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Al Patino stands in front of a class of eight shelter employees and does a little hip-shaking dance. He’s explaining that when a fly lands, it barfs and “defecates at the same time” before flying off. He points to each pertinent body part and then floats his arms into the air. “And they live on poo poo,” he elaborates.
“Ugh!” the students cry amid chuckles.
“You laugh, but it is serious,” Patino deadpans.
That’s a phrase Patino, owner of Alexandria’s Food Safety and Salud, has repeated many times throughout the daylong food-manager-certification course he’s teaching at Carpenter’s Shelter in Alexandria. Humor is one way to grab the attention of a group of people who’ve gathered bleary-eyed at 8 a.m. to learn about sterilizing solution and “danger zone” temperatures. But Patino is also dead serious about food safety, and when jokes fail, he brings on the gravity.
“My own mother died of E. coli,” he explains to the class. She was exposed to the bacteria three years ago while in a hospital in Patino’s native Colombia; she died within days. Amid gasps and clucks, Patino describes the horror of watching his mother undergo kidney failure, her body filling with fluid. “I have to talk about it every day,” he says. “The same bacteria that killed my own mother.”
During his 14 years as a food-safety instructor, Patino has learned to keep his clients not only awake but also engaged. After all, food workers don’t take his class for their own enrichment, as they would, say, a course on feng shui or scrapbooking. Food-service establishments in Virginia, Maryland, and the District are required to have a certified professional food manager—“a person in charge,” as nearly all literature refers to the position—who makes sure food is handled in accordance with each jurisdiction’s code. In 2003, D.C. went one step further: A food manager is now required to be on the premises, with appropriate ID, at all times during an establishment’s hours of operation; failure to comply results in immediate closure and a possible $500 fine. This employee will have passed a test covering everything from cross-contamination to holding temperatures to pest control.
Despite the mass of regulations, Patino, who spent 23 years as an executive chef for the Sheraton Corporation, acknowledges that kitchens are often harried, anything-goes environments that don’t exactly embrace the sorts of precautions outlined in municipal regulations. Who’s going to go through countless glove changes when the ticket comes in from that 10-top? Who’s going to check every temperature when there’s one line cook handling multiple orders?
Probably not the head of the kitchen. Chefs, says Patino, are so pressed for time that they sometimes “sneeze in the rags that they keep on their shoulder.”
“Hay fever—forget it,” he adds. “Mucus is flowing.…By the time you get the salad [done], it comes with its own dressing.”
The food inspector alighted on the Blimpie at 1101 14th St. NW at an inconvenient time for owner Dan Kim. His mother was unexpectedly hospitalized in Florida, and he flew down to be with her. The only other certified food manager had just quit on him, and a city sanitarian dropped by while Kim was away and found no certified food manager on duty. The establishment was closed until Kim returned and could present his ID to the health department.
“I tried to explain to [the inspector], and he didn’t understand,” says Kim.
Restaurants have had a long and sometimes quarrelsome history with sanitarians, especially on the matter of certified food managers. Ronnie Taylor, a supervisory sanitarian for the D.C. health department, claims that “it’s very rare” for an inspector to not find a food manager on site, but the Washington City Paper’s regular feature Pleading the Filth seems to indicate otherwise. Of the 34 establishments profiled in the past nine months, 25 have been closed for not having a certified food manager on duty.
According to Taylor, sanitarians use “a common-sense approach,” allowing a food manager’s brief absence—say, to run a 10-minute errand—to slide as long as no other gross infractions are found. “We are trying to be public-friendly,” he says, though he is quick to point out that this friendliness isn’t policy. “The letter of the law says they are supposed to be there, period.”
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Because it is nearly impossible for one employee to be on the premises at all times, why not just get all employees certified, as the Carpenter’s Shelter does? Classes are relatively inexpensive—Patino’s costs $160, which includes a course manual, the $70 exam fee, and a thermometer.
But for small businesses where turnover is high and employees are flaky, certification costs can add up. Georgetown’s Griffin Market was recently caught without a food manager on duty after a certified worker quit without notice. The only other certified food manager, owner Paul Patel, was out picking up produce when a sanitarian dropped by. “If you have to get some, like, wholesale from the meat markets, then you have only one person to go,” says Ashish Patel, Paul’s brother, who helps out at the store. “One thing that they have to understand is that it’s a 14-hour business.” Patel points out that getting the license is a long process—it takes 21 days just to receive a test score, he says. “This type of small business cannot afford the expense” of certifying every employee, he says. “What’s the provision if a person quits on you?”
Nevertheless, all three full-time employees at Griffin are now certified. “You’ve gotta send many more people to the class to get certified,” concurs Nizam Ali, manager at Ben’s Chili Bowl, which was caught without a food manager on duty in March 2004. Eric Hirshfield, owner of 18th & U Duplex Diner, which was cited by the health department in November 2004 after the kitchen staff’s certification had expired, says these days he makes sure IDs are up-to-date. “The city is now more proactive about coming out and checking everything,” he says. And unlike in Virginia, certification renewal in D.C. isn’t as easy as trading in an old ID for a new one every three years; a District food manager has to retake the exam every time his card is renewed.
Such hassles feed Patino’s business. His Food Safety and Salud is a classic D.C. pursuit, a niche operation that thrives off of government regulation. And the need for services such as his is reaching farther and farther outside the Beltway, as bacterial disasters abound and food codes become stricter across the country. He plans to expand into New Jersey and Delaware soon; demand was so great when he started out that his fledgling company enjoyed a ready-made client base.
“The health department in Arlington County really pushed me to open my own business,” says Patino, because of the proliferation of Spanish-speaking restaurateurs in the area. “[The name Food Safety and Salud] lets people know that I do teach the classes in English and Spanish.” He claims to have little competition on the bilingual front. A lot of businesses instead hire what Patino calls “a bandito”—a Spanish-speaker who translates the lessons. He says that can get complicated, though; instructors and students often waste too much time haggling over whether the translations are accurate.
Patino does note that he has one new rival in the Latino community: his estranged wife Danely Patino. The two worked together for five years before getting separated; two months ago, she started her own bilingual certification outfit, Global Food Safety Training. Though his wife took the company’s McDonald’s business with her, Patino maintains that her company is small and doesn’t pose a threat.
Danely, who has a background teaching biology in her native Ecuador, has no doubt that she will be able to build a solid business. She plans to visit area eateries door-to-door to drum up customers. “Believe me, I know what I am doing,” she says. “I am a strong woman.”
There could be room for both of them. The Patinos seem to grasp where the industry is headed: into Little Vietnam, Little Mexico, Little Burma. Al Patino attributes the high rate of food-borne illness partly to the proliferation of foreigner-owned ethnic eateries. He points out that 76 million people get sick from food each year in the United States (a figure backed up on the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Web site) and that it’ll get worse with “so many restaurants with so many nationalities.”
So immigrants are contaminating the food supply. Out of George Allen’s mouth, that could be the nut of a stump speech. For Patino, though, it’s a business plan. Besides giving classes in English and Spanish, he also offers the exam in Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese and makes special arrangements for those who speak none of these languages. “My English classes, they look like United Nations,” he says.
The polyglot culinary explosion also helps his classes because the States are constantly importing old-country habits, he says, such as leaving the kitchen door open and neglecting to, say, freeze fish for seven days at the required minus-4 degrees for seviche. Patino says that Peruvian people have a special problem understanding the latter regulation because fresh seviche is so prevalent in their homeland. “They say, ‘In my country, people don’t get sick,’” he says. “I say, ‘This is not Peru; this is the United States.’”
Correcting a person’s cooking methods is a sensitive business; food prep is intrinsically tied to culture, family, and artistic expression. Patino impresses upon his students that “the certified food manager is not the most well-liked” person on staff. “Especially if they promote you. If you were part of the group, and just because you were doing a great job, they sent you to these classes. And then now you are the kitchen manager—forget it. People resent that, you know?”
Here’s how a chef might prepare a steak in a food-code propaganda flick: He pulls it from the 41-degree-or-below cold-holding area, where it’s been sitting, covered, never to be touched by unwashed human skin—until the consumer starts stuffing his piehole, that is. The chef places the cut in a hot pan with his washed, gloved hand, inserts a sterilized thermometer calibrated that day, and determines the meat has reached at least 130 degrees at its center. Then, hands rewashed and re-gloved, he plates it and passes it to a server who takes care to touch only the bottom of the plate.
And here’s how a chef might actually prepare a steak: He grabs it from that same fridge with decently clean hands (maybe there is a spot of something under his fingernails), tosses it into the pan, seasons it with his fingers, flips it after an internally clocked amount of time, pokes it quickly, and determines the meat is done. He then plates it and passes it on to a server whose finger maybe brushes up against the edge of the meat. The server probably washed his hands the last time he took a leak but maybe not the last time he scratched his nose.
“The truth of cooking, whether you’re eating at someone’s home or in a restaurant, is that people are putting their hands in your food,” says Barry Koslow, chef de cuisine at Georgetown’s Mendocino Grille & Wine Bar.
A lot of different hands assemble the eats at Carpenter’s. The attendees admit that, because the bulk of the food is prepared by volunteers before it even enters the shelter, a lot of the class’s talking points are more useful on a personal level. “I am so known to take out frozen chicken, put it on the counter, and come back to it,” says case manager Katrina Tabb, who’s worked at the shelter about a year. “I didn’t know that was bad.” Patino has had a lot of success correcting such long-held notions; he claims his students have a 98 percent passing rate.
Ever-tightening sanitary regulations and increasing numbers of students hearing the gospel on food handling—that’s got to be good news for the average District diner, right?
Tough to say. The D.C. health department has no published data charting the number of reported food-borne illnesses since 2003. On a national level, a CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report dated April 2005 shows that food-borne illness caused by campylobacter, E. coli, listeria, and salmonella remained relatively steady between 2003 and 2004.
And the bureaucrats behind the ever-evolving food code are slow to broker tests of the regulations’ effectiveness, says food chemist Peter Snyder, president of the Hospitality Institute of Technology & Management, a Minnesota consulting firm that works with hotels and restaurants across the country. “Sending people to school and having them take a test doesn’t do any good. Because an inspector can’t come in and say, ‘You answered this question [correctly] on the test—why aren’t you doing it?’”
Because cooking a steak the food-code way doesn’t exactly blend seamlessly into a kitchen’s choreography. A cook turns out maybe 100 steaks in a night, along with birds and lamb, mussels and pork. And he does it in the middle of a hot, oil-splattered chaos where time is always short.
According to Snyder, the rules prove clunky in the kitchen because they are, at best, complicated and, at worst, arbitrary. “The food code is a bunch of nice ideas, but is it based on science? No.” For instance, “cross-contamination is as bad, if not worse, when you’ve got gloves on,” he says, asserting that gloves make no difference when hands aren’t properly washed. “We haven’t really reduced the fecal-oral problem with gloves, as I can figure.”
The manual provided for Patino’s class is thick with regulations, but according to Snyder, the important ones can be boiled down to diligent post-potty washing and using the right thermometer. “I can get this stuff down to one page—all they really need to know,” he says. The FDA wants them “to know that salmonella comes out of a chicken—so what? You have to kill the stuff.”
And Snyder says that the regs need to specifically target those killing the stuff. “The FDA refuses to talk about the cook,” he says, complaining that often the person certified either isn’t in the kitchen or isn’t in the position to correct the chef, let alone stick a metal prong into his duck breast.
At downtown New American haunt Corduroy, Executive Chef Tom Power is almost certified. He took the classes and passed the exam but hasn’t obtained the necessary ID. “They told me not to lose my score,” says Power. “I lost my score.” Still, he doesn’t worry about the badge-totin’ authority of his certified general manager, morning sous chef, and morning garde-manger. “I know what I’m doing,” he says. When it comes to checking meat’s doneness, “I go by feel.” The only thermometers inspectors seem to care about, says Power, are the ones in the refrigerators.
21 P’s general manager, Dale Dykhuizen, says he’s worked under “one of the strictest” food codes around, in Suffolk County, N.Y. Even he scoffs at the idea of using a thermometer to cook meat. “Thermometers cause cross-contamination,” he says. “It is unrealistic to expect a grill cook to clean it between each time.” He also echoes Snyder’s assertion about the uselessness of gloves to prevent cross-contamination.
Most of the smaller cuts of meat at Mendocino are gauged by timers, but chef de cuisine Koslow claims that most of the cooks have been making steaks for so long that “they just know” when meat is finished. Poking is reserved for larger pieces such as rack of lamb.
Koslow maintains that any kitchen worth its salt would have its own stringent standards, but he admits that “every kitchen is fearful of a health inspector, just because of the power they have.”
But it’s kind of like the power of a pebble in a shoe. “It’s actually really hard to shut down a restaurant permanently,” says Snyder. “The media has a lot more power than an inspector does.”
Patino knows that he can’t force his pupils to practice what they’ve learned in his class, so as a scare tactic, he invokes high-profile cases such as the hep-A outbreak at the now permanently shuttered Chi Chi’s, E. coli at Jack in the Box, and, of course, the recent spinach debacle. “One time, you kill someone, you send someone to the hospital, there goes your good reputation,” Patino tells them. CP