Lacto-fermented farm vegetables. House-cured prosciutto. Wild mushroom tortellini. To most diners, it simply sounds like a meal at Trendy Area Restaurant Du Jour. To others, it sounds like an accident waiting to happen.
Are chefs trying to kill us?
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.)
It is all perfectly safe, right?
The answer, as it turns out, is definitely probably. “I personally love fermented foods and chefs using fermented foods. It provides this cool way to get new flavors,” says Benjamin Wolfe, assistant professor of microbiology at Tufts University, who has worked with chefs like David Chang on the science behind the technique. But, he says, “I actually do think there’s a risk. Ever since we started doing this with chefs, it’s something I’ve been thinking about. Health inspectors don’t really understand fermented food. It’s not something they’ve been trained to regulate. And I think chefs aren’t properly trained on how to work with these beneficial microbes.”
With foraging, says chef Eric Buonagurio, “you have to be really careful. I’m my own guinea pig. If you can’t be confident, you have no business giving it to other people.” He frequently walks the woods seeking out mushrooms and wild herbs. Most of what’s out there won’t hurt you, he says. Then he points to a perfectly innocent-looking mushroom and says, “This will give you a bad day. And then you’ll die.”
In Massachusetts, food safety is regulated by 105 CMR 590.000, a chapter of the state sanitary code that adopts and amends the 1999 federal food code. In other words, the bulk of our food-safety policy is almost 20 years old.
That will soon change, says Michael Moore, director of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Food Protection Program. They’ve been working on revising the food code, and a new version is expected in 2018.
“It’s not changing that much, but both regulations have a section on specialized processes” — things like fermentation, smoking as a method of preservation, curing meats, sous-vide, and dealing with sushi rice. (That raw fish may be the least of your sushi-related food-poisoning concerns; rice stored at improper temperatures is prone to developing Bacillus cereus, a.k.a. B. cereus, the most jokily named unfunny bacteria that can make you cereus-ly sick.) In order to do these things, a restaurant is required to get a variance from the local Board of Health and implement a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan. Once the HACCP plan is reviewed and accepted, inspectors make sure it is being properly implemented during routine inspections. “This is because these processes are not usually seen at retail,” Moore says. “When doing something out of the ordinary, they’re held to a higher standard.”
When it comes to foraging, there’s a provision in the new food code that says mushrooms picked in the wild can only be sold by an approved party. “A trained mushroom forager can do that,” Moore says. “The Board of Health can accept or reject the credentials that the restaurant is using.” The code stresses the importance of record-keeping and traceability: Mushrooms must be inspected and OK’d by an approved mushroom identification expert, and labeled with the name of the harvester, the packer, and the mushroom species.
But there’s no official forager’s license here, no wild mushroom education courses like they have in Michigan and Pennsylvania, says Harrison Shulman, co-owner of wholesale distributor Poplar Foods. (A lot of the foraged mushrooms we see in local restaurants come from established providers on the West Coast, where the climate is better, he says — many of them Southeast Asian refugees now sending their kids to college on matsutake money.) Local trade depends on trust and relationships.
For instance, Poplar sells the wild herb wintergreen. “It has a wonderful minty flavor, but if you were to really distill it in a super-concentrated form, it could be not good for you,” Shulman says. He’ll only sell it to a chef he knows will use it properly. “We wouldn’t just sell 8 pounds of that to a new account. It wouldn’t be prudent of us. We deal with a lot of really wacky stuff. The burden is on us to communicate with chefs.”
Rules and guidelines can only keep us safe when they are followed. To chefs eternally in search of that new product, that new flavor, that mind-blowing dish, rules sometimes seem arbitrary, infuriating, bendable.
“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.
This kind of thing is common enough that at last year’s MAD Symposium, a star-studded annual food conference in Copenhagen, there was a session devoted to legal loopholes that would allow restaurants to bring in wild food without getting in trouble, according to Baltzley, who was in attendance.
“There’s a lot of hype around these things and a lot of buzzwords and a lot of menu cool factors,” Baltzley says. “I’d never go to some restaurant I’d never heard about and order something that was fermented or aged. . . . When I see a lot of stuff like fermenting and foraging by people in the community, I wonder when the hammer’s going to fall. You pick the wrong thing or do the wrong thing and someone’s going to get sick.”
But to the best of anyone’s knowledge, it hasn’t happened yet. “There’s not a case that jumps to my mind,” says attorney Bill Marler, a partner at food-safety law firm Marler Clark. “One reason could be that there are few illnesses caused by that. Secondly, it could be more of a recent trend, and therefore you’re not seeing those show up yet.” Or we might just be missing it. “Most foodborne illnesses, it’s never figured out where it happened. Eighty percent of outbreaks are never linked to a particular place or product.” (In case you’re wondering, here are the things Marler refuses to consume: raw milk, undercooked hamburger, bagged salad, raw eggs, and oysters.)
Regardless, he says, the more complex a product gets, the more important it is to pay attention. “When restaurants are doing things out of the norm or trying things they think are trendy or that customers want, they still need to play by the rules of bacteriology.”
One way to encourage that 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?’ ”
Better education will also go a long way. At Johnson & Wales, Sweet has introduced a class focusing on HACCP plans and special processes. Wolfe suggests teaching chefs to test pH and sending products out to be tested for pathogens — an expensive process, but one that would ensure no one gets sick. Buonagurio argues for a legitimate forager’s certification. There’s so much good, free food out there for the taking, he says. (He once made a Tinder date pull her car over when he spotted some mushrooms on the side of the road.)
With training, more people could get out there and enjoy the bounty. “Don’t you wish you could go Easter egg hunting with your kids?” he says. “That’s what I’m doing. I have the basket and everything.”Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.