Food Maximization: Gourmet Cooking Starts with Gourmet Cleaning

by Liz Tarditi


(c) 1999, Liz Tarditi

Yesterday I was cutting up a whole chicken, as you know I often do, when I noticed that there was a little warning sticker on the plastic packaging material it came in. How odd, I thought. The sticker gave the weight and sell-by date of the bird on one side, and it said "USE SAFE HANDLING PROCEDURES" in big red letters on the other, with a nifty little line drawing to illustrate…well, I'm not sure what the drawing was supposed to illustrate. It was saturated with chicken run-off at the time. The pictures were so small, I would need to get my poor weak eyes pretty close to the nasty wet plastic to read. I could just imagine all those little salmonella bacterium taking a flying leap into my looming nostrils as I tried to decipher a little picture telling me how not to contaminate my kitchen and kill off my family. How ridiculous! Reminding me to use safe handling procedures, without listing what those procedures are? On a tiny plastic tag covered with chicken goo? Oh, yes, that's going to save countless lives. Literally. Luckily for me (and my husband) I do know the safe handling procedures for raw poultry, pork and other food products. But it got me thinking - I usually write about how to make your meals more delicious, inexpensively, using the secrets of the professional kitchen. But true gourmet cooking begins in a sanitary work space, using proper cooking techniques and the correct food handling procedures. And then it occurred to me that there ARE cleaning techniques from the professional kitchen that can save you money at home, too! I'm just so used to constantly sanitizing everything, the habits are so ingrained in me by now, that I forgot most home cooks don't know them. Because the details are so important here, I decided to break this article into two parts: Gourmet Cleaning and Temperature Control. Don't worry - it's not as dull as dishwater. (Though that topic will come up!) You might be pleasantly surprised at how much the unseen kitchen staff cares about you when you come out to eat.

The kitchen staff cares? What about the days of the mean, drunken old chef harassing the waitresses, jacket stained with food and wine, cigarette hanging from his crusty lip? That old stereotype chef, the unprofessional sodden lout, is fast becoming history. Good riddance. We modern chefs do have our egos (a small few are even almost worthy of them), and we all have our tempers (you can't stand over a hot stove for 3 days straight and NOT take it personally when someone insults your demi glace), but we also care about you. Even if chefs were the most awful people in the world (insert your favorite lawyer joke here) we would never intentionally do anything to make our customers sick. We ARE very, very careful about food handling procedures in a restaurant kitchen. For good reason.

Now, I know you're thinking about the liability; if someone ate bad food, they could sue and win a million dollars and put the restaurant out of business, right? It doesn't work that way. Food service workers are required to report OURSELVES to the board of health if we receive two complaints of food sickness following a meal. Two. A medium-sized restaurant can serve over a thousand people in one night, but if two call back saying they are sick, and they ate the same thing, it means that there could be an outbreak. The head chef calls the health department, immediately. Everything stops until we find out what caused those people to get sick. We save whatever might have caused the outbreak until the health department can come and examine it. In a professional kitchen, we never know if a plate is going out to a big strong football player who eats raw eggs for training every morning, or to somebody's grandmother, or to one of our own children. The elderly, children, and people who are already weakened (like cancer patients) have almost no resistance to food-carried bacteria. They can die from food poisoning. Yes, we take our responsibility of protecting you very seriously.

I'm not saying that there aren't bad kitchens out there - there are. But I won't work in them, and I won't eat food made in them. And neither should you, even if that kitchen is in your own home. Liz! you say, my house is the cleanest, most perfect place on earth! No germ would dare invade my sacred sanitary space! Angels have blessed it! Martha Stewart herself fears me! (I knew I liked you!) Well, let's see how clean you actually work…how many of the following things happen in your kitchen, daily:

  1. Hand washing always consists of generous amounts of soap, use of a nail brush, and HOT (120-130°F) water for minimum of 30 seconds each time. (Sing "Happy Birthday" twice) You do not touch the faucet with your washed hands to turn the water off. Ever. You dry your hands with a clean paper towel, every time.

  2. There are bleach buckets and white bleach rags within easy reach at all times. They are used continuously. They are refreshed often.

  3. No pet or child gets to eat/drink/sleep/walk/occupy space in kitchen.

  4. You never touch your face, hair, adjust glasses, cough, or sneeze while preparing food without scrubbing your hands immediately afterward.

  5. You wash hands after touching cabinet handles, refrigerator door, floor, another person, pet, taking out garbage, placing things in trash, using the bathroom. You use a paper towel to open the bathroom door, not touching the handle after washing your hands. Every single time.

  6. All workers in kitchen use separate, designated cutting boards for produce, fish, meat, and poultry preparation (minimum 4 boards, color-coded to indicate their use) to prevent cross-contamination.

  7. All cooking utensils, knives, boards are cleaned in three completely separate steps: washing, rinsing, sanitizing. You wash your hands before touching clean cooking utensils.

  8. You only prepare food when you are healthy; if you feel sick, you stay completely away from the kitchen.

  9. All people who have access to kitchen wear hair restraints/hats and shoes at all times while in kitchen.

  10. You never taste anything and re-use the spoon again, or put it down on a work surface. You use a different, new spoon for every taste.

So, how did your kitchen do? Okay, okay, don't freak out. You won't kill off your family because you raid the cookie jar without bleach-cleaning the lid first. Your children and pets are allowed in (just remember to clean, often!) Nobody's home kitchen is perfect, not even mine. I confess: my husband comes down in his robe and bare feet to get snacks late at night. My dog's food and water dishes are in a corner. I don't wear a hat when I get a glass of iced tea from the fridge. And I have three cutting boards, not four. Mea Culpa! (I am guilty!) This exercise was primarily to point out that good professional kitchens operate on a completely different level of cleanliness. (But if you think I'm kidding about the hand washing or bleach buckets, let me just tell you, I wash my hands 10 to 15 times every hour in the kitchen, with soap and water that's good and hot. I bleach rag my knives and all surfaces I touch, before and after each use.) In the professional kitchen, all of the above apply, plus many, many other rules about food safety - even down to the color of paint for the walls.

I have a unique job for a chef. I'm a professional, but I now work inside of my customers' homes. I have to be even more careful about the dangers and contaminants of a home kitchen when the home isn't my own. My clients know - when I'm working, their kitchen is mine. I follow all of the guidelines set down by my local board of health, to the letter. I have my Food Handler's permit, and I have to attend extensive classes on food safety and sanitation to keep current for both of my professional organization memberships. So what can I tell you about safe food handling? Most important of all, wash your hands! Use soap and lots of hot water, before you touch anything used to prepare food, before you touch food that will not be cooked, after you work with raw meat, fish or poultry, after you handle trash or take out the garbage, after you eat or drink, after you touch your face, hair or body, and after you blow your nose, cough, or sneeze - wash your hands. Never use a dishtowel or apron to dry your hands. Dry them using a clean paper towel. I love the environment, but I work clean, even if I have to go through a roll of paper towels every day. But Liz, you say, how can hand washing save me money? All that soap, water and paper towels are expensive! How much did your family spend on cold medicines in the last 3 years? Add in the cost of time from work, doctor's visits, and the misery of being sick. Wash your hands like a chef, and your frequency of catching the common cold or the flu goes way, way down.

Next most important, use a bleach solution and bleach rag to sanitize surfaces and utensils: one gallon of 70°F (cool) water plus one capful of bleach (about a teaspoon), in a clean bucket, with a clean rag. This is the ultimate, professional "antibacterial" cleaner. You do not need to spend $6 per 12 oz. bottle of cleaner, just so you feel like a good person fighting germs. Six dollars' worth of no-name bulk bleach, mixed by the capful into gallons of water can clean your kitchen for years. It's what I was trained to use, and it's so cheap, I can dump it out and refill the bucket with clean cool water and new bleach often. Your bleach bucket and bleach rag is all you need to keep your kitchen sanitized. If you really must spend money frivolously in the kitchen, would you rather enjoy an ounce of Beluga caviar, or 7 bottles of brand name antibacterial cleaners? Hint: the Beluga costs less. So how can you best keep your kitchen clean? Understand the difference between "washing" and "sanitizing". Washing is removing food and other material from a surface where it doesn't belong. For this, you can use the icky sponge (smell it - EEEW!) that's sitting on your sink, day after day. (Microwave it for 15 seconds every day to kill the germs in it, and throw it away at the end of every week.) Use lots of warm, soapy water. Don't fool yourself into thinking that the dishes, pots, and surfaces are clean. They are just "washed". Rinse them thoroughly to remove soap film. Sanitize them with your clean bleach water solution. "Sanitized" means that the germs are killed. If they can fit into a sink, submerged completely, it's that much easier. Take them out and let them air dry. Do not use a kitchen towel to wipe them dry. Now, I know you're thinking about your dishes in the dishwasher - they are totally okay if you use the heat drying. The heat sanitizes them by bringing their surface temperature up to over 185°F - effectively killing any bacteria that could be on them. And if you have a kitchen where you have wood counters or marble, the bleach solution is completely safe - as long as you make it in the correct proportion. Do not up the bleach ratio in your bleach bucket, because you will have too much of a good thing. It will hurt your surfaces, including marble and stainless steel, so keep it proportional. Also, I want to remind you - 70°F water is cool to the human touch. Hot water will make the bleach evaporate. You may remember your grandmother talking about pouring kettles of boiling water on surfaces, or boiling the wash things in a big pot, to sterilize them. She was doing the same thing as your dishwasher does today, using water that was 212°F to heat-sanitize. Bleach sanitizing is different, because you're using a chemical to kill the bacteria and germs. If you evaporate the bleach, it can't kill the germs. See? that wasn't so bad. The second half of this article goes deeper into the subject of temperature, and the how your understanding of it is critical for your health and safety. And now, before I get twenty e-mails from the people who put those silly little tags on chickens, let me just say that the bad tags are preferable to no tags - at least now they mention that you need to be careful handling raw food products. For better understanding of food safety, and for some really good educational information for kids and adults alike, visit the USDA website at nal.usda.gov/fnic/, or stop by your local health department and pick up a copy of their Food and Beverage Worker's Manual - it's usually free, very clearly written, and it gives you the most up to date information on food safety. In my area all chefs, and food handlers in general, have to memorize it to pass the required test before we can make food to serve to our customers. And employers have to have copies of all employees' "blue cards" on file to be presented upon request to a board of health inspector. Makes you feel better about eating out in Seattle, doesn't it?


Chef Liz Tarditi is the President and Executive Chef of Today's Gourmet , a personal chef service based in Kirkland, Washington which provides delicious, home-cooked gourmet meals everyday for busy clients all over the Eastside. When not creating new culinary delights or writing about them, Chef Tarditi likes to spend time at home with her husband, Dave, and Mocha, their crazy Beagle.

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