Whether it is grilled squab at Spago or fettuccine Parmesan at Gennaro's, restaurant leftovers have a common fate around Los Angeles. " Lo buttiamo via, " explained a waiter quietly in Italian. "We throw it away."
The homeless in a dozen cities across the nation, including Chicago, New York and Atlanta, dine nightly on scraps from the finest white-linen restaurants.
At upscale Chez Panisse in Berkeley, ham carved into perfect rectangles becomes prosciutto. Sometimes, three to five pounds of meat remains on the enormous bones when the chefs finish their wizardry. The leftover bones add an epicurean touch to soup served at the nearby McGee Avenue Baptist Church.
Whisked Off to Shelters
Hours-old crepes, bread and pastries from posh dining rooms in San Francisco and Oakland, where anything not fresh would offend patrons, are whisked off to pantries and shelters by corps of volunteers.
And at Schneithorst, a German restaurant in St. Louis where Sunday buffet tables are piled high until service ends at 1:30 p.m., trays of leftovers become treats for the down-and-out.
But not so in Los Angeles County, where restaurateurs and charity groups find it hard to meet health officials' unbending interpretation of laws governing the doling out of leftovers.
Scraps left on plates, obviously, are strictly banned for reuse in any state. In Los Angeles, however, back-alley dumpsters also gobble up hundreds of pounds of unserved pasta, poultry and other food still steaming in restaurant kitchens at the end of each day.
"Any prepared product has the potential for contamination," said Arthur Tilzer, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection of the Los Angeles County Health Department. "We have to be sure the public is afforded a wholesome product to protect health and welfare."
Two state laws, the Sherman Food and Cosmetics Law and the Uniform Retail Food Facilities section of the Health and Safety Code, set strict standards for the handling and distribution of prepared food. Products must be properly packaged and labeled to show all ingredients, origin and weight. In addition, prepared food must be delivered frozen or kept heated at more than 140 degrees, meaning that a roast chicken cannot simply be carted from a restaurant to a homeless shelter in the back of a van.
But many food and drug officials around the state said they are willing to bend the rules a bit to allow feeding the needy. They would not require, for instance, that a plastic tub of soup carry a sticker listing the vegetables and meat inside.
"We wouldn't have a problem with restaurants giving food away as long as the food is transported and handled correctly," said Richard Ramirez, chief of San Diego County Environmental Health Services. "We would not require labeling."
Local officials, however, insist on the letter of the law, including the requirement that leftovers be labeled. Tilzer said the rules protect the public. "Everyone has the legal right to know what they are getting," he said.
The danger with restaurant donations to the needy, Tilzer said, is that food given in good faith may become contaminated in handling. Potentially dangerous bacteria is ever-present in prepared foods and its growth can be retarded only through careful handling and strict attention to temperature controls, he said.
Those who violate the law are subject to fines of up to $1,000 and six months in jail. Hundreds of citations are issued annually, usually to people who cook food at home and sell it on the street. Tilzer said he cannot recall any incident involving an illegal donation to the needy, but the county has made its position well known to restaurateurs.
Few of Los Angeles County's 18,000 restaurants are able, or willing, to meet the legal requirements. Instead, establishments such as Gennaro's in Glendale or Spago on Sunset Boulevard simply discard leftovers.
"Sure, we feel bad about throwing food away," said Frank Barrigan, owner of several restaurants and president of the Tri-City Area Restaurant Assn. representing restaurateurs in Glendale, Burbank and Pasadena. "But what are we to do?"
Roast chicken is a popular entree at Les Freres Taix in Los Angeles where 10 whole chickens are slowly cooked at a time. It is not unusual for 10 to 12 servings to be left at the end of the day.
"I don't think you can ever program that correctly" to avoid leftovers, said Mike Taix, the general manager. The chicken and other leftovers are stored in garbage cans until it is picked up by pig farmers or rendering houses, which pay nothing for the food.
Dinner Rolls Distributed
At Orleans Restaurant in West Los Angeles, 10 to 12 dozen leftover dinner rolls each day are packed into plastic bags and given to the Salvation Army, which distributes them to the homeless in Memorial Park in Santa Monica. But other leftovers, such as jambalaya, "go in the garbage," manager Mary Atkinson said, because of fear of running afoul of county health officials.