The 2006 E. coli outbreak that started at a New Jersey Taco Bell and sickened more than 60 people was traced to green onions. But food-borne illness isn’t the only cause for concern: In a separate December incident, 373 people in Indianapolis got sick after eating at an Olive Garden where three employees tested positive for the highly contagious norovirus.
“You don’t call out (sick) unless you’re on your deathbed,” says freelance chef Leah Grossman. Indeed, according to a recent study, 58% of salaried New York City restaurant workers reported going to work when sick; the number is even higher for those without benefits.
“A lot of poor, transient people work in restaurants,” says Peter Francis, a co-author of industry exposé “How to Burn Down the House.” “They’re not giving up the $100 they’d make in a shift because they’re sick.”
How can you protect yourself? Check inspection results, which are often posted online by local departments of public health. Or just visit the restroom; it “tells you everything you need to know about a restaurant,” Francis says.
“I’m very careful about ordering my food,” says Rick Manson, the owner of Chef Rick’s restaurant in Santa Maria, Calif. If he orders oysters, Manson says, he’ll offer multiple dishes on the menu that use oysters, “to make sure I use every one of them.” Nonetheless, countless variables can leave surplus ingredients at the end of the day — which often become tomorrow’s special.
“It could be the chef legitimately wants to try out something new,” says Stephen Zagor, the founder of consulting firm Hospitality & Culinary Resources. “But it could also be something nearing the end of its shelf life that needs to get out of the kitchen.”
How can you tell a good special from a bad one? Watch out for “an expensive item used in a way that’s minimizing its flavor,” Zagor says, such as a lamb chop that’s been cut, braised and put into a dish where it’s a supporting player.
Pastas, stews and soups containing expensive meats are also suspect. “There’s an old saying in the restaurant industry,” says David A. Holmes, the vice president and director of Out East Restaurant Consultants. “‘Sauce and gravy cover up a lot of mistakes.'”
If you think that Monday, when restaurants tend not to be crowded, is a great time to eat out, think again. “You’re being served all of the weekend’s leftovers,” says Francis, the exposé co-author. Kitchens prepare food on a first-in, first-out basis, meaning whatever is oldest gets served first. It’s a way to ensure that everything on the menu is as fresh as possible.
The system works great most days, but it can run into a little glitch over the weekend. Distributors typically take Sunday off and make their last deliveries Saturday morning, which means that by Monday any food not used over the weekend is at least three to four days old. And it will be served before the same ingredients arriving in Monday’s delivery.
What to do if you wish to dine out on a Monday? Ignore your instincts and go to a place that’s perpetually crowded. “If you are open 24/7 and busy all the time,” says New York chef Lucia Calvete, “all your ingredients are fresh all the time.”