When the cat’s away the mice will play. They’ll play with their food, too, those unmannerly little bastards.
It was around 11:00 in the morning. All was going as normally as could be expected. I had most of my station set up, mised out and pretty good-looking. The floor on the line was clean. Little traces of evidence of previously completed projects and recpies were left over on cutting boards and continuing to be put away. The only other morning guy on the line was off somewhere either leaning and chatting over free coffee or hunting down one little ingredient in the Costco Megaplex that is my huge, new restaurant. The sous was off somewhere doing something I assumed was important. I had the line quietly to myself, though I could hear the morning garde manger girl yelling at back-talking food runners already.
The pastry ladies were thumbing through recipe books and discussing the week’s to-dos. I find it endlessly interesting how their work day seems to more be a series of discussions and planning more than actual execution of said plans. The saucier was already poking, stirring and tasting numerous different cauldrons of fine-smelling mystery liquids. The butcher was just arriving and probably checking the progress of various several-day-long projects he had in progress. The dish washer was most assuredly somewhere far away not washing dishes. All was calm and well and I was enjoying one of the all too rare and brief periods of slow silence in the kitchen. They are rare for reasons.
Alright, time to wake up. The sous chef came jogging back into the kitchen with frizzy hair, dilated pupils and a shuddering tone in his voice. He looked like he was trying to grip the belief that he had, in fact, actually just outrun a full-grown lion. “Board of Health his here!” he yelled, “Five minutes!!!” This meant we had to stop everything we were doing and had five minutes to convert the already cleaner-than-typical kitchen into Health Department Mode. I have come to believe that this part of my job will chronically irritate me throughout the duration of my culinary career.
It’s not that I mind it in principle. This system of checks and balances helps to ensure that purveyors of food aren’t purveying disease and pestilence as well. You wouldn’t want to spend eighty dollars on a meal and find fingernails in your salad.
What bothers me about this is that the kitchen must be converted in the first place. Staying true to my characteristic idealism, I believe that if you spend your days doing nothing wrong, then you spend your days with nothing to fear. Most places I’ve worked have had met their surprise visits from the Board of Health with frantic panic.
The reason I tend to roll my eyes, so arrogantly scoffing at this panic is that I tend to keep my things pretty clean and up to code anyway. I’ve worked at too many corporate places to not have the normal OCD standards a good cook should. The reconciliation of the differences between what the Board of Health expects and what is usually taking place always depends on where you’re working.
Let’s get nasty.
The rule is that all hair must be neatly contained and kept off the neck in a hat of some sort completely covering the head.
The reality is that kitchens are hot and different restaurants vary in how relaxed they are in this rule. Many chain restaurants are fond of the billed hats that make a cook like he just finished the back nine at a country club. Other places are perfectly ok with my personal favorite, the bandana. I wear mine to cover my entire head and keep my mane in check, but a lot of guys just use it to soak up sweat on their foreheads.
An interesting thing is that the lack of a head covering often indicates a higher rank. Executive chefs never wear hats. Granted, they tend to actually handle food less often, but executive sous chefs, sous chefs, sauciers, butchers, head pastry chefs and anyone with some arguable title other than “cook” almost never wear a hat. It’s a great tell-tale of who’s who when starting a new job, but I find it funny that the leaders choose to indicate their status by obviously breaking a basic sanitation rule.
Head coverings are a little weird when it comes to women, and people with dreadlocks. Many women don’t wear any hat because their hair is long enough to bun up, though the Board of Health disagrees. Dreadlocks, on the other hand, are simply too big to fit in any conventional hat so it seems to be an odd no-man’s land in the rule book.
When the Board of Health ninjas their way into our kitchens it’s typical to see a sous chef running out of an office with a stash of new-looking, unworn, billed hats throwing them at anyone with a sub-par head covering.
The funniest thing I’ve seen is not hair nets, but the oh-so-hilarious beard nets some companies enforce on any resident lumberjacks.
It should be no secret that we cut ourselves and blood happens. I can confidently tell you that anyone I’ve worked with, regardless of their personal code, always seems to draw the line at blood. They will never let anything that came near their blood interfere with your food. We cut, stab, lance and otherwise pierce ourselves enough to know exactly where to find the first-aid cabinet (or nearest roll of tape) and how to quickly clean the area, dispose of the food and sanitize the offending cutlery.
I have, however, been caught bleeding all over myself in crucial moments. More than once I have had a nice, polite conversation with a health inspector while casually keeping my punctured hand dripping blood behind my back wrapped up in an old towell, then quickly scurrying off to mend it as soon as she moved on with her inspection. When a health inspector walks by I make it a point to keep hands and arms with obvious open burns and pustules in a pocket or behind my back. I did once open up my thumb while helping a customer at a deli counter. Every second I caught her looking away I’d quickly suck the blood off my thumb and continue wrapping her order with the other hand.
On the first episode of Mario Batali’s show, he shaved his hand open with a grater mid-shoot and shoved his fist in a bowl of tomato sauce to cover it up until the commercial break. I commend him. That tomatoey acid must not have been fun.
The rule is that the only allowed container to use for drinks is a cup with a lid and a straw. This ensures that your hands never accidentally touch the part your mouth does.
The reality is that this almost never happens. I’ve worked only two jobs that ever enforced this rule. In some kitchens every one drinks out of those always-attainable plastic quart containers – Also makes it easy to measure and make sure you’re getting enough water under the heat of battle. I tend to kill three quarts per shift. My goal is a gallon.
In other kitchens the staff bring their own bottles, jugs and mugs from home and keep refilling them. Technically a violation but it makes us feel more comfortable in the face of all other stressful stimuli. Some kitchens use… anything. Liquor poorers, squeeze bottles, porcelin bowls, my hands (in a rush), I’ve used them all. My favorite violation is the restaurants that allow shift drinks, that’s right, during the shift. It’s a beautiful thing. Some bourbon on the rocks or a cold beer on the shelf above your work space at arm’s reach at the end of the night while you clean up to mellow you out. Because God knows it’ll be at least an hour after you clock out before you can wind down and manage to sleep anyway.
The problem with the rules regarding drinks is that they require restaurateurs to purchase and supply extra goods (the cups and lids) for which they often have no other need. In the strictest situation, one of my work places didn’t allow your drink in the ktichen at all. In moments of thirst you had to leave the prep area, go down a narrow, dimly lit hall of mystery and internal discovery, and find the designated drink rack, at this point feeling like the holy grail, where it was likely your drink has already been thrown away by the internal sanitation team.
Yerba mate‘ (an energy-fueled tea) was very popular there and since it came in a can, we’d often race each other shotgunning twenty-ounce cans of the stuff because we couldn’t keep an open can anywhere and had to get back to work. Drink it all at once or not at all. This resulted in a kitchen full of methed-out speed freaks bouncing around the place like a ball pit at Chuck E Cheese. I think drinks in the work area would have been safer. It’s the same reason I think New Orleans has it right, allowing you to leave the bar with your drink. No rushing necessary.
The rule (I found out recently) is that there is a zero-tolerance policy on eating in kitchen.
Let’s look at this from a professional standpoint. How the hell are we supposed to taste our food, that is, check the quality of our product, without eating it? Technically the board of health wants us to wait for YOU to find out it tastes like a salt lick or like a volcano and send it back to us so we can do it again. Because, ya know, we have time for that.
The reality is that the better kitchens have a seemingly unending supply of little, white plastic spoons for the sole purpose of checking and tasting. It’s wasteful as hell, but clean, sanitary and effective.
The other reality is that we are always surrounded by food, and usually hungry. Most of us end up at the morning shift allowing ourselves zero time for breakfast, or wind up at the night shift completely forgetting to eat before we begin the eight to ten-hour commitment. Some places allow you to make a meal. Some places do a family meal. Some places allow nothing, but turn a blind eye knowing you have to eat something doing all that work.
We snack, we graze, whatever we do, it is usually rushed because we’re not doing it during service. Not only do we want to make sure we’re not spilling crumbs into your food, but in the middle of the dinner rush we have no time to eat. We tend to end up inhaling the extra plate we accidentally made for table 13 while table 42’s steak is cooking and the skillet is still getting hot for table 33’s shrimp. Doing this long enough makes sitting down to eat feel, in reality, very odd. This BuzzFeed article paints a beautiful picture of the kitchen diet.
The rule is that all proteins (fish, pork, beef, lamb, veal, etc) must be iced down at all times, unless being cooked for an order.
The reality is, No. No way. Not a chance. Not happenin‘. Mostly with regards to beef. Having seafood iced down is easy enough. Although it is difficult to blindly navigate your coolers in a rush when your main target is covered in ice, we do well enough. Having beef iced down is, to put it simply, just not how you treat it. At least not during service. We need to let your beautiful and expensive steak temper first (that is, let it sit out at room temperature for a few minutes, though longer is ideal). Then once it’s done cooking we need to rest it. To let all those juices we just shocked out of the meat absorb back into it. Unless it’s well-done. Then screw you.
I will confess I have, I’m sorry to say, seen the 5-second rule put into play with certain items, especially those being grilled, broiled or boiled. The idea is that whatever germaphobic funk accumulated on your food when someone dropped it will be burn-murdered right off when it’s fired again. It’s not often done and I’ve only seen it a few times over several years but, hey, life isn’t perfectly seasoned.
There are other minor rules regarding towels and temps that we either voluntarily break or honestly aren’t aware of, but nothing you aren’t likely doing in your own home already. I promise, any Taco Bell is probably cleaner than you keep your kitchen on a given day. You feed yourself and your friends. They feed sue-happy total strangers.
There has only been one job I’ve worked that followed every single rule rigorously, and even had its own rules that exceeded the standards of the Board of Health. It took a little time to get used to dressing like a surgeon to cut a few carrots, but after a while it was surprisingly relaxing. A supervisor would walk in and calmly mumble, “Hey guys, Board of Health is here.” Everyone would kind of shrug and say, “Alright” without turning their heads. Everything was so perfectly organized, clean, sanitary and spotless that we didn’t have to do anything other than what we normally did. Now it seems silly to me that at other places everyone freaks out because they are, in fact, breaking the rules. I’m not much for recreational drugs, for example, so it feels nice knowing I can always pass a drug test. I don’t freak out then and I don’t freak out on my station at work. No sweating, no shuffling around, no transforming and rolling out.
This was, however, more of a prep facility than a real kitchen. The reality of a real kitchen is that it’s simply not possible to have certain items kept at the right temperature all day or maintained in the right containers and serve good food quickly. It’s the same paradox of not being able to legally drive before taking a driving exam. How else would you practice?
I honestly think we could all do with a little rule-breaking exposure more often. Sampling occasionally not-so-clean food could, in the best scenario, boost your immune system. Working at Babies R Us floored me because (among many other reasons) there was Purel EVERYWHERE. On shopping carts. Inside bathrooms. Outside bathrooms. By the registers. At the end of the aisles. It was crazy to me. These people were sanitizing their kids to death. When my mom found out her friend’s daughter had Chicken Pox I was sent over for some prompt, infectious snuggle time. I ate mud and played in dirt. The too-clean world we sometimes live in ruins too much of our natural immunity. Know what else does? AIDS.