ELV note: The following is an article we wrote earlier this week for The Now Report. It’s written in a more standardized, journalistic style than the free-wheeling prose we employ on this web site, but the subject was important enough that we thought we should let our loyal readers know what’s happening with this issue. The Asian restaurant owners we’ve spoken to admit that there’s nothing they can do about the pick-on-the-little-guy coverage of Channel 13’s “Dirty Dining,” but with heightened awareness of various Asian food cultures, they hope the SNHD will stop handing out demerits willy-nilly for things such as week-old kim chee, and failure to change sanitary gloves every time a sushi chef handles a different piece of fish.
More than 50 Asian restaurant owners presented a list of grievances to the Southern Nevada Health District Monday afternoon at Desert Breeze Community Center, outlining what they consider to be continuing discriminatory treatment by health inspectors grading restaurants throughout Clark County.
With County Commissioners Chris Guinchigliani and Marilyn Kirkpatrick in attendance, Sonny Vinuya –President of Asian Chamber of Commerce – spelled out systemic problems within the inspection process that target Asian restaurants serving foods from cultures foreign to inspectors. In the restaurant owners’ minds, this leads to inspectors who harshly judge restaurant kitchens and cuisines without understanding the societies they come from.
“It’s a real problem in this community,” Vinuya said. “Restaurants get a double whammy of getting demerits, paying fines, correcting the problems, and then (they have) a Channel 13 story about them two weeks later. In some cases it has cost them 50-75% of their business. Some even go out of business.“ (KTNV-TV 13 has run a “Dirty Dining” news segment for years that has been accused of unfairly targeting minority businesses.)
Vinuya said that lack of understanding of ethnic foods and cultures causes many of the problems, as well as having inspectors who don’t speak any Asian languages. “There’s a lack of communication on both sides, but Asian people, by nature, are quite and polite, and things often get misunderstood.”
Not knowing anything about the recipes themselves has often been the source of such misunderstandings. Vinuya pointed to Korean kim chee (fermented cabbage) as one example: “The inspectors want cabbage thrown out after a few days as being too old, but it’s only after 6 days that kim chee is starts getting good.”
Multi-lingual inspectors would help, Vinuya believes, as well as diversity training for those doing the job.
Another ongoing problem pointed out to the Commissioners was that of restaurant consultants being pushed upon the restaurants to advise them of how to better pass inspections. William Wong, communications director for the Asian Chamber, mentioned that these consultants can charge up to $165/hour, and health inspectors often pressure the restaurateurs to use them. “It becomes very expensive,” Wong said, “and if you let them go, they (the consultants) threaten you with a bad rating. It’s really like blackmail.”
After the meeting, both Wong and Vinuya expressed appreciation for the opening of a dialogue on these and other issues, as well as a commitment by the Health District and Commissioners to continue to work together to solve some of the problems. “A good place to start is with better communication between the inspectors and the restaurants,” Vinuya added. To that end, the Asian Chamber is looking to present focus groups to the SNHD in hopes of helping inspectors to gain a deeper understanding of the diversity in Asian restaurants, and to work with Clark County to find translators to assist in helping the inspectors.
Vinuya also hopes to get the County to agree to allow the restaurants to fill out a survey with each inspection, rating how well the inspector did their job. “No one wants to do anything to hurt their business,” he said. “We want consistency in what they do just like they want it in restaurants.”