“Actually, I’m pretty nervous. The last test I took, that actually counted for anything, was for my driver’s license,” I commented to Jock. He just returned from Africa; I was trying to catch him up on the news. While he was away, Allison and I started our ServSafe class, and I was trying to remember how to study for the exam.
The ServSafe Food Safety Manager Training Program is one of the requirements the New Hanover County Health Department outlined for us to move forward with the bed and breakfast.
“Does it matter which one of us takes the class?” I asked at the time.
ServSafe, offered by the National Restaurant Association, is designed to teach safe food-handling methods. Industry professionals who take this course include school cafeteria workers, restaurant managers, food-and-beverage managers, chefs, and small bed and breakfasts who want to make three-course gourmet breakfasts for less than eight people. Think about it: A school cafeteria can make over a thousand meals in a day. A buffet like Golden Corral can serve thousands of pounds of food. Country clubs host everything from a normal dinner service to wedding parties. Essentially, this course has to cover a lot of possibilities.
ServSafe is offered at many locations. We elected to take it at Cape Fear Community College. On the first evening, we were given a practice test to see what we needed to focus on and review in the course.
There were 70 questions.
I got 32 wrong.
“Was it that hard?” Jock asked.
“Well, probably not if you have experience in a commercial kitchen,” I reasoned. “Aside from the requisite stint as a barista, I’ve never done food service.”
“Though, I have a lot more admiration and respect for the people who do this for a living. Wow.”
Clearly, there is a lot to learn about food handling.
As the class progressed, I was overwhelmed by information. Between our instructor (who made everything seem possible) and another classmate (who runs a kitchen at a nonprofit and has worked in the industry almost as long as I have been legal to drive), we were given a wealth of information, advice and experience. Most questions I missed on the initial practice test had to do with temperature: temperatures for storage of different foods; preparation of foods; temperature when receiving deliveries, etc.
How long can food be on a hot bar and at what temp?
What about a cold bar?
Well, I’ve eaten at a buffet—but that contains the sum total of my knowledge and experience of such matters.
“Swim, walk, fly,” our classmate pointed out when we were discussing the order for storing food in a cooler: seafood on top, poultry on the bottom. He and our instructor also recommended color-coded cutting boards and tools (i.e., all green things go with vegetables) to make it simpler to keep prep surfaces separate.
For the next few nights our instructor walked us through the labyrinth of food deliveries, storage, preparation, and serving. All of it was far more complicated than I ever imagined. With each night, my admiration for her deepened, and my panic about the test increased.
The National Restaurant Association is a trade association and lobbying force for the restaurant industry. They date their founding to 1919. Former presidential candidate Herman Cain (Godfather’s Pizza fame) was their president from 1996-1999. Though, make no mistake, they are not lobbying for waitstaff and kitchen staff. They are lobbying for owners’ interests: keeping minimum wage for tipped employees at $2.13 an hour and not offering paid sick leave. The latter is particularly interesting because a lot of what we covered in ServSafe involved scenarios that would require sending employees home due to illness and/or contagion. But so many people I know who work in kitchens or as waitstaff can’t afford to miss a day of work. Yet, the public needs to trust the people involved in food preparation and service. It seems like a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. If someone shows up for work sick, they will be sent home or risk making other people sick. But if they don’t show up for work, they might not afford to have a home.
Somehow there seems to be a disconnect. Since the National Restaurant Association lobbies both Republicans and Democrats, I don’t think anything is going to change to benefit people barely making minimum wage who can’t afford campaign contributions.
But I digress. It is a delaying tactic under stress.
I was facing a real exam I might fail, which would seriously hinder progress on a major investment and goal. It has been almost two decades since I left college (when did that happen?). I tried desperately to dredge up study skills, such as word associations to memorize charts: the water in a dishwasher with a conveyor belt—where everything stays flat—has to be 180 degrees, just like a flat, straight line. Hot food has a four-hour window—four, like 4-H and “H” is for “hot,” etc.
I was trying to write a song parody about time and measurements for sanitizer products on the day of the test. “Sweet Chlorine” to the tune of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” It presented an additional problem of having writer’s block and sanction/rhyming issues while trying to memorize numbers.
“You realize these are not the problems other people have, right?” Jock asked.
“It could be a big hit on the Waffle House jukebox,” I reasoned.
Jock rolled his eyes and went back to grouting tile.
I wish I finished the song because, though I remembered the time for sanitizing with chlorine, I couldn’t remember the time for QUATS and just guessed on the test. I also just guessed about delivery and receiving temperature for eggs in the shell. All in all, there are 10 questions I marked to go back and look at again. After the third pass it seemed like there wasn’t much hope of instant enlightenment and best to go with answers I had.
In about two weeks, we should find out if we passed or not. Until then, I am on pins and needles with worry and anxiety (my natural default). Having been through the course, I can understand why the Health Department wanted us to take it. Rather than having to start at square one, and explain each step of kitchen set-up when they arrive for our first inspection, this certainly gives us a tremendous amount of information to begin the process and ask better questions. Everyone I have talked with at the Health Department has been very helpful—they have also been extremely busy and overworked. Clearly, no one has the time to come spend a week teaching us how to set up the breakfast side of our operation.
It was an eye-opening experience and I learned a lot—though most of it came from our instructor and our classmate sharing knowledge about how to make things run more efficiently. That really is what we needed the most: shared accumulated wisdom.