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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Open Kitchens

Hotels and restaurants in Gujarat were asked to make their kitchen area accessible to customers to ensure the eateries maintain hygiene. The drive to enforce the notification will begin today even as a majority of the owners of eateries welcome the move and some of them are apprehensive

Written by Kamaal Saiyed, Sohini Ghosh , Aishwarya Mohanty , Gopal Kateshiya | Published: December 2, 2019 12:25:26 am
Surat Municipal Corporation, SMC, Gujarat Food and Drug Control Administration, Gujarat FDCA, Gujarat hotels, Gujarat government, India news, Indian Express Officials from the health department inspected a total of 3,325 eateries across the state till November 20 and removed boards saying ‘No admission without permission’ or ‘admission with permission’ from the kitchen areas. (Express Photo by Bhupendra Rana)

On November 6, the Gujarat government issued a notification directing all establishments serving food across the state to keep their kitchen area accessible to the public. The order directed restaurants, hotels, and canteens to remove signs that say “No admission without permission”, “admission with permission” and so on, from the kitchen, within two weeks till November 20. Within the period, officials from the health department inspected a total of 3,325 such premises across the state.

The checking was stopped for a week after the notification deadline expired. Enforcement will begin from December 2 and establishments found to be violating hygiene standards will be fined, said Hemant Koshiya, commissioner, Food and Drug Control Administration (FDCA).

The Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC) was among the first to act by forming a team of over 30 officials who went about checking premises and having the signboards removed from kitchens of eateries. Surat has the largest number of migrant and floating population in the state. As the saying goes: ‘Surat nu Jaman ane Kashi nu maran’ (Dine in Surat and die at Kashi).

The FDCA has so far collected fines worth Rs 24 lakh from establishments serving compromised food, especially sweetmeat.

The Indian Express accompanied one such team along with Athwa Zone food safety officer, CM Patel, to a restaurant owned by Bhaskar Shetty. His kitchen now has a glass pane on top half of its door.

“We earlier had a sticker on the main door of the kitchen, which said ‘No admission without Permission’, but after the SMC directive, we removed it. We appreciate the step taken by the government. Earlier, we did not allow any customer to enter into our kitchen area but now we don’t stop anyone wishing to see the area. We keep our kitchen area clean and even the employees involved in cooking and other work in the kitchen wear gloves and keep their head covered. Customers prefer to eat at such places where the kitchen area is hygienic,” said Shetty.

Raghu Nath, manager of Pizza Hut outlet in Ahmedabad, said, “We complied with the circular the day it was sent. No food safety officers came here to inspect but they went to our Vadodara and Surat outlets. No customer has sought to see the kitchen yet.” In August, the Vadodara outlet of Pizza Hut came under heat after a cockroach was found in its pizza.

Surat Municipal Corporation, SMC, Gujarat Food and Drug Control Administration, Gujarat FDCA, Gujarat hotels, Gujarat government, India news, Indian Express The Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC) was among the first to act by forming a team of over 30 officials who went about checking premises and having the signboards removed from kitchens of eateries. (Express Photo by Bhupendra Rana)

At the SG Highway outlet, a ‘no admission’ plaque over the billing counter still stands with faded print. When The Indian Express sought entry into the kitchen, the restaurant employees raised apprehensions. When the team was allowed inside, a hygiene audit was under way. The manager said, “We have a private auditing company check our outlet every quarter.”

But not all are receptive to the idea. Sanket Shah, owner of Tomatoes restaurant in Vadodara that is being renovated, said, “The renovation started before the directive but we made minor changes now as per the norm. However, we won’t allow people without proper safety gears including hairnets and gloves and a screening, inside the kitchen.”

Hygiene concerns

Nirav Gandhi, Western Region secretary of Hotel and Restaurant Association, has also raised the matter with the District Health Department. He says, “Their objective is hygiene. But with this directive, will the objective be achieved? The customers may be a carrier of some infection and malpractices to sabotage restaurants can increase by misusing the law. Even schedule 4 of the FSSAI clearly states that only the food operator and food handler can enter the kitchen, that too, with proper gear. Even bringing down structures within restaurants is not feasible.”

Shetty agrees with him. “Ill-intentioned customers can make a hue and cry on finding a minor fault in the kitchen. Our restaurant is in a posh area and a good number of customers come here because they know our place is hygienic, quality of food is good and the seating area is clean and comfortable,” he said.

Jagdish Salunke, SMC chief food safety officer, said, “The owners of hotels, canteens and restaurants are cooperating with us. We show them the state government order if anybody demands it. At certain places, the doors and windows of the kitchen are made of wood and we have given them 10 days’ time to place a glass pane on the half portion of door for visibility to customers. At some premises we have advised the owners to make certain changes and fix transparent glass windows where the entire kitchen is not visible to the customers due to concrete wall.

Strict inspection

FDCA commissioner Hemant Koshiya said, “The order has been sent to all designated officials across the state, asking them to inspect eateries. They have been asked to remove signboards restricting entry into the kitchen area at the earliest.” According to Koshiya, nearly five lakh lakh food establishments are registered in Gujarat.

Some restaurants, such as Magic Chicken in Sarkhej area of Ahmedabad, earlier used to have an open kitchen area and a closed one with a wooden door. The door now remains open.

Dr Ashish Naik, Deputy Commissioner with the health department of Surat Municipal Corporation, said, “People are slowly coming to know about the FDCA order. There has been no issue in convincing the hotel owners so far. There are over 1,400 food outlets in the city and we will inspect all of them in our ongoing drive. Our officials have kept records of the premises advised to renovate their kitchen area. After a few days, our staff will do surprise checks again and if any of the owners are found to be flouting the instructions, we will take strict action by issuing notices and penalising them.”

Owners of at least six restaurants along the SG Highway visited by the Indian Express said they were not aware of the FDCA notification but their kitchens were visible through a glass panel on the door. Managers or owners at these restaurants unanimously hailed the move, agreeing with the government’s view that “if you are keeping your kitchens clean, there is no reason to be afraid of letting customers in”.

Talking to the Indian Express, Asif Kasmani, owner of Bismillah Hotel and Juice Centre, which has several outlets in Surat city, said, “We have already opened our kitchen to the customers and it has helped us to increase the footfall. We have not kept any signboard in our kitchen area and anybody can visit the area. Municipal officials had inspected our premises.”

Cooking secrets

Southern Gujarat Hotel and Restaurant Association president, Arun Shetty, told The Indian Express, “After receiving the notification, some of the restaurant owners approached us and complained that if they allow any customer to visit their kitchen area, the recipes of their special dishes will not remain a secret and it will affect their business. We tried to convince them that it is a rule laid by the government with good intentions, as customers get satisfied seeing a clean and hygienic kitchen area”.

Those aware of the notification and located in the central location of the Ahmedabad city had no qualms. A legacy chain restaurant in Ahmedabad, who did not wish their name to be mentioned and take themselves in special recipes, said, “We are open to customers visiting our kitchens. Anyway a visit to kitchen cannot last long enough for anyone to get our special recipe.”

In Vadodara, owner of ‘22nd Parallel’, Dipti Mehta, raised concerns over the feasibility of the directive. “We have always allowed customers inside when they have had pertinent issues or doubts with the food and we will continue to do so. But we cannot allow every second customer inside. My kitchen is closed and to make it open now is not possible. I am ready to incur the expense only if it is made mandatory, otherwise it is not feasible for us. We serve South Indian food and the floor tends to be wet and there is smoke and heat. An open kitchen will also affect the comfort of the customers,” said Mehta.

Mukesh Shewani, who runs a popular eating joint in the Railway Station area in Vadodara, learnt about the directive from a customer and said, “I removed the sign immediately after the customer told me. I have a CCTV camera inside as well and people can view the kitchen while dining. No one has told us that we need to break the wall. We will see what can be done if the authorities tell us.”

Girish Kaushik (26) visits a new restaurant every week. Welcoming the directive, he said, “This will only make the entire process more transparent. Restaurant owners and cooks will be more vigilant and alert and it will ensure that they maintain hygiene.”

Curious customers

Meanwhile, the food safety department has been carrying out drives across the city and has pulled out signages from 21 kitchens so far. However, no penalties have been imposed yet. “We are checking for signboards outside kitchens. Most of the kitchens are indoors and covered. They have logistic issues. We have not penalised anyone yet because we have not been given any guidelines about the penalties,” said Dr Mukesh Vaidya, Additional Health Officer, Vadodara Municipal Corporation.

Hoteliers and restaurant-owners in Rajkot say that a section of their guests have become more curious to know what is going on in their kitchens and add that the government circular would only enhance the trust of the guests.

Fortune Park JPS Grand had to modify the kitchen door after the government circular. “Our kitchen door already had a small inbuilt glass window offering view of the kitchen. After the government circular, we replaced the small window with a large one so that our guests can see through it,” says Hiren Sodha, owner of the hotel, adding the modification did not cost them too much. Located on 150 feet Ring Road of the city, the hotel is a member of ITC hotel group.

Sodha said that a few guests were little too curious. “Some of them, citing the government circular wanted to enter our kitchen. We had to explain them what the circular meant. It does not make it incumbent upon hotels to allow guests inside the kitchen physically but to allow guests to see through window or doors. As a matter of policy, we do not allow anybody but our cooking staff in our kitchen as allowing guests inside the kitchen can lead to hygiene issues,” he further said adding that his customers trust what is cooked in the hotel kitchen.

Manish Patel, an exporter of artificial jewellery in Rajkot, said the circular will not make much sense unless diners become aware. “I have seen food-joints cooking food near public toilets in the city. If one complains, the owner would dial ‘x’ or ‘y’ politician to preempt any action by the health department. Unless customers become aware and make our politicians responsible, laws will not make much impact,” said the 33-year-old businessman.

Patel recently had dinner at First Like, a restaurant on Ring Road-II. “I like the food there. I also appreciate that customers can see the kitchen there through a glass-door,” Patel said, adding at other restaurants, he was curious to see the kitchen when he felt something was wrong in the food served to him.

“We have always had our kitchen door open for our guests. It only enhances the confidence of our guests in the quality of food we serve,” says Pruthvi Rathod, manager of Yadav Restaurant, a popular eatery near Sorathiyawadi Circle in Rajkot that offers Gujarati and Punjabi cuisines.

Officials of health department of Rajkot Municipal Corporation say that they have not received any major complaints of restaurants restricting access to their kitchens. On November 20, health officials inspected 28 hotels and restaurants in the city to check if they had complied with the government circular. The ‘No Entry’ boards at kitchen entrances were removed. They also ordered two others restaurants to install glass windows to enable customers see the inside of the kitchen.

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