Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Servsafe is a food safety program and certificate put together by the National Restaurant and Lodging  Association. It super cedes the required local food handler card for all food service employees and is valid in all 50 states for five years. When you begin culinary school in almost any program food safety, along with stocks are the first thing that you learn. They are both the most basic of kitchen fundamentals, and almost everything else you do in a kitchen is built on those principles. It also helps to weed out the week ones early on.  While there are some other food safety programs and certifications, Servsafe seems to be the industry leader, recognized in more places. As far as I am concerned every business in the industry should have one manager who has the certification. The local food handlers card is a good start but it is a 20 question test that allows you to miss up to six questions and you take it "proctored" in the office after hours with all of the answers already written down. Part of my education at Oregon Culinary Institute was getting my certificate to Servsafe. The focus of our classroom instruction for nearly 4 weeks, I breezed through the test. While it isn't necessarily rocket science, and so much of it is common sense, it is important stuff. Dull, but important. A few months ago my certificate expired and so I began tossing around the idea of taking the course again. In the past we had some top brass who wanted one of the chefs from each kitchen to have the certification, and while he left us for a different pie in the hospitality sky I wanted to hold true to his wish. The course is offered by varying companies, mostly some of my larger food purveyor corporations. I sent an email to all the chefs in the company telling them my plan and booked the event on the restaurants dollar, or hundred dollars. Two other chefs joined in and last week we made the 5:30am departure to Wilsonville, which is just south of Portland. The class we booked was a 4 hour refresher course taught on the basis that we had received our textbooks and had read them at least once, then the test with a two hour time limit. While I don't usually stress about this from the time I booked it was in the back of my mind, a bit overwhelmed with the holidays and all of the other stuff going on I didn't crack the book until the week before the test.

Food safety is a tough one for me. While we are directly overseen by our local health inspector, the state of Oregon rules are different then the national rules, and while they are very similar the small variances in holding temperatures, always send me for a loop. Often at inspection time I find myself borderline arguing with the inspector about the order which the proteins in the walk-in are stacked, or other things that I honestly feel I am right about. A few months ago I attended a meat curing seminar with representatives from the FDA, US department of Agriculture, USDA, and our local county health officials, and you know what....... not one of the knew what they were talking about. None of them communicate with each other. It seems to be the only business model in the world where rules can be changed and there is no system to alert those effected, and then to hold them accountable for their knowledge. I have a servsafe certification, a local food handler card, a mother in the industry, have been doing this for more then a decade, and work for one of the biggest companies on the N. coast of Oregon, and they are telling me things I have never heard of. It doesn't help at all that not one of them understands the industry, or are even motivated to be "foodies".  I imagine them all sitting around together eating low calorie dressing marinated, then microwaved chicken breasts. Given the opportunity I would make sure I attended any sort of seminar there overworked selves could put together but nothing is ever offered. No emails, or letters are sent, and the website is useless. Furthermore the new rules are ridiculous. Calling for special paperwork and testing on foods that use the most basic preservation methods that humanity has been practicing since the beginning of time. That would all be fine but a local chef I know is waiting on a call back from a question the last week of November from our inspector.

I didn't really want to spend a day in the city learning about shellfish intoxication, norovirus, bacillus cereus, or cinguatera fish poisoning, but I am not naive enough to ignore its importance. This is important stuff and no good chef takes it lightly. So much food borne illness can be prevented by buying from reputable suppliers, practicing good hygiene and cooking it to the minimum required temperatures. Our food system passes through so many hands, and issues can be had at any point along the journey. The rules are strict because in a restaurant we are the last stop. Food that has gone from field to truck, to warehouse, to truck, to distributor, to truck, to back dock, to walk in, to prep table, back to walk in, and finally for service could've been contaminated in any of those steps. It even couldve been contaminated before it was pulled out of the water or soil. My kitchen is the last stop before someone consumes it and pays to do that. The contamination that happened in all of that process has to end, things need to be clean, cooked effectively, held, etc on my end or I take the blame for food borne illness, even if it was contaminated somewhere else. No restaurateur wants their name up in lights for those reasons. Even in instances where the restaurant is cleared of any wrong doing ( a process that takes months) it is old news by then, and no one remembers those things.

The class went well, the instructor did a great job, we had muffins and danish, then Subway catered lunch ( a touch ironic in that we were in the same building as the main food distribution warehouse of one of the largest food purveyors in the state..... had they asked I would've been happy to throw some stuff together) and I felt like we covered everything we needed to ease my nerves. The test was ninety questions and most of it was common sense stuff for someone that has been around as much of this as I have. I will have my score back in a few weeks. The hope is that I pass, and it gives me some collateral to argue with my inspector should the need present itself. Thanks for reading.