If you don’t like cleaning then don’t become a chef. If you don’t like paperwork then don’t become a chef. And if you don’t like being scrutinised by a complete stranger who has the ability to close you down without notice, whose job it is to find fault with what you do, who will seek out any minor infraction and infringement of their Code and make you question yourself, your standards and the very nature of your extreme hard work, then definitely don’t become a chef.
There isn’t a chef alive who doesn’t feel a sickness in the pit of the belly when the health inspector comes calling. No matter how clean your kitchen, how fresh your food or how faultless your working practices, the man in the white coat will cause you to doubt yourself and everything you hold dear.
My kitchen is clean, admittedly not operating theatre clean, but it isn’t far off. Plus I am plating up freshly cooked food on the pass, not performing open-heart surgery. I have the highest possible hygiene rating and I display it with the same pride I do my other awards. But an unannounced visit from the health inspector will create doubt and terror, bring every possible infraction into the sharpest of focus and send dozens of questions racing through my mind: did my commis chef stick a date label on the terrine we made this morning? How long was that fridge door open while we were setting up for lunch service? And how is there so much onion skin on the floor when we swept only a few minutes ago?
My food is fresh. I don’t believe in ‘cook and hold’ and the few items that get reheated (after being chilled as quickly as possible, of course) are probed diligently before they go out. I know my numbers and crucial temperature points. Oh, and I also have two large windows that look directly into the kitchen from the dining room so every customer can see into the room where their food is prepped. So the food from my kitchen is not just good, it’s also safe.
But proving this is another matter, at least in the eyes of the enforcers. Will I ensure that the confit of pork belly hits 72 degrees (and rising) before it goes out? Of course. Every time. But will I break off in the middle of Saturday night service – when my maître d’ is getting tetchy about table six’s entrees and I need to find out precisely where four tables are up to on their tasting menus – to jot it down in a diary so I have something to show the health inspector when he comes knocking? No.
Will I check my fridge temps, sanitise the oven door handle and spend two hours every Sunday scrubbing the extraction filters? Yes, because that is what being a chef is about. But all those whose job it is to ensure that we chefs are creating food in a hygienic environment want is checklists, tick sheets and diary entries. They don’t want to see your baffle filters or your fridge seals or the handles of your lowboy, they want to see your paperwork.
So I do what every other chef I have ever met does: I fake it. Once a week or so I sit down with my crew and we spend a few minutes ticking boxes and making up numbers. Throw in a couple of outliers with evidential invoices and call-out reports from engineers (because fridges do break and I do notice and get them fixed. Immediately) and you have the greatest work of fictional non-fiction since A Million Little Pieces. Which, thankfully, is enough to keep the health agencies happy for another 12 months.