Food safety is always front and center for restaurants, but outbreaks like the ones Chipotle has been working to recover from make frighteningly real just how critical the practice is for every operation. But while food safety is serious, and standards apply, that doesn’t mean solutions have to lack creativity or innovation.
As restaurants experiment with cooking techniques and preparations to set their menus apart, some are applying that same creativity to keep food safe in the process. Ayr Muir, founder and CEO of the Clover Food Lab fast-food chain, finds the challenge of sanitizing food without chemicals and heat exciting. All of Clover’s produce is bathed in a lactic acid sanitizer, as an alternative to chlorinated water. “This is a nonchemical way to get rid of all of the bacteria on the surface,” Muir says. “It’s a simple and straightforward and natural technology that has been really important to us.”
At the same time, many operators are looking to old-school techniques (curing, fermentation and pickling, for example) not just as flavor enhancements, but as food safety techniques that also make good business sense by cutting down on waste and ingredient purchasing.
Here's how Jacob Verstegen, executive chef at LH Rooftop in Chicago, is using activated charcoal to preserve and increase the shelf life of certain dishes such as eggs and salmon. In addition to lending a unique pitch-black color to the dishes, the additive extends the shelf life of an egg from five or six days to a month, while salmon can gain another week. “The charcoal acts as a barrier and sanitizes the food,” Verstegen says. “It kills all the bacteria on the outside, and somewhat dehydrates the food by absorbing all the moisture. That’s how it becomes a preservative.”
Verstegen also enjoys the efficiency of pickling. “For instance, in the spring, ramp season is only three weeks. I’ll bring in 300 pounds of it, immerse them in a salt and sugar brine, and let them ferment for the next two months.” He is then able to serve them at the end of summer.
Sous vide, the classic French method of cooking food at a low temperature in vacuum-sealed bags, has become familiar to consumers, with chains such as Panera and Starbucks touting the technique as part of their menu messaging. The preparation not only keeps foods moist, but instills the equivalent of pasteurization in meat, dairy and vegetables.
Maxime Bilet, co-author of “Modernist Cuisine” and founder of Imagine Food Innovation Group, also recognizes the myriad benefits of sous-vide cooking. Streamlining processes around the method “does require an understanding of safety applications surrounding it,” Bilet says. “But once a good program is put in place, it is very simple.”