I spent the first part of my career in the restaurant/bar/catering industry. I have a clear 35,000 foot view of what goes on in kitchens. I am like the spy satellite circling the globe that can look down and read the fine print in any kitchen, anywhere. I know that what happens in a kitchen can be frightening, it can be disgusting and it can be downright deadly. No joke, kitchens can be murder.
As a meeting and event planner, you generally don’t have the ability to go and inspect the kitchen during a site visit or even more importantly in the hours before your group sits down to eat. You do not have the luxury of designing your temporary facilities at your outdoor event. You are relying on the company you hire or the property you book.
There are reasons why you do not have the chance to inspect the kitchen or facilities before your event. The reason is typically insurance companies. Insurance companies take a dim view of non-employees hanging out around sharp things that could stab them, hot things that can scald them or microbial things that could infect them. These are reasonable I guess. Sometimes though, it is because the kitchen is a disgusting mess and the management does not want you poking around.
Where you will find a bad kitchen might surprise you. Back in the day I worked in a number of bars and nightclubs, supporting myself through college. These are the places where you would think that you would find a “bad kitchen”. I remember one place I worked, that for lack of a better term, was a crap-hole. Dive bar, dive crowd and dive drinks, but one of the cleanest kitchens I have ever had the opportunity to work around. You could have eaten off the floor and the owner kept it this way 24/7. He followed every rule in the book and stuck to them. I ate there every day knowing that the food being served was better than in my own kitchen. The owner of this joint ran a dive bar because he liked dive bars, not because he was a schmuck.
What is shocking is that the places where you sometimes find the worst kitchens are the places you would least expect it. The three star hotel, the four star restaurant. Reviewers review the food, they rarely get the opportunity to walk through the kitchen. Smoke and mirrors, smoke and mirrors. What you see on the outside may not be what is on the inside.
Because you cannot judge the food by the cover, we as meeting and event professionals must take matters into our own hands. It is up to us to be the food police, the watchdog and the bouncer of our buffets and served food.
How do we do this? The first step is to get educated. You don’t need a food service sanitation certificate (although, it is not a bad idea), you can get by on a little common sense and a lot of reading. Meeting and event planners are smart and can educate themselves. You need to know the proper serving temperatures of your food, you have to know what to look for when the food is served, you have to know when it is acceptable to use wooden utensils and when it must be stainless steel. How do you serve this dish or that dish. You need to know, you need to know more. You need this education. Yes, I understand that we are all very busy, but this is a matter of life and death…. For real. You do not want to be the event that ends up on Dateline NBC. Ending up on Dateline NBC or 60 Minutes is a very freaking bad career move.
To start, here are a couple of sites to get educated:
Food Safety Guidelines for Events (pdf file)
Temporary Event Food Safety Guidelines (pdf file)
These sites are not the be all and end all, they are merely a primer. Once you have the primer, it is up to you to get yourself schooled.
Please know, you can have a little fun with this. You really can. You, yes you, need to go to your local restaurant supply store and get a set of food thermometers. If your company won’t pay for them, buy them yourself, they are cheap. Now you need to practice, this is the fun part.
Whip those babies out at your friends BBQ or your in-laws Sunday brunch. Everyone will sit there with their mouths hanging open…. Just tell them you need the practice. You need to practice because at your next event, you want to look like you know what you are doing, not like some dumb-ass that is sticking a metal poker in everyone’s food. You must inspire confidence in your attendees and fear in the food service department. They see you checking and they will follow proper procedure.
Beyond this, you have to know the generalities of food service. What is the proper way to serve food. Does that need to be iced? Does that need to be refrigerated until service? Why has that pan been sitting off to the side for 30 minutes and is just now going where it needs to be. I know you can’t be there every minute, so make every minute count. Keep everyone on their toes. If they see you coming, they should be expecting you to inspect what they are holding. Sometimes it pays to be intimidating. A little old lady with a cane and a thermometer can be intimidating to a 6’5” food service professional.
These are things you need to know, these are ideas that must be going through your mind, and these are things that need to be second nature. Let me tell you, as an attendee, I have NO problem watching a responsible person walking through a buffet line testing temperatures. It tells me that someone cares about me, my safety and my health. Someone is looking out for me.