Restaurant Disasters: The Unusual Suspects

Slick floors. Heavy loads. Fast traffic. Knives, both sharp and dull. Hot ovens and cooktops. Uncool coolers and walk-ins. Line cooks with headcolds. Mayonnaise. Mussels. Mice.

These are some of the “smoking guns” we typically look to when there’s an accident or a health violation in our–or, rather, someone’s–restaurant.

But let’s leave those be for a moment and take a look around your foodservice kitchen–okay, other people’s kitchens. Another gang of offenders is hiding in plain sight, putting your business at possibly greater risk if you don’t see them coming. And why would you? They keep a low profile, these kitchen saboteurs. They try to blend in.

Trying to Act Natural: The Cutting Board

Charges Pending: Contamination of food, equipment

Handsome, right? Clean cut! And solid? Don’t be fooled. A cutting board, whether made of wood or plastic (or hard rubber, which, because it can nick deeply, we don’t recommend) is only as safe as its surface.

Wood can harbor more live bacteria, which are easily washed off an unmarred acrylic board. Acrylic boards will blunt the edges of knives and make for a less smooth cutting surface than wood. Once scarred, wood boards can be more thoroughly sanitized than plastic boards, which knives can microscopically fracture on incision. But where plastic can go through the dishwasher, wood won’t.

For these reasons you need both, and often at the same time: one to use for food that is unsafe to eat raw and/or your good knives, and the other for … the other. For the plastic, a set of color-coded boards (lately including purple for known allergens) will further help you avoid cross contamination.

Resurface or discard cutting boards as they become scratched or splintered. And trust no one.

Hands Up: The Ice Scoop

Charges Pending: Contamination of food, equipment

Sometimes it’s all we can do to keep from grabbing this guy by the handle, looking him in the eyes, and reminding him one more time what his mama never taught him: ice is a food.

Every time someone else grabs his handle, sticks him into the ice, shovels it out, then throws him back in, they’re adding whatever’s on their hands to the ice in the bin for the next person to scoop up and consume. They’re also picking up from Scoopy’s handle whatever the previous handler left.

If the bin’s dirty, say with the biofilm, or slime, notoriously produced when machines take on airborne yeast and bacteria in restaurant kitchens, the disgusting calorie count of its ice goes up. And the chilling effect continues! When someone gets sick from ice, they rarely suspect it, much less report it. Some innocent piece of cheese takes the rap for their bug and no one’s the wiser.

Keep the ice scoop–and your hands–high, dry, and outside the bin. Install a holder.

Wash hands before scooping. And avoid eye contact.

Busted:The Thermometer

Charges Pending: Holding food at improper temperatures; Inadequate cooking

This one would break your heart. Thermometer sits on the shelf for years. Gets tired of never being used and just … lets itself go. Next thing you know, we’re hauling it out of the walk-in swinging on a pencil with a spring hanging out mumbling something about the third degree while the health inspector peels the back off one of those big red violation stickers.

A project documenting restaurant food handling practices for The Centers for Disease Control recently interviewed 486 restaurant workers in nine states and concluded: “Many food workers said they engaged in risky food preparation (food prep) practices.” And, “younger, less-experienced workers more often reported risky food prep practices.” Just over half of the workers surveyed reported using a thermometer to check that the temperature of cooked food was high enough to kill any germs.


To be used, a thermometer must be calibrated first: not rocket science, but not the kind of chore a risk-happy punk is going to take on without clear marching orders, either. And to be calibrated, it has to be, well, located. Health inspection data shows restaurant after restaurant out of compliance because they simply don’t bother owning thermometers or placing them somewhere they can stay clean, accessible, and functional.

Managers, get a thermometer. Tune it up. Use it. Don’t poison me. A little respect for life, please!

Fingerprinted: The Oven Glove

Charges pending: Contamination, burn risk

Tough guy, huh? Might’ve gotten too big for his quilted stitches.

Juggles a few hundred stockpots and frybaskets, starts thinking he’s Teflon, too. Can’t find the right tool for the job, decides to lever those hotel pans full of boiling queso out of the steam table all by himself regardless. Then dips the fabric thumb in Sterno. Days later, panko breading. More queso, Sterno, panko, who knows what, now he’s a toxic thumb grenade, dabbing toxins everywhere like Typhoid Larry and ready to go up in flames next trip to the salamander.

Scallops and neoprene are diving’s greatest gifts to the restaurant world. Until one of us invents a sweet little handgrab for the scorching metal pans in buffet templates, everyone needs to suck it in and don a neoprene mitt or two.

It’s called discipline.

Still at Large: The Beard

Charges Pending: Effective hair restraint not worn in food prep area

He’s a suspect, all right, but in this country, you’re innocent until proven guilty, and making the charges stick against the beard is going to take more than maple syrup.

When hipsters started bearding up, restaurant management and customers alike seemed so charmed that they didn’t give hygiene a thought. But times have changed. “Statement beards” have spread beyond major metropolitan areas and are no longer strictly a fashion phenom. According to a Simmons National Consumer study, 17 percent of all men and 35 percent of men 18 to 24 have facial hair, up from 14 percent and 31 percent, respectively, in 2009. The volume of health-code violations citing beards has picked up accordingly, yet we estimate it still to be well below one percent of all reported violations in the US.

After last month, when the nation collectively gagged on reading some nonscientifically based findings of what-all non-beard matter some beards might contain, those violations may spike again. Even if they don’t, the public will be thinking, sharing, and arguing about bad thoughts about beards in restaurants.

We back the foodservice operator who requires a beard cover, net, guard, weasel, what-have-you for any facial hair growth long enough to be shoulder-length if it were head hair, because it could get tangled up in a hand blender. We also back any foodservice operator who requires a beard cover, net, guard, weasel, what-have-you for any reason, because 1. that foodservice operator is the boss of the bearded employee and 2. wearing a hair restraint in a kitchen has no downside.

Requiring one, however, could be a dealbreaker for that talented young culinarian you’re thinking of hiring as a cook. Let’s say you yourself are that bearded lad: would you take a kitchen job that made you strap one on?


“See anything you like?” Chef Revival Hair Net

Go ahead, speak up! You’re innocent until proven guilty around here, too.

Elaine Evans
Elaine Evans Elaine Evans is thrilled to blog for KaTom, where her work in restaurants, bars, catering, and artisanal food has caught up at last with her career in journalism and public relations writing.
  1. June 03, 2015 at 1:56 pm, Dennis Duffy said:

    That is some really solid and disturbing info.