SOUTHBOROUGH — I’ve spent the last few weeks wondering why I never poisoned my guests. Unintentionally, that is.
I might roast a chicken after letting it sit on the counter for an hour, then after roasting let it sit out again for at least another hour because I decided one day that it tastes better when it’s not hot. I may not have been sure to let the bird reach 165 degrees, which is the USDA safe temperature, because while undercooked chicken is dreadful, overcooking a free-range bird is a pity. I may also not have washed my hands enough while cooking (though I wash them often) and don’t routinely sanitize my cutting boards. I habitually put still-hot food into the fridge, and often leave meat out on the counter to defrost overnight (shoot me for that one), and much more.
Now I know better. I know that an ordinary instant-read thermometer, also called a bimetallic analog thermometer, which costs less than $10, is your best friend in the kitchen. Last month I earned ServSafe certification after completing a Massachusetts Restaurant Association course and exam. It’s an industry course, but I was curious what they learn and what safe practices are, what restaurants and others do — besides wear gloves — to prevent bad things from happening. Newly minted on safe practices, there isn’t a risky temperature or bad kitchen habit that I’m not aware of. I memorized the exact temperatures at which each kind of food (raw meats, shellfish, cooked grains) can be safely held and how to make sure they’re properly stored. I practically made myself crazy with the details.
My class was held at the MRA offices in Southborough, administered by Richard Doyon of Beverly-based Pilgrim Hospitality, an organization that lists Hilton, Starwood, Aramark, City of Boston Inspectional Services, and Fairmont Hotels as clients. The cost for 8 hours was $225 (MRA members pay $150; attendees who take an open-enrollment class from Doyon pay $195).
In Massachusetts, all food service managers (there are 15,000 operations in the state) are required to be certified, and at least one person at every restaurant must be, says MRA CEO Bob Luz. Often the restaurant picks up the tab for the employee, but ServSafe has an alcohol component ($35) that the employees involved usually pay for (and learn things like how to spot signs of intoxication, drink strengths, handling difficult situations). Food certification is renewed every five years, alcohol every three.
Doyon tells me on the phone later that from my class of 15, almost everyone passed. His pass rate is 85 to 90 percent (MRA director of education Stacey Sawyer says the statewide pass rate is about 83 percent). On the Cape and Islands, where Doyon has been teaching in the spring for 15 years, everyone passes, he says, because they’re seasonal businesses. “If they don’t have the certificate, they don’t make any money that year.” Nothing like incentive.
His high pass rate isn’t surprising. Doyon, 66, has the ability to teach to the common denominator but keep more knowledgeable students interested. He has a teaching degree from Salem State College and a masters in hospitality administration from Johnson & Wales, where he also taught. His father was a chef and “he dragged me in,” says Doyon, who also owned restaurants. His jokes may be a little tired, but they are a welcome relief from the onslaught of numbers and acronyms. In one revolting video in which some food service men are washing their hands in a restroom, we see another server come in clutching his belly, use the facilities, glance at the men at the sinks, and leave. “That video isn’t getting any Academy Awards,” Doyon tells us afterward. “But the diarrhea guy might get a nomination.”
Surely you’ve seen the sign in a restroom that reads, “Employees must wash hands before returning to work.” You are just as likely to have seen employees ignore it. Leave that restaurant! Unclean hands are a leading cause of cross-contamination in the kitchen. Here’s how to wash hands: In a professional setting, use the hand sink rather than the dish sink. If you’re washing hands in a restroom after using the facilities, remove your apron before you enter the restroom. Wet your hands and arms with water that’s at least 110 degrees, apply soap, scrub vigorously for 10 to 15 seconds, including under fingernails and between fingers, rinse with warm water, dry with a “single-use” paper towel. “Consider using a paper towel to turn off the faucet and to open the door when leaving the restroom,” instructs the ServSafe Manager manual written by the National Restaurant Association.
We watch more videos of managers taking food temperatures at the delivery door, learn about cross-contamination, a lot on the use of gloves, when to take a sick employee away from food-handling duties or send that person home (restriction as opposed to exclusion, which can mean staying home until symptom-free for 24 hours), foodborne illnesses, and how to make sure work surfaces are not just cleaned, but sanitized.
From the outset, three women from Cambridge Common and West Side Lounge, who are sitting beside me, and others from McDonald’s, who come in uniform and sit behind me, seem already familiar with the material. Doyon, who has endless videos — some that seem to date from the invention of the medium — and dozens of slides, often does a pop quiz at the end of a segment. Some of the students and a group of burly men in the back have the numbers on the tips of their tongues.
“What’s the temperature to hold hot food?” asks Doyon. (In many kitchens, food is made in advance and held until serving.) A chorus shouts “135 degrees or above.” To confuse things, the temperature in the Massachusetts code requires 140 degrees, but we’re being tested on the national temp of 135.
“At what temperature is cold food safe?” Chorus: “41 degrees or less.”
“At what temperature do foodborne pathogens grow?” “Between 41 and 135 degrees.”
Bettina Reece, 30, assistant general manager at West Side Lounge in Cambridge, who has worked there almost seven years, was taking the course for the first time. “A lot of it was common sense,” she says, things she knew from working that “I picked up along the way.” She appreciated Doyon. “He was funny and made the course interesting. It was a diverse group of people.”
In many restaurants, posters put up beside walk-in refrigerators remind workers of the order in which you store products (the higher the cooking temperature, the lower the shelf on which it’s placed; beef, for example, goes above poultry because poultry cooks longer — in case anything drips on it from above). Next to a cooking area, a poster might give the temperatures for various cooked meats and seafood.
There’s plenty of lingo, some of which makes no sense. The PIC is the person in charge (OK, that one’s easy). PCO is the pest control operator. How about TCS, which stands for time and temperature control for safety? These are foods that need to be kept properly hot or cold, and basically the list includes everything but pantry staples. Cooked grains are in this group, cut-up produce of any sort, tofu and the family of soy protein, untreated garlic in oil. HACCP (pronounced “hassip”) is Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point, and it’s the system in which managers identify the critical areas around potential hazards. Here’s another: FAT TOM, which stands for Food (the TCS list), Acidity, Temperature, Time, Oxygen, and Moisture, all the things bacteria need to thrive. And a favorite I already knew: FIFO, or First In First Out, a practice I try to adhere to in my own kitchen.
There was so much alphabet soup and so many numbers to memorize that I was mumbling the walk-in order and food temps to myself for days before the test. I even made flash cards that sat on my kitchen counter so I could glance at them while I cooked. (How pathetic!)
But now I know everything. And I haven’t poisoned anyone in weeks.
Use a thermometer to test the temperature of cooked foods. In most cases, the temperature must hold for 15 seconds.
165 degrees (for 15 seconds)
Chicken whole and ground, turkey, duck, stuffing
155 degrees (for 15 seconds)
Ground meats, seafood, and shell eggs held for serving later
145 degrees (for 15 seconds)
Fish, shellfish, steaks and chops, shell eggs served immediately
145 degrees (for 4 minutes)
Roast pork, beef, veal, lamb
Fruit, vegetables, grains, rice, pasta, legumes held for serving later