So, you can filet 150lbs of chicken breasts in an hour. You can slice a clove of garlic into 50 transparent tiles with the tip of a 12-inch blade. You can even flip a loaded 24-inch wok without dropping a single broccoli floret! You may be impressive at a prep station or on the line, but are you equally impressive with your food safety and sanitation practices?
It can be as long as five years between renewals of our food handlers’/food safety manager licenses and certificates. With the passage of that much time, recalling every strain of bacteria and parasite, their symptoms, and modes of transmission could be an arduous task. Do you recall what HACCP stands for? More importantly, do you practice it correctly all the time?
During the breakfast, lunch, and dinner rushes, the back of the house becomes a roiling pit of pandemonium. Bodies and their parts are pushing and pulling, reaching and turning. Fires burn and cauldrons churn. Tempers and voices flare. The guy with the sizzling steak is turning around at the same moment that the guy behind him, with the pot of rice, is doing the same. At that same instant, the woman with the two large salads is about to pass between them, while the guy who dropped his knife is returning to his spot. Suddenly, from the furthest corner of the line, a scream: “#&%! I’m bleeding!”
Per our training, it is at this point that the bleeder is supposed to wrap the cut and get outta Dodge to tend to it. Then, one or two pairs of hands are supposed to gather his or her tools, sanitize them and the station, and everything is supposed to carry right back on…during the rush. Does it happen like this in real life?
Let us imagine a scene like the one just mentioned, only this time, the rush is so heavy that even the kitchen manager is on the line. It’s one hour into the rush-with three to go-when the vendor’s truck pulls up in the back. He’s got chicken, beef, veg, and frozen things. Seeing that no one is available, he decides to drop the delivery and come back later for the signatures; he’s got eight more drops to make today. Are we supposed to leave the goods out for the next couple of hours, or do we immediately pull someone from the line to tend to them, turning an already hellfire line into something far less desirable and possibly destructive?
“You have to,” declares Chef Rey Valdez about tending to the product immediately. For him, food safety and sanitation are paramount to the operation. “You don’t even have to open the cases,” he continues. “Just get a time stamp on it, get in in the fridge or freezer and leave it for later.” He knows what he’s talking about.
Chef Rey is a veteran line dog who’s worked mom and pop taco joints, corporate BBQ houses, and has even opened and closed a couple of buildings personally. Through his tireless efforts, he earned the title of Chef, became certified and began teaching Food Safety and Sanitation at St. Philip’s College in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas, where he is currently a Chef Professor in the school’s ACF-accredited Culinary Arts program
“You can teach a waitress to make a salad, “ he continues. “I’ve put hosts and hostesses on the line before. If I can’t get anyone else, I’ll go in and do it myself,” he exclaims, referring to taking care of the freshly delivered product. This last statement gave me pause. I tried to picture the pandemonium previously described being amplified by the sudden loss of a body from the line. I reiterated the scene to the chef and asked, “You’d risk the line crashing? Line be damned?”
“Line be damned,” he repeats emphatically. “If the customers have to wait, let them wait. You can always comp something. What you have to understand is that if you don’t prioritize food safety and sanitation, you’re going to hurt somebody down the line!”
And THAT-ladies and gentlemen-is what it boils down to: hurting someone.
In 2011 the CDC published estimates that food-borne illness affects 48 million Americans each year; 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 of them die (https://www.cdc.gov/foodborneburden/2011-foodborne-estimates.html). As of 2011, there were roughly 312 million people in the US. That means that roughly 15% of this country’s citizens were affected, at least once, by food-borne illness. Who was responsible?
Per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2011, there were roughly 2.79M food prep and serving workers (https://www.bls.gov/oes/2011/may/oes353021.htm). For the sake of emphasizing our responsibilities as ethical and concerned food industry workers, let us pretend that fifty percent of all above-mentioned food-borne illnesses occurred outside of the home. If 24 million people are affected by food-borne illness annually, and there are 2.79 million cooks and servers, that means that, statistically, each of us gets roughly 9 people sick per year. Some of them die.
Although it may not be possible to place a blame in each instance, those affected likely ate at a stand, stall, cart, truck, or in a brick and mortar eatery. In short, we were responsible. It is imperative that Food Safety and Sanitation become as important to the operation as the employees themselves.
Food-borne illness and disease are very real, very unpleasant, and their prevention (in the context of rushed kitchens) is very time-consuming. Time is one of those things that seems to disappear in the back of the house; there are an infinite amount of things to do and no time, not even during off-peak ours. The demands of a busy kitchen are portioned heavy and anything that is not prep or cooking could be perceived as secondary. If the cooks’ perception of FS&S is one that regards them as secondary concepts, then potentially dangerous habits will develop and something unpleasant will occur.
What can be done to shift perceptions so that food safety and sanitation are held in the same esteem as knife skills and line performance? Perhaps it would be to ingrain FS&S into the kitchens’ culture, starting at the job interview. It should go beyond the standard, “Do you have your food handler’s license?” What if we were to incorporate a slight quiz as a standard part of every interview?
1. What is the food temperature danger zone?
2. What is one sign of possible botulism on a canned good?
3. What is the proper procedure for a cook getting cut during the lunch rush?
Perhaps if food safety were stressed during the interview and training processes as much as qualifications and proprietary procedures, facilitating FS&S as a primary concern would be that much easier. Along with that, how about implementing random flash quizzes of a question or two, using questions from the current licensing study guides? It wouldn’t have to be pressure-laden or time consuming ordeal, just a manager or chef asking questions of the staff at random times. These questions could easily be leveraged into morale boosters. The constant presence of the issue could lead to its becoming a part of the everyday culture in the kitchen.
Is this feasible?