No stranger to stomach trouble, let alone malaise (a vague sense of ill-being, according to Daniel Webster), I often find myself in restaurants that would intimidate the most intrepid foodie. Was a time nothing daunted me, not even massive buffets of precooked grub displayed for hours on steam tables under lights. Then SARS came to dinner. Now those same help-yourselfs -- clogged with crowds of frenzied diners hovering over spreads, choosing this, returning that, pawing cutlery and occasionally coughing -- make me extremely queasy.
A recent Internet rumour reported by the Washington Post, no less, claimed that a Scarborough restaurant chef was sick with SARS -- a complete fabrication, though it turned the normally packed 600-seat family-style spot into a no-go zone.
To combat these false allegations, the Mandarin chain of Chinese buffets (not the restaurant the e-mail fingered, by the way) took out unprecedented full-page ads in the dailies last weekend to assure customers that none of its employees has recently visited the Far East or a now-closed local hospital.
Mandarin management puts me in touch with Nino Curcione, a food safety consultant whose Barrie-based firm advises the chain. He tells me that Mandarin not only adheres to every legal food-related demand, both in the kitchen and on the floor, but that it is now instituting the practice of sterilizing its unused cutlery several times a day.
He's even going to suggest that antiseptic hand sprayers be installed outside the washrooms in full view of diners, so everyone can see who is -- and, more importantly, who isn't -- washing their hands after using the loo. How positively Seinfeldian!
The restaurant also plans to proactively increase the size of its currently minimal board-of-health-approved sneeze shields.
But where is the board of health's input on the buffet scare? Last summer I dismissed its DineSafe program, which generally hung out to dry the city's ethnic and mom-and-pop establishments. (Shocking revelation: mouse found in Chinatown restaurant basement!) I've also taken on the board for its loophole-ridden anti-smoking regulations that allow restos to declare themselves bars to remain smoke-filled.
Now I wonder why this taxpayer-funded gung-ho bureaucracy hasn't addressed SARS and its ramifications for the restaurant industry. Any chance it has to do with tourism?
I speak to a well-known restaurateur who owns a popular downtown Indian buffet. Understandably, he doesn't want to be identified, for fear of losing even more customers than he already has. He's very unhappy with the board of health and wants a set of safe guidelines to reassure his clients, since business is now down 40 per cent. In desperation, he's decided to take things into his own (washed) hands.
"If one of my employees even so much as goes outside for a smoke, takes out the garbage or shakes hands with a customer, they're required to immediately wash their hands with bacterial soap," he explains. "And though it hasn't happened yet, if someone comes into the restaurant looking ill, I'll refuse them service."
A call to the board reveals a frustrated soul at the other end of the line who declares her office overwhelmed by public inquiries. In short, no one responds to NOW's urgent questions.
Across town, I visit a very health-conscious vegetarian buffet and find two dozen or so patrons pigging out on the likes of meat-free shepherd's pie. I opt for something sweet. As I attempt to manouevre a very sticky slice of soy cheesecake onto a plate with a knife, the utensil refuses to comply. So I give the cake a little push with my pinkie and, without thinking, replace the common serving tool next to the remaining desserts.
Pre-SARS, it's gross. Post-SARS, it's putting others at risk. Catching myself, I go back and put the knife on my tray. At the checkout, I remark to the cashier that the place seems busy, especially considering there's a health emergency underway.
"This isn't busy at all," she sighs. "Hopefully, it'll all be over soon." email@example.com