Atlanta Journal Constitution
By Bob Townsend
In the pilot episode of the new Food Network reality show, “Health Inspectors,” Atlanta chef Ben Vaughn is tasked with cleaning up a dirty situation at Big Momma’s Chicken & Waffles in New Orleans.
Roaches, grease and grime, and chicken parts bobbing in a sink full of murky water are among the gross-out kitchen conditions. But as the show’s star, and the restaurant’s savior, Vaughn coaches and cajoles the owner and his crew into putting things right. And by episode’s end, Big Momma’s passes its health inspection.
Vaughn recently wrapped filming for the first season of “Health Inspectors,” which premieres Oct. 26. But he’s been busy working as the executive chef at both Max Lagers and the new White Oak Kitchen & Cocktails in downtown Atlanta.
Since moving from Memphis to Atlanta last December, with his wife Audrey and their four children, Vaughn said he and his family have really grown to love the city. We caught up with him at White Oak last week, where Vaughn talked about “Health Inspectors” while munching on a chopped salad and sipping a sparkling water.
Q: How has it been moving to Atlanta, opening White Oak, and having a Food Network show, all in the same year?
A: Great. I’m really excited to roll this show out based in Atlanta. It’s been an ideal situation from the beginning. Last night there were 300 people in the dining room and I must have taken pictures with 40 people who’d already seen the pilot and the promos. I can’t wait to see how it goes from here.
Q: How real is this kind of reality show?
A: The show is legitimate. It’s not faked for TV. These are real failing businesses, typically with real cash problems. It’s tough love. There’s no ranting and raving. The Food Network programming isn’t about making people look stupid.
Q: Generally, do you think health inspectors do a good job?
A: These days, people want to know what the health score is. And now we’re going to give them the tools to know what it means. Honestly, I’m not on the side of the health inspectors or the restaurateurs. I just think it’s a part of doing business.
Q: Were you ever really grossed out during filming?
A: I was grossed out sometimes. Smells and things you suddenly see can turn you at any point. When you’re not prepared for it, things like roaches behind a refrigerator can be pretty off-putting. But the gross stuff isn’t shown for gross-out sake. It’s part of identifying the problem and fixing it.
Q: Have you ever had a bad inspection or come close to being shut down at a restaurant where you were the chef?
A: No. I can proudly say I have a really good move where I can chicken-wing a guy and put him in a headlock all in one swoop. So if the guys in the kitchen let me down, especially now, having a show called “Health Inspector,” I’ll just use that move. Our score at White Oak is 99 right now, by the way.
Q: Can you just walk into a restaurant and tell if the kitchen is clean?
A: When we go out to eat, my wife and I go to the bathroom to wash our hands, and if the bathroom is filthy, chances are the kitchen will be, too. Dirty menus are another tell. And staff uniforms. If the staff doesn’t care if they look disheveled and horrible, chances are they’re not following through on the temperature of your chicken.
Q: The premiere episode, “Rats in the Cellar,” takes place at Salud, a high-end Mexican restaurant in Chicago, where one of the owner’s friends gets food poisoning. How bad was it?
A: Salud. Crazy. That’s all I can say [laughs]. Honestly, it’s a total tune-in moment. If you miss Salud, you’re missing out on life. You’ve just got to see it to believe it.