The first time Mario Di Ienno heard he couldn’t serve red meat tartare at Melbourne institution Gerald’s Bar was a few months ago during a routine health inspection. He later received a letter from the City of Yarra informing him of changes to the Food Act 1984 – which actually occurred last year – stating that food businesses were required to undertake an additional auditing process to serve certain raw red meats or game meats.
“I had an angry conversation with the chief health officer,” Di Ienno says. “I went into my tirade. I have 120 years of combined experience standing in my kitchen, [including] me and Gerald [Diffey, owner of Gerald’s Bar]. These are not new food techniques, these are hundreds of years old. We all work with bacteria and are fully trained. Our ambition is not to poison people.”
When Di Ienno asked specific questions around the guidelines pertaining to Gerald’s menu – such as why the venison cutlets had to be cooked all the way through or else sous-vide – he says the officer didn’t know, and nor did the health inspector. “A lot of the questions I asked, [they] couldn’t answer,” Di Ienno says. “They’re just following procedure … I imagine what happens is there’s a shitty restaurant that doesn’t follow good hygiene procedure and as a consequence we all have to suffer.”
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Steak tartare is found on menus all over town, so these changes could impact a plethora of Melbourne restaurants. Many in Melbourne would be familiar with Tom Sarafian’s hummus, but another of his regular pop-up items is kafta nayyeh, a traditional Lebanese tartare made using raw lamb.
“Raw dishes like kafta nayyeh showcase the culture, dedication and craft that have existed for hundreds of years around the world,” says Sarafian. “I’ve done my research, travelled many times to Lebanon to eat these dishes, and cooked at one of the highest-regarded restaurants in the world for nose to tail philosophy (London’s St. John).
“These dishes are like any other prepared by chefs and kitchens everyday. The move is an insult to our profession, training and expertise and will only make it harder for restaurants who are already doing it so tough.”
Luke Bresnan, owner of Carlton North wine bar Little Andorra, received the same letter from City of Yarra, dated August 31. He says these changes are a needless hit against an industry where smaller independent venues are already struggling.
“A venue used to do a food safety plan from a template provided by their local council,” Bresnan says. “It seems with the new requirement, council just won’t provide that, meaning they’re effectively outsourcing their work to (and at the cost of) small businesses. Whilst bigger companies with multiple venues and ample cashflow can afford it, many cannot.”
The council's communications suggest there are two parts to the process concerning high-risk items. One is setting up a non-standard Food Safety Program (FSP) that aligns with the current guidelines and manuals. This can either be undertaken by the venue or by an external auditor. Then there is a second auditor who assesses the FSP and observes the prep and determines whether it passes the audit. Many vendors feel the practical application of this has not been made clear with regards to how frequently it would need to be updated an audited (each time a recipe changes, for example), and where house ferments, pickles, kombucha and even mayo fit in.
“There is a valid point from a food safety perspective that by not cooking a food item to above 65 degrees the risk of contamination is higher,” says one chef, who spoke to Broadsheet on the condition of anonymity because they are concerned about being targeted by council. “But food standards and safe practice from farm to supplier to restaurant is very good and is kept to a high level of control. I feel it undermines the professionalism of our great chefs in Melbourne and puts creative limits on menus and food offerings in a town that claims to pride itself on its restaurant scene.”
According to several chefs and venue owners, the first heard they'd heard of these guidelines came from memes shared by the Instagram account Anchovy Toast. The anonymous admin, who works in Melbourne hospitality, has already sought advice from the health authorities concerning the impact of these changes. “I was getting pretty pissed that nobody was talking about it,” Anchovy Toast tells Broadsheet. “With the cost of auditing unclear and the health department taking no responsibility, costs could go into the thousands.”
Anchovy Toast also points to the impact this potential auditing fee has on the total cost of producing and serving tartare in a small restaurant, plus the additional restrictions on in-house fermentation. And what happens to Melbourne’s many family-owned restaurants serving Ethiopian restaurants serving kitfo? What are the guidelines for the raw beef in pho? And dare we ask about house pickles?
“The Department of Health is working on a module through FoodSmart which will remove Food Safety Program costs related to raw meat products which expected to land in 2024,” according to a statement sent to Broadsheet. “Updated guidance to include raw and rare dishes is being prepared, based on scientific evidence.”
Until then, with so much unclear, steak tartare and other dishes like it are simply off the table for many Melbourne chefs and operators.
This story was updated on September 15 to include a statement from The Department of Health. Read the full story here.