Before you can cook your menu, you have to prep the ingredients. Larger restaurants have entire crews devoted to nothing but showing up hours before everyone else to prepare food for later in the day.
The more safety sensitive points of this part of the job include…
At home, we often get impatient and throw a frozen steak in the microwave. Sure it makes the meat kind of gross looking, lukewarm and half cooked, but gosh darn it, we’re hungry now! Well, in a restaurant, you have to be a little more professional than that.
Here we introduce you, dear reader, to the concept of the “Danger Zone”, a concept we will return to more than once in the remainder of this text.
The Danger Zone is the range between 41°F and 140°F. In this range, bacteria, such as salmonella and E. coli, will thrive and multiply, increasing the odds of your loyal customer contracting food borne illness and, if you’re lucky, refusing to eat at your restaurant ever again, and if you’re not so lucky, hitting you with a lawsuit.
These harmful bacteria have trouble surviving and multiplying at temperatures below 40°F, and will typically die when subjected to temperatures of 165°F or hotter, and have trouble multiplying at temperatures of 140°F.
Therefore, rather than, say, leaving a pound of frozen hamburger out on the counter, food should always be thawed by means of an ice bath- Fill a bucket, tub or sink with ice and cold water, and submerge the item-to-be-thawed in the water. It’s slower, but it’s safer, and better preserves the taste of the food.
In other words, you never want your meat, poultry or chicken to be lukewarm.
Cutting, cleaning and portioning food
You’ve probably seen advertised those weird citrus based food cleaners that come in spray bottles. They’re not exactly necessary…
What is necessary, however, is the cleansing of all vegetables and fruit, whether or not the package boasts of these items coming “pre-washed”. Sure, maybe your lettuce is pre-washed, but it just spent a couple days packed in the back of a truck driving hundreds of miles of freeway.
Use cold water, gloved hands and clean surfaces to wash and prepare all fruit and vegetables. Essentially, you get, say, a stalk of celery or a piece of broccoli, run it under the tap, and use your hands to rub away any dirt, grime or other questionable spots.
When cutting fruit and vegetables, just make sure that your cutting tools and surfaces are spotlessly clean, keeping a sanitary hand towel handy to wipe down whatever needs to be wiped down.
The same goes for cutting and portioning all meats, fish and poultry (though of course, you can safely skip the washing process).
Just because a pre-cooked item will be re-heated later on in the day does not mean that you can do a skimpy job of it in the morning.
Refer to chapter 6 for the full process of properly cooking foods, but essentially- Hot food must always be cooked out of the danger zone to at least an internal temperature of 165°F, whether or not it’s going to be cooked again later in the day.
Food that is to be refrigerated and reheated before serving should be left aside for a moment until it cools down to just above room temperature before placing it in the fridge or freezer. This preserves the flavor and texture prevents people from reaching into the fridge with their bare hands expecting a burning hot plate to be cold.
Food that is to be kept warm throughout the day, such as soups and sauces, must be consistently kept at or above one hundred forty degrees.
Alternately, all pre-prepared items that are to be served cold, such as deserts, must be likewise kept out of the Danger Zone, below forty degrees Fahrenheit. Essentially, the same rules apply to pre-cooking as they do to cooking before serving.
Mark the Dates
Oftentimes, the prep crew will prepare food on Monday for use throughout the week. In such cases, you’ll want to mark the day the food was prepared somewhere on the container. M for Monday, T for Tuesday, etcetera, either with a marker or a sticker. This will allow the crew to know when the food was prepared and how long they can expect it to remain edible.
And of course, for this to pay off, you’ll need everyone who handles the food to know how long the food should be expected to keep. In fact, this is part of the prep crew’s job in the first place- In the morning, they will be tasked with the disposal of any food that is past its prime or nearing expiration.
Being Ready for the Working Day
The prep crew can essentially be compared to the pit crew of a racing team. You need a qualified and efficient prep crew in order to make sure that you can keep the cooks working at their best, turning out orders fast enough to feed the hungry customers without having anyone coming up to the counter in a huff demanding to know where their food is.
And… like a racing team pit crew, the prep crew should be provided with all of the right tools and training in order to do their job well. This will allow them to keep the cooks preparing food that is not only delicious, but healthy and hygienic.