After several York restaurants were given zero food hygiene ratings, café owner Chris Pragnell shares his experience of a flawed system
I have been in the catering business for 17 years, for the last 12 running Café No 8 on Gillygate in York.
Keeping our kitchen clean and hygienic has always been our first priority. You have got to get the basics right.
So I was shocked and horrified when, after a Food Hygiene Rating Scheme inspection in February, our rating went from 5 out of 5 to 1 out of 5, with the verdict ‘Major improvement necessary’.
For customers, such a rating rightly sets alarm bells ringing. It suggests that our kitchens were far from hygienic.
Some city cafés have fared even worse, as highlighted by the York Press in their story Revealed: The York restaurants given 0/5 by hygiene watchdogs.
But our kitchen was never unsafe, as shown by the fact it quickly returned to a 5 out of 5 rating.
And I feel that unless the system changes, it will unfairly discredit some chefs, mislead customers and maybe put good restaurants out of business.
Highs and lows
Our previous experience of food hygiene inspections has been very mixed.
The Food Hygiene Rating Scheme is run by the Food Standards Agency in conjunction with local councils. In our case inspections are undertaken by environmental health officers from City of York Council.
There was the time when the scrutiny seemed far from rigorous, when the inspector didn’t even look in our fridge.
Then, about two years ago, we were given a 1 rating because we only have a single vacuum packer. It was considered a serious risk that it was used for both raw and cooked food.
But this verdict didn’t take into consideration the fact that the cooked food that was going to be reheated again to temperatures high enough to kill off any bugs.
Afterwards I wrote a detailed letter, complete with temperature charts, to the head of the environmental health department explaining the situation.
We were instantly restored to a 4 rating. They also gave us the option to be reinspected to go back to 5 out of 5 but I declined.
Then came the inspection in February 2014, when it all went wrong again.
Tripped up by red tape
We cook a lot of food using the sous-vide method. Here, you place food in airtight plastic bags in a water bath at lower temperatures for long periods.
It keeps all the flavour and moisture of the food and gives a lovely melt in the mouth feel, while killing off the bacteria.
But suddenly we were told that the goalposts had moved. The temperatures we were using with the sous-vide were no longer considered acceptable.
Why didn’t they tell me this after I’d sent in my letter?
Next, I was told you’re not allowed to cook duck pink any more. You must cook it to 72 degrees for two minutes to make sure it is cooked through and kills any bacteria.
If you did that, your duck would be brown, tough and horrible. I’m not prepared to serve anything like that.
What did other chefs do, I asked the inspector. They were cooking duck to 72 degrees and serving it pink I was told.
This is impossible. What they are actually doing is cooking it properly and just filling in the paperwork to say that it reached temperature required.
It’s a form filling exercise which forces restaurateurs to be economical with the truth.
Insult to injury
One of our most popular ingredients is our home-smoked salmon. After it has been smoked over wood it is placed into the oven to finish the cooking process.
We’ve been doing it this way for years. Suddenly we’re told this is not good enough: you have to use a temperature probe each time.
I was asked, “How do you know the salmon is cooked?” I said, “because I’ve been a chef for the best part of 20 years”. The inspector wrote down “guesswork”.
I found that insulting.
When we received a hygiene rating of 1 out of 5 I felt humiliated and embarrassed. I had put things right within three days. But I wasn’t able to get my rating changed until a re-inspection three months later.
There’s talk of forcing cafés to display their food hygiene rating in the window. If we had done that with a 1 out of 5 rating for three months I don’t think we would have many customers.
Now we are back to 5 out of 5. But this whole business has left a nasty taste in the mouth.
You don’t have a successful business like ours by being dirty and unhygienic. We’ve been doing this for years, and as far as I know no one has fallen ill.
Surely if there is a problem you should be closed down straight away.
What we’ve ended up with suits the McDonald’s of this world, which are geared to a tick-box culture, and penalises those of us trying to do something more creative.
If you’re doing preparing anything more complicated than a bacon sandwich you have to carry out a analysis where you identify potential hazards and how you’ll overcome them.
That makes it it more time consuming and difficult to put on a dish as a special. That will mean menus become a lot less interesting.
After restoring our 5 rating, we have opened £50,000 new kitchens in Escrick to keep our standards as high as possible.
But this saga has left me doubting the current system. Are those restaurants with the zero rating highlighted in the Press unsafe, or simply tripped the victims of a technicality?
I don’t know. And neither do customers. Which makes the whole system unreliable and near worthless.
It’s time we changed to a food hygiene rating system which doesn’t cooks the books.