Lessons 22-38: Food Safety Nightmares

Three years ago, I crammed for the New York Food Handler’s Certificate.

The potential illnesses in particular left a lasting impression on me — how was I ever going to eat again? For months, I only ate home-cooked meals — overcooked, dry chicken, salads so over-washed that they were broken and wilted and many, many bowls of cereal. It took a long time to start eating out again. Even 3 years later, I stare down the cashier to see if he handles my food with the same dirty hands he uses to take my cash, I go through a box of disposable gloves over two days and tie my hair in a bun so tight that I have a headache when I let it loose. I try not to think about all of the diseases I can get from my food.

Yes, I will always send back a pink chicken, but I still love my eggs sunny side up. If I think about it too much, I can’t finish my meals. For the past few weeks, I have been reintroduced to the world of unsanitary conditions and foodborne illnesses via preparing for the ServSafe exam. Yesterday, my alarm went off in the middle of a nightmare. I had been dreaming about catching mice when I heard something tapping. When I looked over, I saw a pink lobster jumping across the floor. Then my alarm went off and I was scared awake. It was only an hour later, when we started covering rodent infestation in class, that I realized I had a dream about a mice infestation and an unsafe runaway lobster.

Although we've finished reviewing all of the chapters and ServSafe videos, I expect that for the next few weeks I will continue to have dreams about jumping pink lobsters. Last week, Simon got food poisoning from something we ate, but I didn’t. I think it may have been because the ServSafe training caused me to avoid eating some of the foods he did. ServSafe spared me from a day or two of feeling very ill and it was totally worth having strange nightmares. Fortunately, the past few weeks haven’t been only about Servsafe.

We have also had a few guest lecturers to help ease the food pains. We had a marketing and communications presentation by Rachel Begun, MS, RD from Nutrition Communications. She discussed branding and went into depth about using social media. Social media is an interesting platform because it is so easy to set up and allows for direct communication between the company and its consumers. Then we met with Lori Greene who runs the digital media for BBC America. She came in and did a presentation on going digital. She talked about why we should have an online presence and what makes for compelling content, and also prepared us for some of the challenges we will face such as constantly updating our site, saying the right thing, and opening ourselves to criticism.

The next day, Paul Bolles-Beaven, the Senior Managing Partner of Operations at the Union Square Hospitality Group, came in and spoke about his experience. He said something that I have heard constantly from many different people — you can’t train someone to have a good personality, so hire people who have a good personality and teach them everything else. Shortly after his presentation, I met up with a chef who had worked at Tabla and mentioned that we had a speaker in class.

Before I even had an opportunity to say his name, the chef immediately knew who I was talking about. We further discussed the environment of enlightened hospitality and our desires to bring such practices into our own workplace. Lastly, we were visited by Ronald Harrar. He shared a very candid view of being a Starbucks barista, going to school with Steve Zagor, developing a business in South America, and working with a broker, graphic designers, architects, and more to open a NY location for his bakery, which eventually became Tisserie.

He told the story of how much money it took to open his place, the confusion involved, and the disasters that occurred while open. Ronald has a great story to tell about dealing with everything that could go wrong and turning Tisserie into a successful wholesale bakery. The great thing about the guest lectures is that we are getting many different perspectives on culinary management from people who have found much success and have also experienced much failure. Their stories teach us how to avoid making their same mistakes and to enjoy the benefits of what has taken them years to learn. This alone is worth being in class every day.

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