The Great Expectations Of Eating Out

The Great Expectations Of Eating Out

By Judah S. Harris

Photograph by Judah S. Harris

On Shabbos morning this past week, a young woman pushing a stroller stopped me on the way to shul – “You don’t know me, but…,” and she introduced herself. She told me that I helped her lose 10-12 pounds. She was avoiding restaurants – something she had wanted to do – ever since reading a post of mine in mid-March that appeared on Facebook in a group that comments on kosher restaurants, wherever they may be located, the supermajority being, of course, in our great city.

My comments had to do with cleanliness – sanitary concerns. They were my concerns – and it seems, from the comments that followed, of some others, too. There were also those who didn’t think this should be posted. Take it up with the owners, call the health department if there are worries, avoid lashon ha’ra, be realistic about what restaurants can and can’t “muster” (if we’re so exacting, we’d only eat at home).

When I heard that this woman was avoiding restaurants, I told her that I hadn’t intended to indict all of them, or even any of them. I was pointing out certain experiences and offering my comment so that people could consider them, and restaurants could do the same. I think I was fair, even as I was specific and voicing an opinion.

And here’s the post (though I’ve changed a few details):

There’s a pizza place in a nearby neighborhood that I stopped supporting about seven months ago. I would go there occasionally, even as I would also frequent some others in the area. I like all the workers at this place, had enjoyed speaking with them, kidding around, but what got me was that the man who regularly collects the garbage cans and the trays and other things left by passersby (the customers) on the table, went one evening from garbage bin removal to arranging the shakers and condiment bottles on a table without washing his hands. I saw it and I realized this must be the way it’s done – even when I’m not around to observe in person.

I know it’s not the end of the world, and I don’t think anyone is going to get sick from it, and I understand that things go on in the kitchen that could be the basis of Federal investigations, and that some germs are good for us… and the workers are not paid enough, or given enough time to wash hands between various responsibilities in the food establishment… but I vote with my feet. It has to come from the top. The owner has to care and see what’s happening in his place and determine if A or B matters. This particular place has an owner who would probably like to sell, so there are no major capital things or new procedures happening that I have glimpsed. It’s a pizza place. And it serves a purpose. Maybe not mine, but someone else is really glad it’s there to meet his needs.

It has to come from the top.
The owner has to care and see what’s happening in his place
and determine if A or B matters

I’ve seen kids – young ones – lick the tops of the shakers (a different pizza place, and I saw this at least twice). They lick it, the parents stop them, and then some time later, after the family is done, or the on-the-job babysitter leaves with the kids, others take the table and sprinkle salt, pepper, or hot flakes on their pizza dishes. No ambulances likely get called, but it’s an aesthetic consideration for me and probably a few others (and maybe mostly those of us who have not yet raised kids or lived life in real-time family kitchens or at tables where just getting kids to eat something healthful is a mission impossible). I believe there are real health considerations here and that people do get things from bacteria and less-than-sanitary practices. I got food poisoning for a day once at a kosher weekend at a hotel. I pin it on the third meal of the Sabbath, an open buffet with many foods and some kids (more likely than adults) putting their unclean fingers in one of the dishes. Or using a spoon that then dropped into a serving bowl. Kids don’t understand how to wash with soap. They can sing “The Wheels on the Bus” by heart, but not recount CDC guidelines – you know, scrub around on all exposed parts of the hand, count to 14 or 20, or somewhere in between.

At the shawarma and grill spot a month and a half ago, I told the server at the counter that I prefer to have them give me salad “from the back” and not use the salad bar to take my own. I don’t trust it. Of course he told me that no one else complains. When new salad came out from the kitchen to replenish the bar, he came over to my table and I headed over with my small plate provided earlier to take some. As I was eating my dinner, I saw a family of three up front ready to order. The boy lagged behind a number of feet, put his fingers into the Israeli salad twice to take out a small piece of vegetable (which he put in his mouth) and I vowed to myself to steer clear of these spots where young and old serve themselves with their hands, spoons drop in and then get pulled back up, and “tasters” – because they do it this way at home or in their native countries – have free run of the garden.

When a Chinese place opened up some years ago before the summer and then it hit high degrees during the hottest months, I asked the owner if anything could be installed in the kitchen (worrying about the workers and also the visible sweat – admittedly present in many cooking situations – being added as an unannounced ingredient in my dish). He told me he was following the rules. I called the city and indeed he was abiding by the code that requires ventilation and not air conditioning. I stayed away and would likely stay away from similar places during heat waves that raise the temperatures of commercial kitchens to unpleasant – even if legal – levels. I don’t blame the owner – he was a new business, making pennies on his dishes he told me, and to install A/C is not cheap. He’s got staff to pay and kosher meat to pay for, and an audience that doesn’t know, or likely is not as concerned about some sweat or the total comfort of kitchen workers. Again, I voted with my feet.

I don’t decide what others should do – customers or owners – but I don’t mind suggesting. There are legal rules of conduct for all establishments, and then an ethic which is not Bible, but can fluctuate based on the type of restaurant (family vs. fine-dining) and the location. I expect less in a family place that is making less, perhaps, and more in a dining experience where they are charging enough to be more careful upfront and in the back of the house. Some would say that the differentiation shouldn’t matter; the standards, if they really are important, should be uniform.

I’ve heard about the five-second rule –
foods that fall to the floor that can be picked up “in time” to still be used. I’d say it all depends – on the food, the floor, is it being washed again, cooked to high temperatures… More than a stopwatch or the exact degree that a room thermometer would read in the kitchen at “Chez Delicious” on a late-July day, I am more interested in the attitudes of the proprietors and also how that translates to the staff. I care about the ingredients in my food, the sourcing of my meat and poultry, fresh vs. canned vegetables, whole grains vs. white, and some others things that I hold dear to my heart. I care that the owners or managers care – enough to run their places as well as they can and catch lapses that could concern at least a segment of their diners. If I ever open a restaurant (it could happen), feel free to write about mine and offer critique. No need to wear gloves in my cafe or eatery, but please promise not to lick the saltshakers – at least not for more than five seconds. Bon appétit!

By Judah S. Harris