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EDITORIAL: Hiding from the nanny

The speakeasy returns to Manhattan, this time with good eats

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The first rule of food club is you do not talk about food club; what happens at the table, stays at the table. But some of the Manhattan foodies didn't get the message. Mayor Michael Bloomberg caught an aroma from the private supper clubs operating throughout the Big Apple without his approval, and nothing gives Mr. Bloomberg heartburn like someone on the town, having fun. You let someone nibble on foie gras today, and tomorrow he'll want a 20-ounce Big Gulp.

His honor is most displeased at the talented chefs who have opened their homes to small parties of food lovers in search of an expertly cooked meal at a fair price. It's an entirely private transaction, which should mean no city inspections, no city permits and most heinous crime of all, none of the city taxes levied on a restaurant.

New York is full of people who live to eat well, eager to be the first to sample the work of an undiscovered master chef and live to talk about it first. Plenty of chefs are eager for accolades, but they're not eager to deal with the miles of red tape manufactured at City Hall, and they may not have the capital needed to start a restaurant. In such a highly competitive market, such ventures often fall, like a souffle gone wrong.

The private supper club is a perfect alternative. For as little as $40, a hungry New Yorker can feast on a personally "crafted" meal. The chef gets to show off his skill and earns a bit of cash without the risk. It's win-win for everyone, except for the mayor and his government, and he wants a slice of the high-calorie pie.

The government has no beeswax when families gather in a home for a Thanksgiving feast. If an uncle pitches in a few bucks to cover the price of a bigger turkey, that shouldn't make it a commercial transaction. Nevertheless, the City of New York insists that any money changing hands turns a private food club into a restaurant, subject to overbearing regulation.

Mayor Bloomberg doesn't stop there. He thinks everything New Yorkers eat is subject to his whim and approval. Last year he banned donations of food to homeless shelters because the donated food lacked adequate nutritional labeling information. Better the homeless go hungry than get a bagel without a label. Such a treat might exceed the government's recommended daily allowance of salt or fat.

Imposing licensing and inspection requirements on private food clubs would raise costs, likely making the parties not worth the expenditure of money, time and hassle. Most of the backdoor chefs would quit the supper party scene. The remaining clubs would be more expensive. Everyone loses (except the nanny).

Chefs have strong incentives to keep food safe. They keep their current guests and attract new ones only with a reputation for serving not only good food, but safe food. Food poisoning would destroy the club, and the care the chef must take becomes better insurance than a random city inspection. Mr. Bloomberg thinks he can dictate to residents what they can eat, how much they can eat and where they can eat, so a private food club could be the perfect place to hide from the nanny. The romance of the speakeasy returns, this time it's all about good eats. But everyone must keep the password away from the mayor.

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