In all honesty, this post was intended to be a flippant response to what turns out may be an unfounded controversy. Last Friday, a rightfully irritated Michael Blackie, Executive Chef of Next Restaurant in Stittsville (6400 Hazeldean Road), called out Jim Watson, our rather social media savvy mayor, on Twitter. Accordingly, the Ottawa Citizen contacted him to comment on Ottawa Public Health (OPH), asking local restaurants to remove tartare from their menus.
The local newspaper then released a seemingly hastily written piece by a “business and technology” reporter named Vito Pilieci. An award-winning technology writer, he has been the Citizen’s technology reporter since 2007.
— Michael Blackie (@michaelblackie) September 20, 2013
His piece, “Public Health asks restaurants to stop serving beef tartare after receiving complaint,” published online on September 21, 2013, includes quotes by Eric Leclair, head of communications for OPH, and Sherrie Beadle, Program Manager for inspection.
‘Under the regulations, raw meat products cannot be served to the public,’ said Eric Leclair, a spokesman for OPH. ‘We have asked that the product not be served as it does not meet the regulations under the Health Protection and Promotion Act. At this time, the restaurateur is co-operating and has voluntarily stopped serving the product.’
‘I’m sure that this dish is popular in areas of Europe, but it doesn’t meet the food safety regulations we have in place in Ontario,’ said Sherry Beadle, a manager of Public Health Inspection at the city.
These quotes, which may have been misunderstood, address raw meat.
Pilieci includes excerpts from Section 33 of Ontario Regulation 562, which involve raw ground meat. The Health Protection and Promotion Act governs food premises. Section 33(6) and 33(7) regulate cooking poultry, pork, and ground meat. Ground beef, not containing ground chicken, is required to be cooked to an internal temperature of 71°C for at least 15 seconds. The regulation only addresses beef directly (Section 5.1(1)), regarding patties sold from street vending carts.
Most people know modern tartare is made from chopped meat.
[lettuce, cucumber, almond, lemon vinaigrette, Mexican spice, smoked jalapeno aioli, tortilla chips]
What about Italian carpaccio (paper thin slices of raw beef), Ethiopian kitfo (an ethnic beef tartare analogue), Japanese beef sashimi (thin slices of raw beef), Lebanese kebbeh (mixture of minced raw beef), and Vietnamese pho (paper thin slices of raw beef layered onto piping hot soup). What about “hot pot” and “shabu shabu” fondue-style restaurants that allow diners to cook their own selections?
Having once seen city health inspectors delay a restaurant’s temporary street-side operation because the chef didn’t have a hand-wash station on-hand, a raw meat ban wasn’t quite out of character. Serving pre-cooked and easy-to-plate nibbles with gloved hands during a street festival, there was sanitizer nearby and the restaurant’s kitchen and washroom were but a door’s push away.
Here is the tempest of arguments that brewed in my mind:
How is it, a dish that is served all over the world faces a misguided ban in Ottawa?
Served on menus at at least a dozen locally-owned and operated restaurants, the dish OPH generalizes isn’t popular in North America, is made from raw meat, typically beef or fish.
It is a power lunch usual suspect. Favoured by anyone willing to fork out a little over $12 for their midday meal, tartare is both quick to prepare and most preparations tend to be low in fat.
Modern steak tartare isn’t always served with a raw egg yolk.
The decision to make a blanket ruling is an affront to culinary professionals; local farmers from whom most of the independent restaurants source their beef for tartare; and patrons. Chefs and cooks, who take courses on food safety, cannot be trusted to serve a raw meat dish safely. Local producers, who operate under the strict oversight of three levels of government (federal, provincial, and municipal), cannot be trusted to raise livestock or retail meat safely. And, diners cannot be trusted to make an informed decision to eat out safely.
As a patron, it is insulting I am not afforded the option to eat a raw meat dish I know is not prepared from pre-ground meat. Chefs and cooks prepare tartare from whole cuts (usually fillet), slicing off and discarding the exposed surface. The interior is then chopped (not ground), dressed, and served. Many restaurants prepare tartare in small batches to ensure freshness. Some restaurants even go to the trouble of searing large whole muscles beforehand, as if preparing Japanese tataki.
Now, I was once served a pizza whose bottom was so charred it left a trail on my plate; burned flour mixing with condensation. If I complained to the OPH that it made me sick, would they ban Italian food?
Yesterday, producers of Alan Neal’s CBC’s All in a Day wanted to air a segment on the seeming controversy when new information emerged. The OHS is investigating a complaint and only asked one unnamed restaurant to remove the dish from its menu for the duration. There is no ban.
[salmon tartar on tempura yams with shiitake mushrooms and avocado]
Let’s talk a little food safety. The reason everyone is encouraged to be wary of pre-ground meat involves surface area. Because mechanical grinding exposes raw meat to potential contamination by pathogens that cause food-born illness, ground meat should be cooked to a “safe” internal temperature (71°C for red meat and 74°C for chicken). Heat kills pathogens.
Whole cuts are different. There is much less exposed surface area, so less likelihood of contamination, which is why it is safe to cook steak medium or medium-rare.
Let’s take a step back. Why is it people are generally uneasy about handling or consuming raw food?
I bet you know someone who refuses to touch raw meat, whole or ground.
I think it has something to do with fast-paced urban reality affecting our relationship with agriculture.
In a largely shrink-wrapped and sealed world of convenience food, we lose the understanding that what comes sold on Styrofoam trays in the grocery store was once living. Farmers’ markets are no different. Meat comes ready to cook, sealed, and frozen.
When was the last time you visited a butcher? When was the last time you visited a farm?
Abstracted from food production, we grow increasingly squeamish. Yet, we consume meat, a lot of meat.
[olive, capers, shallots, parsley, chili oil, quails yolk, house brioche toast]
[edamame, pickled peaches, beet vinaigrette, house queso, sponge toffee crunch]
Personally, I risk manage eating raw. I don’t have a compromised immune system. I am not pregnant (so far as I know…).
If I am going to eat tartare, it will be at a restaurant. There are trained professionals preparing the dish. Restaurant kitchens have very rigid regulations to follow for keeping food safe. A regulatory body oversees food service and premises, performing regular spot checks.
Apparently, I needlessly demonstrated such this weekend, purposely partaking of four servings of tartare from four different restaurants. Suffice it to say, I’m not dead yet.
Long live tartare!
Brothers Beer Bistro
366 Dalhousie Street
1325 Wellington Street W.
1311 Wellington Street W.
Hooch Bourbon House
180 Rideau Street
Tags: Brothers Beer Bistro, Danny Mongeon, featured, Hooch Bourbon House, Sushi Umi, tartare, The Wellington Gastropub