Mr. Trainor

Food & Beverage

Hotel Food & Beverage: Keeping It Clean

By Robert Trainor, Exec Chef, Hilton

Recent issues of trade journals have explored the fresh importance being placed on strong sanitation practices. From outbreaks of Norwalk virus aboard cruise ships to fears over SARS as close to home as Canada, the media seems to report a new health scare almost every month. On a global level, proper sanitation can stop a number of these illnesses in their tracks. On a more everyday level, keeping a clean kitchen is just good business sense.

Throughout my career, I've been fortunate to work in establishments that practiced good sanitation. Even so, like many others in the industry, these establishments considered achieving basic standards to be doing enough in terms of cleanliness. Staff members labeled and dated items, wore a hat or hairnet and knew to wash their hands after every visit to the restroom. For most in the industry, that was the extent of sanitation practices.

Today, chefs and restaurant managers are not only more accountable for the quality of cuisine and experience presented to their guests, they are being held responsible for cultivating and maintaining a higher cleanliness ethic. This issue is so important that many operations are actually increasing their budgets to provide staff with both basic and leading-edge tools and training to achieve higher sanitation standards.

Lead by Example

As with every other point of quality and pride in any kitchen, sanitation begins with leadership by the chef and restaurant managers. The head chef has an obligation to lead by his or her example of unwavering commitment to cleanliness, and provide team members with the tools and training needed for success. Teach employees the reasons for sanitation practices - and how they affect the restaurant's financial success and customers' trust - and you will succeed in making sanitation a part of your operation's culture.

Begin with the Basics

When initially introducing employees to sanitation concepts, keep it simple. As important as it is to know about bacteria and pathogens, etc., in the beginning this information may complicate the issue and cause your employees to lose focus on what you are trying to accomplish. Once the basics are part of your kitchen's everyday culture, you can share more advanced information.

When it comes to "keeping it clean," you just can't beat the timeless combination of soap, hot water and hands. Hand washing may seem like a no-brainer, but consider a 2003 study by Wirthin Worldwide that found more than 30 percent of people using bathrooms in New York airports failed to wash their hands afterward. And while many states simply require food service workers to wash their hands after a restroom break, in your kitchens employees should be washing far more frequently. There is simply no better sanitation tool.

Disposable gloves, while a useful tool, may lull some employees into a false sense of security that one pair is good enough for an entire shift. Gloves are no "great wall" against bacteria. They should be changed frequently and hands should be washed before putting on a new pair.

Considering how important the practice of labeling and dating is, the lack of proper storage equipment has been a source of frustration for many chefs. Before you hold your staff accountable for proper storage and labeling of raw and prep foods, you need to supply them with the necessary equipment. Purchase clear plastic containers with lids (Cambro has a great, durable line in many sizes and shapes), and don't skimp on labeling materials.

Always store food items in the smallest possible container and be sure each is labeled and dated with the time the product was prepared. Keep an eye on the amount of any ingredient that is being prepped. Smaller batches can help ensure the product is fresher, and minimize the probability of the item going in the trash after a few days.

Transfer produce and any other foodstuffs from cardboard boxes into containers, and do this as soon as the product enters your kitchen. Cardboard retains moisture and is a favorite home for insects and bacteria. An added benefit to disposing of cardboard quickly - the practice speaks volumes about your commitment to being clean and organized, and you will find you can store more with less clutter.

Purchase stainless steel canisters with snug-fitting lids for soups, sauces and other liquids. Remember that plastic does tend to act as an insulator to the temperature outside the container. With stainless steel, your staff will be able to keep soups hot in a steam table and cool them more quickly in an ice bath before storing them.

Make sure each employee has and uses his or her own red "Kleen" pail to store their sanitizer solution at their workstation. This tool should be as important to them as their favorite chopping knife or saucepan.

Keep it Clean

You and your managers can never afford to be "too busy" or walk away when you witness poor sanitation. Cleanliness faux pas need to be addressed the moment you see it happening, and turned into an opportunity to train the entire staff.

Educate your staff on cross contamination. Using the same cutting boards for meats , poultry and vegetables - even if you clean them between items - is a good recipe for making your customers sick. The optimum solution is to create areas or tables that are designated for vegetable prep, meat prep, poultry prep, etc. If your operation doesn't have the space or capabilities for this technique, then a good alternative is to designate different types of cutting boards for each use and instruct the staff on the proper cleaning and sanitization between use. Change your cutting boards whenever they are permanently stained or have deep cuts in them.

For too long in our industry, it has been expected (and even viewed as a badge of honor) that employees would show up for work no matter how sick they are. Ill employees should not come back to work until they are better and/or have seen a doctor who confirms they are not contagious. Doing without an ill employee is a small inconvenience compared to the added expense and impact on your business if that employee passes on his or her illness to other team members, or even worse, to your customers. Likewise, make sure employees keep cuts and abrasions bandaged until they are properly healed.

Build a Relationship with the Board of Health

Contrary to our industry's apparently long-held common belief, the local Board of Health is not the evil empire. In addition to being important advocates for public health, they can be a great source of information for you in your continuing efforts to achieve sanitation excellence. Often, inspectors do freelance consulting work that can help you better understand local laws, leading-edge sanitation practices and tools, and hone in on issues before they become real problems.

At Hilton Short Hills, we use a consulting company that conducts regular unannounced inspections that are more stringent than any done by the state. We use the findings generated in their reports to refine sanitation practices and enhance employee training. Such a pro-active approach can save you money in terms of health violation fines, and the loss of business that can result from customers suffering a food-borne illness. Cleanliness is part of our culture, and not just something we think about when the health inspector shows up.

In the end, proper sanitation practices should be as important an aspect of your business as the quality of the food served and the experience presented to your guests.

Robert Trainor is executive chef of Hilton Short Hills. He manages all aspects of menu and meal preparation, staffing and training in the hotelís restaurants, room service and all banquets. As Executive Sous Chef at the Waldorf=Astoria, retooled the menu of Oscarís, while maintaining elements of the restaurantís tradition. Educated at Johnson & Wales University, Trainorís achievements include becoming a certified sommelier, serving as the 95th Distinguished Visiting Chef of Johnson & Wales University, and garnering numerous gold and silver medals in international culinary competitions. Mr. Trainor can be contacted at 973 912 7974 or Robert_Trainor@Hilton.com Extended Bio...

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