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Clean Enough to Eat Off of

I don’t think I am going out on a limb to say that most of us didn’t get into the restaurant business because of an attraction to the field of sanitation. We chose this path because of a love of food and wine, or the possibility of turning a passion, into a livelihood. Nonetheless, we have all found that in addition to the obvious, we must also gain more than a passing familiarity with a wide variety of extra-culinary skills like: marketing, bookkeeping, insurance and plumbing, to name just a few. Although each of these topics is important, none compare to how crucial the implementation of good sanitation practices in our kitchens are. Few things can bring your business to an immediate, grinding halt more effectively than actually hurting customers with your food. In the March 2012 issues of Restaurant Start-up & Growth, they talk about 10 different things to think about that will help improve the overall health and safety of our restaurants.

Physical contaminants exist in every kitchen. The point is to make sure that, by establishing and maintaining certain procedures, and by training your staff to be observant, none of them ends up in the food you serve your guests. Hair, rocks, metal shavings, broken glass, foil, plastic wrap, bandages and other obviously non-food items will disgust your guests at best, or injure them at worst. Giving your staff as many reasons as you can for being proud of their work will go a long way in this regard. It’s important for management to pay attention to what goes on in the kitchen as well. If a cook doesn’t look through the dried beans for rocks before he cooks them, or doesn’t replace the foil on a hotel pan when it gets torn, or has more hair sticking out from his cap than he has under it, someone should notice and steer him in the right direction. Chemical contaminants are useful products in our kitchens that, if consumed, will cause chemical poisoning. Things like cleaners, disinfectants and pesticides all have their place in our kitchens, but care must be taken to keep them out of the food. Keep all of these products stored in an area away from food storage and preparation. They should all be well marked, in the original containers when possible. Ideally, pesticides should be handled only by professionals, and not stored in your kitchen at all. Biological contaminants, know as pathogens, are the ones that can most easily cause food-borne illness due to an operator’s lack of understanding or effort. Pathogens are microorganisms found in food that, when present in sufficient quantities, will make a person who eats that food sick. From a practical standpoint, it’s all about understanding how pathogens flourish, and how to prevent them from doing so.

Training your staff to frequently and correctly wash their hands is one of the simplest things you can do to insure good sanitation in your kitchen. First, do your job as a manager by always having hand soap and paper towels available at each hand sink, and having each hand sink supplied with plenty of hot water. Then, as simple as it sounds, make sure that each of your workers knows the proper technique for washing their hands in a commercial kitchen setting. A quick rinse under cold water, followed by wiping their hands on their apron won’t kill the pathogens on their hands, which is the goal. Once everyone knows how to wash their hands correctly, it comes down to when should they. At the very least: before handling any food, after using the restroom, after sneezing or coughing, after eating, after handling any raw product, and whenever they feel like they should. Never be shy about suggesting that someone wash their hands if you think they should, and always lead by example.

Pay close attention to the condition of your food products and how they are handled from the minute they are checked in, to the moment they are served, and at every stage in between. As soon as perishable items are received they should be stored at the appropriate temperature. Keep refrigerators between 34ºF and 40ºF, and freezers at 32ºF or below. If you keep fresh seafood on ice, have perforated pans and other necessary equipment handy, so that it will be convenient to use. Keep your storage areas clean, uncluttered and well lit to make it easy for your staff to rotate the stock. Pay extra attention when storing raw chicken. Always be sure that it is kept on the lowest shelves in your cooler. If a crate of raw chicken leaks Samlonella onto the cooler floor it’s not great, but it’s a lot better than leaking into a case of Iceberg lettuce.

The best way to thaw frozen products is in the cooler. If you don’t have time for that, the next best way is to place the wrapped product under cold running water in a prep sink. As soon as it is defrosted, place it in a cooler until needed. When prepping perishable items like seafood, keep only a minimum amount out of the cooler, and keep that small amount in a pan or bowl over ice. When cooling items like hot stocks, stews or soups, the idea is to get them from hot to cool as quickly as possible. This is so that they are in the “danger zone” (40ºF-140ºF), where pathogens multiply most quickly, for as little time as possible. An easy way to accomplish this is to put the product in a metal container, put the container in a sink containing ice, add water to the sink and stir the product frequently. Once the product gets down to below 40ºF, place it in a covered, marked container and store in a cooler. To cool items like rice, spread it into a thin layer on a sheet pan.

In the same way that your staff should be trained to instinctively wash their hands throughout a shift, your kitchen staff should automatically clean and sanitize their stations after every task, before starting the next. When something has been sanitized, it means that any pathogens on it have been killed. Your chefs and cooks should be trained and encouraged to wipe down all surfaces with hot, soapy water, replace cutting boards if necessary, wash and sanitize all tools in a three-compartment sink and then finally wipe down all the surfaces on their station with a towel that’s been soaking in a conveniently located container filled with a sanitizing solution containing bleach, iodine or quaternary ammonium.

Cross contamination is when a piece of equipment such as a cutting board, knife or work table becomes contaminated with something like raw chicken or pork, and is then used for another item, such as a ham sandwich, without first being sanitized. Frequent hand washing and sanitizing stations after each task will avoid many chances for cross contamination to occur, but everyone in your kitchen, from pot washers to the executive chef need to be aware of this potential problem and help avoid it at all cost.

Some types of cleaning like washing and sanitizing individual stations during a shift and hand washing, will become automatic for your staff; other cleaning chores are more likely to get done when listed on printed schedules, with printed checklists to act as reminders. Two checklists that work as valuable tools for many operators are basic opening and closing checklists. Depending on your operation, you might want to write specific daily checklists for each station in your kitchen, for each shift. While probably containing more duties having to do with food production, cleaning/sanitation items can also appear on these lists.Having a periodic “deep clean” schedule is usually a good idea. Tasks that might only get done once a week or every few days, like cleaning behind work tables or cooking equipment, more complete cleaning of walk-ins or stoves, and super-cleaning of floors and walls, have a much better chance of getting done on a regular basis if they appear on a list that needs to be initialed when completed.

Waste disposal is neither difficult nor glamorous, but it is important and needs to be handled well to avoid smells, rodents, insects, and to generally maintain a healthy environment. Have plenty of garbage cans in your kitchen and plenty of properly fitting liners to go in them. Part of your opening checklist should be to have them set up and ready for action before prep begins. Encourage your staff to empty them before they’re overflowing, and be sure that you are getting trash pickups often enough so that when they take a trash can out to the dumpster, there is room in it. Sanitize your trash cans regularly. Be sure that the dumpster is always closed, and maybe even locked at night, to keep out various visitors.

Pests such as cockroaches, flies, rodents and ants cause many problems for restaurateurs. From spreading disease, ruining product, destroying property and scaring away customers, they are something to combat with all of our resources. Usually the best approach at keeping these pests at bay is two-fold: doing everything you can in-house, and also hiring a professional to take it from there. First, follow all of the advice given above. A clean, organized restaurant, from the front door back to the dumpster, is much less appealing and accessible to all manner of vermin than one that is less immaculate. Be on the lookout for any holes that pests can enter your building through, and have them sealed. Keep all kitchen and storage areas well organized and spotless. Regular treatments by professionals who can read the clues that we might miss and act on them appropriately can be very effective in keeping pests at bay.

Understand that everyone who works in your restaurant needs to understand the importance of good sanitation, and know just what that means in a practical sense. It does no good if your chefs and cooks understand just what and what not to do, but your steward thinks nothing of putting a pan of raw chicken in a speed rack over a cheese tray. It should be your goal to develop in your staff an instinctive reaction against doing anything with food that will make it unhealthy to serve to their guests.

Don’t forget that your inspector from the Health Department and you are on the same side. It’s very important for both of you that no one gets sick from eating in your restaurant, and you both bring different experiences and insights to the table to prevent it. If you approach him or her with the attitude that, “I’m doing everything I know to run a tight ship, and would appreciate any advice you might have to help me do better,” you might be surprised at what an ally they will be in your efforts to run a healthy shop.



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One Comment on “Clean Enough to Eat Off of”

  1. Tori May 15, 2012 at 8:33 am #

    You didn’t let me read this paper before submitting it. ;p It’s good! Brings me back to ServSafe. All good things to know, sanitation is one of those things that needs to be so ingrained in our heads that it becomes second nature.

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