Caribbean cooking in Brooklyn: misunderstood

For Caribbean restaurants in Brooklyn, the New York City Department of Health (NY-DOH) serves up violations, with a side of cultural coldness.

Under the new grading policy employed in July, restaurants are required to display a letter grade that corresponds to the number of violation points accumulated during an inspection. But some ethnic restaurants feel the grades reflect the ignorance of the health department to cultural cooking differences, rather than the sanitary condition of their establishment.

“There is nothing wrong with our food,” said teary-eyed Jeanne Vilsaint, long-time owner of La Déesse, a Caribbean restaurant in East Flatbush.  Two years ago, The New York Times hailed La Déesse as one of Brooklyn’s best Caribbean eateries.  Today, they face 78 violations, $5,500 in fees and a conspicuous “C.” “They don’t understand the way we cook.”

In the case of traditional Haitian cooking, like that done at La Déesse, meat must be slow-cooked which can cause conflicts with health regulations, said Vilsaint. For instance, a popular Haitian dish called tascot cabrit or fried goat, when prepared in the correct tradition violates DOH temperature regulations because it’s partially cooked for several hours, refrigerated and then later deep-fried, noted Vilsaint.

When asked if she explained the situation to the inspector, a distraught Vilsaint who is now in jeopardy of losing her restaurant snapped: “The don’t want to understand, they don’t care.”

Zoe Tobin, the Associate Press Secretary at the New York City Department of Health, said in an e-mail that the temperature rules under the new policy were adjusted for certain ethnic foods like hanging ducks and sticky rice. But she was not aware of any changes that were implemented to protect Caribbean cuisine.

According to the categorizations on the NYC restaurant inspections website, Brooklyn is home to 269 Caribbean restaurants; more than the combined total in NYC’s four other boroughs. However, it should be mentioned that these numbers are insubstantial because the labeling of restaurants on the site is often misleading. For example, a well-known Haitian restaurant in Flatbush, Kombit Kreyol is classified as “American” and Kaz au nou, described as “Caribbean” on their website is found under “French.”

Save the unclear categorizations, 97 of these 269 Caribbean restaurants have already been inspected under the new grading system, and nearly a third of them have earned 28 points or above, the minimum needed to receive a C.

Points are assessed based on the level of health risk. “Public health hazards,” like temperature violations, are given a minimum of seven points,  “critical violations,” such as evidence of vermin, earn five and “general violations,” such as improperly sanitizing utensils, get two.  Additional points are allotted based on the severity of the violation. The total point accumulation corresponds with a grade: A (0-12 pts), B (13-27 pts.) or C (>28 pts).  The “C” restaurants are inspected monthly until violation point’s fall below 28, or they’re shut down for non-compliance

All of Brooklyn’s Caribbean restaurants earning “C” grades, accumulated points through temperature violation related to their food preparation methods.

“Inspectors tell us our food’s not good,“ says Rammarine Fing, a manager at Bamboo Garden, a Guyanese restaurant in Canarsie that earned 47 points. “But we feel there is nothing wrong with it.”

Additionally, Fing feels that different inspectors have different levels of objectivity that may affect their grade.

“Black inspectors understand more about our culture,” she says. “White inspectors are more strict and not sympathetic to the way things are done. ”

Andrew Rigie, the director of operations of the New York City Restaurant Association agreed that perhaps some health inspectors aren’t being sympathetic enough to the cultural differences in ethnic restaurants.  He believes that there should be a better compromise between protecting the public health and allowing ethnic restaurants to serve traditionally prepared dishes.

“New York City is a culinary capital,” said Rigie. “People here have diverse palates and depend on ethnic food.”  He continued to explicate the importance of enjoying a city with so many restaurants hosting a wide variety of diverse cuisine.

But, variety is at risk of diminishing as ethnic restaurants struggling under the new system are shut down by the Department of Health. This October, more than 35 restaurants across New York City were closed, both temporarily and permanently. Among them: Irish, Peruvian, Middle Eastern, Latin, Mexican, Chinese and seven Caribbean.

For some in jeopardy of getting shut down by the city, the danger of going broke is more ominous.

“How do you expect a small business like this to make any money?” said Vilsaint, regarding the fines La Déesse was served.  “I know the Board of Health wants to keep people safe, but it’s not easy for small businesses.”

Nearly all of Brooklyn’s Caribbean restaurants are small and locally owned by immigrants. Because each violation amasses a minimum of $200, many are finding it difficult to come up with the money after paying New York’s sky-high rents.

“Fines from the Board of Health are steep,” said Jack Katz from the Flatbush Avenue Business Improvement District. “And the penalty usually doesn’t fit the crime.”

Sadly, for many Caribbean restaurants, the “crime” is nothing more than a taste of home.

Photo (internal): La Deesse Restaurant struggles with violations and fines.

Photo (external): Restaurants waiting to appeal their grades in court display “grade pending” signs in their storefronts.