Food police, reporting for duty

ON THE FRONT LINES: Executive chef Jeremy Tummel looks over produce that arrived this week at Ciudad restaurant in downtown Los Angeles.
ON THE FRONT LINES: Executive chef Jeremy Tummel looks over produce that arrived this week at Ciudad restaurant in downtown Los Angeles.
(Wally Skalij, Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The pineapples were fragrant, but not overly so. The mangoes were perfect for salsa: ripe yet still firm. And the cilantro -- wait a sec. Where was the cilantro?

Ciudad executive chef Jeremy Tummel was nosing his way through a tower of produce boxes one recent morning inside the downtown Los Angeles restaurant when he realized he was missing a case of cilantro. A crate of avocados was also M.I.A.

Simple misunderstanding, as it turned out. The boxes were still on the delivery truck. But Tummel wouldn’t sign any invoices until the rest of the shipment had been dropped at his feet. He crouched down, grabbed for a bunch of the cilantro, breathed it in and inspected the label: locally grown. Satisfied, he reached for his pen.

This is shaping up to be the summer of the food police, and chefs including Tummel have been deputized to be the last line of defense between you and a bad batch of salsa.

Each day, it seems, has brought another salmonella scare. First it was certain types of tomatoes. Last week, it was cilantro, jalapeño and serrano peppers -- or ingredients key to many a salsa. Then it was Mexican-grown basil. The public may be suffering fatigue from it all, but the implications are deadly serious as the federal government tries to pinpoint the source of the poisoning that has sickened more than 1,000 people. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration seems to be focusing in part on produce grown in Mexico, but so far there is no certain culprit.

As a result, Tummel’s job duties these days include Googling food news, checking the FDA website and keeping tabs on the origin of produce that comes in the restaurant kitchen’s back door and goes onto diners’ plates. And he has to convey all this information to the rest of the staff. That’s just a reality when it comes to serving an increasingly anxious clientele who won’t hesitate to buttonhole the servers about where the heirloom tomato in the salad came from.

“My daughter and I channel surf for all the latest food news on TV,” said Nadine Trujillo, executive chef at Alegria on Sunset, a family-run Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles. “I read the newspapers. I get food journals. My daughter does the Internet. We’re scouring for every piece of information we can gather.”

The produce items on the FDA’s target list are widely used in restaurants, particularly those serving Mexican food and salsa. But perhaps surprisingly, many Los Angeles restaurants and fast-food chains said they had no plans to change their menus either because their salsas were cooked -- eliminating salmonella concerns -- or because they knew precisely where their produce was from and were confident it was safe.

Chefs have long had a close relationship to the produce, meat and seafood that comes into their kitchens. But these days, quality control means more than looking out for bruised Fuji apples or tuna that’s past its prime.

The movement toward locally grown, locally harvested produce gives chefs -- and their customers -- peace of mind.

“I can tell you exactly, precisely where all my food is from -- I have spreadsheets,” said chef Akasha Richmond of Akasha Restaurant in Culver City, which specializes in sustainable and organic foods.

Richmond speaks glowingly of her produce purveyors. But that doesn’t stop her from carefully reviewing invoices and relying upon her own instincts before accepting delivery. “I’ve ordered organic onions before and regular onions have showed up . . . I send them back. I examine everything. I admit I am freaky that way.”

She says she doesn’t hesitate to ask for lab reports and test results proving that the produce passes standards, that refrigeration needs were properly met, that safe fertilizer was used during growing and so on.

Such precautions allow chefs to speak with authority when questioned about the origins of the ingredients they use -- and respond to customers’ concerns.

“The precaution begins at the purchasing,” said chef-owner Jimmy Shaw of Loteria Grill in Hollywood. “You’ve got to be able to source” the produce.

If the policing of ingredients used by restaurant kitchens seems like a system that ultimately depends on more than a dollop of faith, it is.

But Los Angeles’ food community is tightly knit. Its farmers and purveyors who sell to fine-dining establishments have a vested interest in proving themselves a reliable source for safe, fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables.

Or they’ll find themselves out of business.

“If you order [locally grown] tomatoes and someone tries to show up with hothouse tomatoes from Canada,” you might never order from them again, Ciudad’s Tummel said.

Country Fresh Herbs in Tarzana is a popular purveyor who supplies produce to Akasha and others. Co-owner Kathy Feig says chefs aren’t the only ones under pressure. Her farms, which total 13 acres and grow microgreens, a variety of herbs and dozens of vegetables, are subjected to routine testing from the county’s health and agriculture departments and the FDA.

“They come in here for surprise visits and just go through every nook and cranny,” Feig said, adding that she doesn’t have any complaints. “We eat our own food.”

Keeping on top of breaking food news can seem like a second job. Tummel has some help in his sleuthing. A steward on staff bird-dogs produce and other food shipments. Ciudad’s corporate office tracks food news as a matter of course and immediately alerts Tummel and staff to developments.

But “it doesn’t really matter what anyone else is ‘also’ doing,” Tummel said. “It’s my responsibility.”