has received a nearly perfect five-star rating on Yelp. “This was the best f*cking meal I’ve had in New York, and was as close as you could get to culinary sexual intercourse,” raved one reviewer,. Another wrote, “I have to say this was one of the best meals in my life.”
However, Chef’s Table stands out for a different reason: It is one of a small but growing number of restaurants in New York City without a grade from the Department of Health. Thanks to a legal loophole, restaurants that are part of supermarkets are spared the stringent health inspections – and the posted grades – that can make or break most eateries.
The vast majority of restaurants throughout the city fall under the supervision of the city Department of Health. Following a routine, unannounced inspection that takes place at least once a year, every restaurant in the city is allotted a letter grade. The grade, in turn, is typically displayed in the front windows for patrons to see . The grades are “obviously a very big deal for restaurants,” said Dan McElroy, operations manager for the prominent Brooklyn restaurant, Dressler. “Our guests place a huge amount of trust in us to maintain the highest hygienic standards and we take that trust seriously.”
Chef’s Table is not dodging the Department of Health, nor is it somehow exempt from inspection by dint of being an elite, expensive restaurant. But the restaurant’s layout spares it from the normal food-inspection system.
Because Chef’s Table is listed as an entity of Brooklyn Fare, a high-end supermarket located on Schermerhorn Street in downtown Brooklyn, the restaurant is not governed by the Department of Health, but by the State Department of Agriculture and Markets, which regulates grocery stores and produce vendors. According to Department of Health representative Alexandra Waldhorn, “The Health Department does not have purview over supermarkets, so that’s why they don’t receive grades.”
However, some restaurant-goers dispute the fairness of this exemption, saying that Chef’s table is clearly a separate entity: it has waiters, patrons pay gratuity, reservations are required and meals run around $170 per person—therefore, it should be held to the same standards as all other restaurants in the city. Additionally, the fact that a coffee shop located in the same supermarket space, between Brooklyn Fare and Chef’s Table, does receive Health Department grades, doesn’t do much to alleviate confusion among consumers.
“I’ve worked in restaurants and I know what goes on when you know the health inspector isn’t coming around,” said Williamsburg resident Joe Tagliaferro, 24, “so if there was never a fear of that I’d be really worried about their cleanliness and also their refrigeration conditions. The Health Department doesn’t just make sure you wash your hands, they check a lot of stuff,”
The co-owner of Chef’s Table, Moe Issa stated via email that while the state Agriculture and Markets Department does not assign letter grades, agency officials do “inspect quite frequently.” The Agriculture and Markets Department does not have a set policy on how frequently establishments are inspected. The department’s website states that inspectors make “routine visits” and the number of annual visits is determined on a case-by-case basis for each business.
Regardless of the frequency of state inspections, their results are not nearly as accessible as those from the Health Department. Not only are those prominently displayed in restaurants, but they can easily be found online. Most consumers are far less familiar with the state agriculture program and no not know where to find results, “I know they inspect food production facilities, other than that I don’t know anything at all” about the state department, said Andrew Gustafson, 30, a Brooklyn resident and researcher for Turnstile Tours, a guided tour company that offers a number of informative, food-based excursions around New York City.
The state department’s regulations can, in fact, be found on its website. The regulations stipulate that all licensed vendors are subject to unannounced, routine inspections, during which trained agency officials “check sanitary conditions, food preparation procedures, and storage conditions, as well as compliance with licensing, pricing, labeling, and point-of-purchase advertising regulations.” The penalties for failure to pass inspection range from seizure and destruction of food to closing of the establishment.
Additionally, the department’s website identifies the retail food establishments that fall under its jurisdiction. All of those that “conduct any type of food preparation such as meat or cheese grinding, heating foods, sandwich making, operate beverage dispensing machines, prepare sushi, salad bars, or other ready to eat exposed food packaging activity” are required to be licensed and inspected, as are stores where “food and food products are offered to the consumer and intended for off-premises consumption.” Curiously enough, there is no mention of retailers that sell food that is specifically intended to be eaten on premises.
The Department of Agriculture and Markets’ exclusion of vendors that offer on-site food consumption has fallen behind trends in supermarket culture. “Almost every good grocery store (now) has a place for customers to consume food on the premises,” says Institute of Culinary Education chef instructor, Brian Buckley, “I think the city will eventually catch up and write a law that the food has to be examined by the board of health.”
Indeed, leading supermarkets such as Whole Foods and Dean and DeLuca, do not receive letter grades from the Department of Health, despite providing accommodations for customers to eat inside their stores. On the other hand, Chef’s Table is an establishment of different caliber. “Chef’s Table is a really good, fully defined restaurant,” says Buckley, “it just happens to be located in that venue.”
Chef’s Table isn’t the city’s only fine dining restaurant to be located within a supermarket. In Manhattan, The Fairway Café is not governed by the Department of Health due to its attachment to the Fairway Market. Mario Batali’s Eataly, is also laid out in a similar fashion, with various cafés nestled in between the rows of a vast Italian-themed grocery store.
Eataly’s numerous, main-floor delicatessens are, like Chef’s Table, considered to be a part of the vending operation and don’t have individual letter grades. However, Eataly’s Birerria, a stand-alone restaurant located in the same building, is regulated by the Department of Health, boasting an “A” from the latest inspection. “There does seem to be a disconnect,” Buckley said. “It seems unfair.”
Moe Issa of Chef’s Table provided a more logical explanation for the restaurant’s health grade exemption, stating that Chef’s Table “is not a separate entity” from the market. He continued, “The kitchen is used to prepare the specialty food for the market during the day and at nighttime that same kitchen is used to prepare the dinner.”
Chef’s Table prestige seems to make up for its lack of letter grades. “I don’t think that makes sense and they should be exempt, but it would not prevent me from going there,” said Amanda Bell Steinhandler, 28, a human resources manager and resident of Carroll Gardens. “It is a highly publicized and highly rated restaurant and I trust that they would not want to tarnish their reputation by being below standards.”
While New Yorkers may find comfort in the familiarity of traditional restaurant grades, experienced diners know they aren’t necessarily a defining factor in quality. “If it looks clean, I’ll eat there,” said Tagliaferro. Gustafson, who is an expert on food-cart culture, also said that he hasn’t once been deterred from eating at establishments, which haven’t been inspected by the Department of Health.
When asked if Chef’s Table could request a grade from the Department of Health as a formality, in case patrons ask, Issa replied that he is not authorized to make such a request. “We fall under the Agriculture Department and they have very strict rules,” he wrote in an email, “and we do not make the rules.“