Close watchers of Chicago's food scene may have been surprised to learn that Alinea — one of the most highly regarded restaurants in the city and the world — failed its routine health inspection a month ago.
But what may seem like a big deal turns out to be a common occurrence in Chicago restaurants, according to a Tribune analysis of newly available city data. The records show that 1 in 5 Chicago restaurant inspections over the last two years resulted in a failure.
And it doesn't just happen in dives. Of the Michelin-starred Chicago restaurants inspected — the guidebook designation is awarded to exceptional restaurants — more than a third failed an inspection in the last two years, according to an online database launched last month as part of the city's new transparency effort.
So what does this mean? Are Chicago's restaurants especially dangerous? Not really, health officials say: Chicago restaurants don't fare much worse than those in other big cities, and no restaurant can remain open if its violations pose a threat to public safety.
"Let's put it in perspective: A fail should not necessarily scare a customer away," said Efrat Stein, spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Public Health. It's not uncommon for any type of food business to fail an inspection, whether high-end or mom-and-pop. What's important is how quickly they fix the problem."
The records posted by the health department show that most Chicago restaurants do respond quickly — especially to critical violations, the most serious of three categories. Restaurants that can't correct critical violations during an inspection have their licenses suspended and can't reopen until the problems are corrected.
The most common critical violations cited in health reports, Stein said, involve food temperature. At Lincoln Park's Alinea, the restaurant was written up for a potato soup measured at 51.8 degrees; the soup was cooling in an ice bath but had not reached the required 40 degrees, a report said. At nearby Boka, kimchi was found between 50 and 51.4 degrees, according to a report. Both restaurants were cited with critical violations and the food was discarded. Neither was required to close, and both passed reinspections a week later.
Before last month, citizens had to file written requests to get this kind of detail. But the new inspections website, though somewhat cumbersome to use, shares complete details of every restaurant inspection performed after January 2010 and is updated weekly.
Launched in November with minimal fanfare, the website has gotten more than 11,000 hits.
While some chefs agree that making more inspection information available is welcome in the interest of public safety, others fear diners may overreact.
"I can understand it, but I think it's just too much information for the public," said Giuseppe Tentori, executive chef of Boka. "They'll be scared to go to a restaurant because it got some minor violation and think, 'Oh my God, it must not be sanitary and so we should skip it.'"
Both the health department and restaurateurs say they hope the public uses the site wisely. Department representatives advise concerned consumers not to focus on whether a restaurant passed or failed, but to examine the nature of violations and how soon the restaurant was able to fix the problem and pass reinspection.
For example, some patrons may view certain "critical" violations as not particularly alarming, such as insufficient water pressure or tap water that doesn't reach 110 degrees.
Visitors to the site also should be aware that a licensing inspection failure usually means the restaurant is not yet ready to open.
While many food establishments dread unannounced visits from inspectors, Merlin Verrier, director of operations for Graham Elliot restaurants, said: "We've always felt the health inspector is part of our team. They have the same standards that we expect our employees to hold to."
"I like it when a health inspector comes; it keeps us on our toes," said Paul Kahan, executive chef of the Blackbird restaurant group.
But others interviewed by the Tribune — many of whom wouldn't speak on the record for fear of repercussions — say it's a strained relationship.
"All I can say is that the health department has a history of treating restaurant owners and managers with great disrespect, and if you push back, some of the inspectors will find anything to put you in your place," said Shin Thompson of Bonsoiree in Logan Square. "It's a form of corruption and abuse of power that's been going on for too long."
Many chefs contend that their restaurants often are cited for violations that they say illustrate a misunderstanding of safe kitchen practices. They feel the health department errs too far on the side of caution.
Said Danny Grant, executive chef of Ria and Balsan at The Elysian Hotel: "There are certain things kitchens like to do that are perfectly fine and healthy but looked down upon by the health department, like slow-cooking meats and fishes at a low temperature."
Some confusion surrounds regulations on dry-curing meat and sous vide cooking, in which food is cooked very slowly in sealed pouches at low temperatures.
"I can't tell you how many cooks in Chicago who have everything they sous-vide on a cart that's pushed away and hidden," said Carrie Nahabedian of River North's Naha (her restaurant does not utilize sous vide cooking).
The health department says restaurants can legally cure food and cook food sous vide by filing paperwork through the state and demonstrating they "understand rules for preparation to avoid food-borne illness," Stein said. The city will even help with the application process, she said.
Nahabedian suggested it would be useful for chefs to meet with the health department to build trust, share ideas and even update the city code where necessary. Stein said her department welcomes the idea.
"We are always open to discussing new ideas with industry professionals," said Stein, who noted recent discussions with operators of shared kitchens. "Since then we continue to have an open dialogue. … In the next few weeks we plan to announce a more formal process for garnering input from local food industry professionals."
Chicago is home to about 15,000 food service establishments, from cafeterias and stores to day care centers and restaurants. Under rules amended last month to reduce the frequency of low-risk inspections, all food service establishments are supposed to be inspected at least once a year.
In the last two years, the department has conducted about 35,000 inspections, roughly 20,000 of them at restaurants. Some underwent multiple inspections, while others were not inspected at all during that period.
For instance, the department said it has visited Charlie Trotter's several times in the last two years for an inspection but has not been able to gain entry. The restaurant passed an inspection in April 2009.
Chicago uses a pass-fail system for its inspections, but both Los Angeles and New York have adopted a letter grade system. In Los Angeles County, which has used the system for more than a decade, about 98 percent of restaurants now get an A or B, with grades posted on storefront windows. New York, which started letter grades in 2010, had awarded A's or B's to 81 percent of restaurants as of July.
Provided with the details of Alinea's inspection, LA County's Chief Environmental Health Specialist Hector Dela Cruz said the restaurant would probably have received a B under its system. But the restaurant also would have had the opportunity to pay for a reinspection within 10 days that could raise its grade. A surprise reinspection would follow.
Although records of Chicago restaurant inspections will now live online for years, the health department stresses that inspections are "snapshots of a moment in time," Stein said. "A business can be in 100 percent compliance one day and the next day not be."
Given Alinea's reputation for running one of the most pristine and orderly kitchens in the city, many were surprised by news of its failed inspection. Neither Alinea chef Grant Achatz nor co-owner Nick Kokonas could be reached for comment.
"Alinea just had an issue, but their kitchen is spotless," said Ria's Grant. "They're cleaner than 99.9 percent of kitchens in the city."
Twitter @kevinthepangCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times