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Health Code Tertius: A Cook’s Point of View

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Here’s our own polemic on the health code violations that we see all the time, and don’t really mind. In fact, these are violations that we ourselves have committed—willingly, and in full knowledge of the law. In the eyes of the lawmen (i.e., those beady-eyed, clipboard-wielding sanitarians), these are heinous acts, but ones that, when I see others committing them, I understand and eat the food anyway — if only in solidarity with cooks.

 We suspect that the statue of limitations has expired on our crimes, so, basically—tough darts if you don’t like what we’re about to say. Bring it. Here goes:

 â–  Drinking at work stations

One thing civilians can’t believe when they enter an operational kitchen is how hot it is. With dangerously cramped space and a lot of heat-cranking equipment, kitchen temperatures routinely run over 100°, while some stations can sustain heat 10 degrees higher. A line cook can be pinned to 9 tight square feet of floor space, and be surrounded on three sides by heat-blasting equipment. (Why so tiny? Kitchen space takes away from money-earning tables.) Imagine standing for five hours with a wide, cranking grill to your immediate left, a couple of knee-roasting ovens in front, a double Frialator to your right, a salamander (a head-height broiler) going full blast in your face, and a couple of furiously boiling vats of pasta water at your belly. In fact, all 10 burners on the stovetop in front of you are cranked. If you rotate 180°, the heat lamps over the pass-through offer no relief, and the dishwasher 7 feet away continuousy belches clouds of steam whenever it’s loaded or emptied – which is every minute or so.

 Not surprisingly, cooks sweat — a lot. It soaks the waistbands of their checked pants, it runs into their shoes and it drips off their noses onto the plates that they garnish. They wear headbands to keep the concentrated, salty sweat from running into (and burning) their eyes.

 Yet it is illegal for those poor dehydrated cooks to keep a quart of lifesaving water at their stations. Why? It is illegal for workers to eat, drink, or smoke in a commercial kitchen, a designated food preparation or a food storage area. The perfectly sound scientific reason for this is that while eating, smoking or drinking, saliva is more likely to get on your fingers and then be transferred to food.

 I bet that many cooks violate this rule, and that’s perfectly fine by us.

 â–  Smoking

We no longer smoke, but we know plenty of cooks who still do. I think the main reason is that their job is so adrenalized. That little dupe machine cranks out order after order until the average line cook is as crazed and sped up as Lucy Ricardo in that iconic I Love Lucy factory episode. A cook’s movement and thinking must be efficient, lightning quick, and systematic—they must become routinized cooking machines operating at lightening speed. Just like those WWII airmen popping dexadrine tablets to stay “alert and focused,” most cooks welcome a little blasts of stimulant—usually in the form of nicotine and caffeine, although I’ve seen worse.

 The Code violations happen when cooks must walk half a mile away from their stations for three legal drags on a cigarette. If those poor cooks are experiencing a God-given two-minute break during a dinner rush, I certainly wouldn’t fault them for stealing a few puffs in a storage room or kitchen doorway. Smoking is wrong, and smoking near food is wrong — but I’m going to give those poor guys a pass every time.

 â–  Eating in kitchens

As we mentioned above, smoking, drinking and eating in kitchens is a no-no, because saliva is more likely to be transferred to hands and then, to food. But don’t you want the chefs to taste your food? In the minutely partitioned area that a cook is allotted, s/he needs to keep ingredients, pans, sauces, towels and garnishes. There is literally no room for scores of fresh tasting spoons. To understand, pretend you’re a cook in the middle of one of those I Love Lucy rushes: you’re worried that you slipped and put in too much salt in your dish. Do stop and hunt around for a spoon? Do you chuck the nearly done order on suspicion when all the other orders for that table are ready and the chef is squinting at you with hate in his eyes? No. You stick your finger in the sauce to taste if you can get away with it– and then you continue working, without washing your hands. I don’t defend it, I merely state it.

 (P.S. In reaction to this common violation, many cooks ostentatiously carry lots of plastic spoons in their breast pockets. I find this strangely suck-uppish and apple-polishing, though I can’t say why.)

 â–  Washing hands during a dinner rush

Imagine our old friend Lucy Ricardo, standing at the conveyor belt, in such a panic that she’s about to start jamming the chocolates into her mouth. Does she stop what she’s doing, walk 12 feet away to the hand washing station, and start scrubbing her hands for at least three minutes, exactly like a surgeon? No, friends, she does not—nor does the average weeded cook.

 â–  Gloves

The Code requires that any food ready to eat (and not subsequently cooked) must be handled with gloved hands. This means a cook at his station needs to stop what he’s doing to don gloves to slice and plate the meat he’s just taken from the pan. He needs to don gloves for that micro-green side salad, or for that lonely sprig of parsley. Of course, glove-wearing prevents all kinds of food born illness. If Typhoid Mary had worn gloves, she’d still just be Mary Mallon, another anonymous Irish cook lost in the fog of history.

 The problem is that, when filled with sweat, gloves become jellified, squishy membranes that make knife handling precarious. Things slip, people get cut. Or, gloves get in the way. We’ve sheared off countless rubber fingertips as we sliced food– then had to hunt the little lens-shaped discs down, lest it find its way onto a plate. Additionally, rubber gloves, if worn in the conditions described above, for a solid five or so hours, trap sweat and cause some pretty serious hand rashes. Or, when cooks remove their gloves to change them, trapped sweat sprays all over the place—even onto food. It’s not pretty. Cooks, on the whole, hate gloves.

 In Conclusion: The Health Department Is Not The Enemy

So that’s where we stand on the issue. In our day, we were rampaging code-breakers—but here’s the thing: we’re really glad for guys like our new/old friend Westchester County Health Department Principal Sanitarian Gabe Scanga. About 10 years ago, we wrote ourselves a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) letter and gained access to the Westchester County Department of Health files. (P.S., you could do it, too.) When we cracked that folder, we saw some really bad things, like the White Plains deli that had lined their sole bathroom with canned goods, and then placed a sheet of plywood over the sink, and loaded that up with canned goods, too. This means that anything that splattered onto the cans (sorry, folks) would be injected inside during the process of using a can opener, plus, the food handling staff couldn’t wash their hands after using the bathroom. We saw the frightening offenses by a single Westchester County elementary school, repeatedly fined for holding warm food at unsafe, microbe-friendly temperatures between 40° and 140°. Their fridges didn’t work, either—it was an outbreak waiting to happen. We have to admit, pain-in-the-neck sanitarians like Gabe Scanga are necessary.

Plus, the Health Department is willing to address the needs of cooks. For instance, according to Mr. Scanga, they’ve addressed the problem of squishy, dangerous rubber gloves by advising the cook to wear a single glove—say, on the left hand, if the cook wields his knife with the right. Plus, advances have been made in reaction to scares like salmonella and vibrio parahaemolyticus. While not as sexy as a taut, proud yolk standing above a crystal pool of egg white, cartons of liquid pasteurized eggs are available for those spooky, not-quite-hot-enough sauces like hollandaise and béarnaise. If you want to toss a tableside Caesar, where a carton of glorified Eggbeaters won’t work, there are also eggs pasteurized right in the shell. Their whites are a little cloudy, but they comply with the code. Pasteurized oysters are also an option—and can actually save lives.

It’s up to you, but I’d probably listen to Gabe Scanga. He’s seen the worst of the worst, and still eats out in Westchester all the time. And so do we, for that matter.

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