It's 9:30 a.m. and Allison Ford, 24, a pastry chef at Vedge, a vegan restaurant in Philadelphia, is working on a host of exotic ice cream bases that include black pepper, Black Forest cake, and smoked walnut.
Moving along a spotless surface, Ford shuttles among blender, stove, and ice cream maker, her movements economical and precise. Around her, the restaurant gleams - all polished glass, lustrous wood, and copper fixtures.
"Here's the thing," says Rich Landau, 47, owner of Vedge and the recently opened V Street with his wife, Kate Jacoby, 35, who live in Philadelphia. "You can have the finest china, the whitest tablecloth, but it doesn't matter if you don't have a clean kitchen."
Those aren't just words. The restaurant, which has received a three-bell review from Craig LaBan and was named one of the top 12 restaurants in the nation by GQ magazine, has aced its last five food inspections when it comes to complying with risk factors for foodborne illnesses.
Dave-Roger Grosvenor, a Mount Laurel consultant who works with restaurants to prepare for inspections, calls Vedge's record "impressive."
"They must be doing something right," says Grosvenor, noting that two different inspectors gave the restaurant at 1221 Locust St. perfect scores in five inspections since it opened in fall 2011. While the restaurant doesn't butcher meat or have to worry about reheating animal proteins, "it doesn't diminish what they've accomplished."
"Food handling is food handling," says Grosvenor.
Although there are no cheeses or dairy products used in the Vedge kitchen, Landau says the crew doesn't get a free ride.
"Tofu and seitan are both proteins. They must be handled correctly," he says. "Tofu must always sit in water, and seitan is very hard to handle; it deteriorates the minute it hits air, and we have about 24 to 48 hours to use it."
Mexican dishes are often a blend of hot and cold ingredients that can bring a dish like nachos into the "danger zones." Chinese stir fries also can be worrisome because they are cooked so quickly that not everything may be cooked through.
Last year, Vedge was cited for three minor infractions of good retail practices, including employees not wearing a hair restraint, a floor that needed mopping, and a dishwasher hood that was not as clean as it could be. All violations were fixed within a week of the review.
"It's funny," Landau says. "A lot is subject to who is inspecting you. Some inspectors say if you have hair on your head, you need a hat. Of course, if you put a greasy bandanna on your short hair, that's counterproductive. It's all about common sense."
When it comes to compliance, however, Landau says he brooks no compromises.
"When an inspection happens, my staff and I go over every violation together and take it seriously and fix it. I tell my staff everything the inspector tells me, good and bad. It's like a restaurant review: If a reviewer likes four meals out of five, that's great, but we need to fix the fifth."
"My golden rule is that you need to keep the restaurant as if a health inspector will be coming through any second. We treat our meals as though everyone is going out to Craig LaBan, and our attention to cleanliness is exactly the same."
Landau wasn't always as knowledgeable about food safety. In 1994, while running his first restaurant, Horizons, in Willow Grove, his lunch counter was cited for a "laundry list" of risk factors. "It wasn't going to get anyone sick, but my practices were not nearly what they needed to be," he says.
As a result, Landau went to be certified in a ServSafe class, run by the National Restaurant Association. Held on two Sundays for eight hours each day, ServSafe teaches personnel how to handle food, prevent food-safety problems, and run a restaurant. Landau is recertified every four years and most of Landau's senior crew at Vedge are also ServSafe-certified.
"The more versed you are in safety, the more you can focus on cooking, which is what they came here for, not to be sanitation supervisors."
Grosvenor says that for a restaurant to get a perfect score, they must adhere to a food safety system. "This includes doing their own self-inspections and making sure the staff is trained, regularly reviewing food safety standards in a way that the staff knows what is expected, and having a partnership with pest control experts, to be sure a restaurant is not infested."
Landau's safe-food mantra applies to his suppliers as well. "You have to make good choices," he says. "If deliveries show poor handling practices, the drivers or the trucks are dirty or if they send you lemons and you find some bad ones, that's it. You need to impress us the very first time."
Despite his record, Landau rejects the idea of posting health inspection "grades" on restaurant windows.
"A window is part of the ambience of a restaurant. It's enough to post the rating on a website. Even if it's a B, it's probably decent, and the violations have probably been all corrected."
And as for restaurants that might have a few violations, Landau feels the public has little to fear.
"Restaurants that serve ceviche [raw fish], for example, are a violation waiting to happen every time. The public has to appreciate that most restaurants are doing pretty well. It's a tough system that tries to scare restaurants into food safety. I'm fine with that. But most of the restaurants that people go to into this city are pretty clean."
"I've been in those kitchens," he says.
More stories on food safety, plus a searchable database of city restaurant inspections: www.philly.com/CleanPlates