Time to Lean, Time to Clean

This is a phrase every cook in America has heard, and it is a universally known rule in every professional kitchen in the country (and in some form, probably around the world too). Every head chef or sous chef has said this to some cook at some point, and its underlying meaning is that there’s no such thing as having nothing to do in a kitchen — and that if your ticket rail is clear, and all the prep work is done, clean something!

Cleanliness and sanitation are of paramount importance in a foodservice operation, for two obvious reasons: 1) you don’t want to serve dirty or unsanitary food to your guests, and (actually more importantly) 2) you don’t want the health inspector to shut you down. It’s this second reason that represents the omnipresent imminent threat to every professional kitchen: the health inspector.

A health inspector can appear at any time (at least until 5PM, M-F), and depending on the local laws, you only have so much time/warning when they do. In Chicago for example, an inspector needs to wait fifteen minutes between when they announce/identify themselves upon arrival, and when they start their inspection. On the other hand, in San Francisco, they start right away. In that city, I worked at a large, multi-level office building operation, where the managers communicated via radio, and when the health inspector arrived, someone would get on the radio and say “noodles are in the soup“. At that point, everyone went into fire drill mode and executed specific tasks pre-assigned for the event of a health inspection.

The inspector basically goes over every square inch of a food-handling area, including prep areas, hot lines, coolers, freezers, dry storage and dish pits. They are looking to ensure piping, ventilation and the actual personnel are all up to code, that temperatures are where they’re supposed to be, and that there’s no legitimate vulnerability to outside conditions, contaminants or pests. But in addition to all of that, they just want to make sure things appear clean and well-taken care of. Health scores usually work like this: you start off with 100 points. Every violation costs a certain number of points that are deducted from the 100. Most violations cost between 1-3 points, but major things can cost up to 15 — or just be immediate shut-down violations. I’ve worked places that have been docked for the loading dock door not having proper sealing hardware installed on the bottom (3 pts.), the faucets for hand-washing sinks not having hot enough water (2 pts.), not having a sink specifically designated for hand-washing (3 pts.), and once we were on track for a perfect score, were it not for one of the bussers chewing gum while on shift (3 pts.).

Certain things can get you shut down right away though. If an inspector observes more than six fruit flies, your doors get shut — and anyone who’s dealt with them knows fruit flies never come in such small quantities. It’s never been a problem anywhere I’ve worked, so I don’t really know the consequences, but cross-contamination issues (particularly involving raw chicken or ground beef) are seriously egregious.

The takeaway from all of this, is that chefs are maniacal about keeping their kitchen(s) as clean as possible. And with how thin profit margins are in foodservice, chefs hate the idea of paying a cook to just stand around not doing anything. As most professional kitchens don’t have cleaning services, their cooks double as janitors (and countless other things too). If you’ve finished your prep work early, you might be asked to do a somewhat major task, like cleaning the shelves in the walk-in, scrubbing the walls in dry storage, or removing and cleaning the hood vent covers. But sometimes you’ll be in the middle of service, and you can’t step off the line, but you won’t have anything to do. That’s when it’s time for you to clean the edges of your cold-well pans, sweep the floor around your station, or change out your utensil bucket water. Whatever the situation, there’s always something to be cleaned.

The idea that there’s no such thing as stagnancy in a kitchen becomes so ingrained in a veteran cook, that the idea of inaction at work makes us irritated. At my first restaurant job, I learned that saying “I’m bored” or “I don’t have anything to do” with a manager in ear-shot is a super bad idea. My reward in that lesson was to tie a towel around a broom head, and go around all four of the dining rooms with 15-foot ceilings, dusting the particularly high walls above normal arm’s reach. Hearing about or seeing others being inactive at their places of work never makes sense to an experienced cook.

At other restaurants, if you’re going through a particularly slow stretch, where in the days previous, every major cleaning task has already been executed and your station is spotless (this is a frequent situation between New Years and the start of Spring), you might just get sent home. This is not a punishment — it’s actually generally thought of as a reward, typically given to senior cooks who get paid one of the higher hourly rates (if you’re salaried in a kitchen, you’re the last one to leave because you practically live at work). But the point is, you’re never stagnant or without work in a kitchen.

Cleaning is also just part of being a cook, for several reasons. First of all, cooking just makes things dirty. From the pots and pans used to cook and the plates the food goes on, to inevitable grease splatters accumulating on the backsplash; salt that slips through your fingers between mise dish and the pan, onto the floor or your countertop; spills, drops and splatters, on some scale are all inevitable for even the most precise cook. I know because I’m probably the most tight and tidy of any cook I’ve ever worked with and my home kitchen still needs periodic cleaning of the surfaces, floors, sink and refrigerator.

Cooking just leaves a wake of things that need to be cleaned. Ergo, you don’t get to cook until you prove you can clean up after yourself (because no one is cleaning up after you, unless you’re the Chef). This is why it’s so common that cooks and chefs start out as dishwashers: you need to prove you can clean before you’re allowed to do things that create mess.

You’re unlikely to ever meet a cook who sucks at cleaning. Likewise, the state of cleanliness in a given kitchen is almost always a direct reflection of the quality of food that kitchen produces. Clean station = clean food. Clean food = happy food. So, time to lean, time to clean!

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