This is about what not to do. This is about rules, writ stark and clear; ancient rules handed down through the centuries and known to us today as – common bloody sense.
Rule number one is that food must be safe. It must be made with fresh ingredients in a clean kitchen, and by a clean cook. Spoiled food spoils meals, tummies, underpants and sometimes lives.
Unsafe food exhibits tell-tale signs. It's looks like a special effect in a sci-fi movie. It's leaking foul liquid. It stinks (some cheeses and seafood pastes are exempt from this.) It’s grown a green Afro. Y’know, stuff like that.
The next rule concerns the kitchen operator. They must be squeaky clean and while handling food, not pick their nose, pimples, new tattoo-scab or healing knife wound. They mustn’t touch their eyes, mouth or genitalia. Or anyone else's. Spray sneezing and finger picking of teeth is off the menu. Dreadlocks and pre-Raphaelite manes must be cocooned in hair-nets and hats. Hands are washed frequently; the fingernails trimmed and familiar with robust nail brushing. Pretty simple stuff huh?
However, there are cowboys and grubs out there; feculent poltroons who cheerfully prepare and cook your meal even as their unclean chopping boards and hands invisibly squirm with gut-busting germs. They care not a jot if their filthy work practises suck your stomach out through your . . . you get the drift. This sort of unconscious negligence is akin to assault and battery, and these grubby perps should be scourged and then heavily salted.
So, once a cook masters hygiene, they can move on to what constituents’ edible cooked food. It can’t be burnt or taste burnt. It’s not 'Cajun' or 'blackened' – it’s burnt. It can’t be overcooked to flip-flop toughness or perished desert-rat dryness. Vegetables must retain their zing and snap and not look and feel like zombie protozoa. Fish must moistly flake under the fork and beef and lamb should shine with a heavenly pink inner glow. At the other end of the screw-up scale, undercooking food also renders it inedible and possibly fatal. Anyone who serves up rare chicken or potatoes al dente is better off working at a reptile zoo or on a farm.
Serving dud food is a cardinal sin, a sackable or beatable offense, and those sinners on the line have only themselves to blame. Whoever says, “Food up” and puts the meal up on the pass now owns it. They can’t say later, “I thought the prawns were fine chef. So and so put them in the reach-in." Or " So and so made the sauce – they must have burnt it." OK, so-and-so is a right so-and-so for mucking up, and yes, they're going to get a right royal arse-kicking, but ultimately, it's been the cook on the line at service who has made the call.
So, an immutable rule; before service, everything must be checked. With the nose of a bloodhound and the eye of an eagle, the woke cook sniffs, peers, probes and tastes.
Don’t be the catering chef, not on my team I might add, who dusted snow sugar onto two hundred plated-up desserts. It wasn't until the desserts started coming back with just single forkfuls consumed that the chef checked what was actually in his sugar shaker. It been filled from an unlabelled jar of bi-carbonate of soda.
But sometimes it isn’t the fault of the cook who puts up a dodgy meal, as they cannot see, smell or taste the error. Like – the morning crew make up creme caramels and one of the serving dishes used contains a flake of gritty oven carbon or a deceased fly. The caramel-maker, possibly hung-over or freshly in love, doesn’t clock the offending material and it gets cooked into the custard, vanishing into the rich luscious centre. During service an order for crème caramel comes in; it gets garnished and is sent out. Then back it comes. Fly! Gritty carbon bit! Angry customer. Big shame! Of course, no-one blames the person who put it up on the pass, and the Head Chef reserves the deserved punt to the derriere for the responsible party.
The importance of checking everything, every time, applies not just to the food but to everything connected to it. A real foreign-object horror story, one of the worst I've heard, happened in a big and busy a-la-carte restaurant.
We were in the middle of an insane service with the docket-machines throwing long paper every five seconds. Everyone had grim smiles on their faces. Next thing, the Head Chef comes in from the other side of the pass looking as mad as hell. He goes up to a line cook who's running the salamanders (overhead grills), grabs him by his jacket front and pulls him out the back. Whoahh! Everyone glances at each other. This was most unusual as the Head Chef was a pretty laid-back chappie. Something really nasty must have gone down.
The Head Chef returns alone and silently takes over at the salamanders. The floor manager appears at the pass looking stressed, but is waved away. When it's quiet enough for a cold drink, the Head Chef tells us what happened. Salamander guy had put a selection of hot vegetables into a boat-shaped gratin dish, covered them with white sauce and cheese, and then popped it under the salamander to go a nice golden-brown. Very busy, he’s constantly grabbing gratin dishes from a stack in his section.
Problem was, there had been an accident the day before in the cold larder section, which was adjacent to the salamander section. A glass dessert bowl had been smashed and somehow a shard of glass, a centimetre long, had found its way into the stack of gratin dishes. Salamander dude, in his rush, had not bothered to check each dish he was grabbing and had smothered the piece of glass with veges and sauce, browned it off and served it up. The customer who received this culinary hand grenade sliced her top lip open. As blood spattered onto the table, she screamed and the whole restaurant turned to stare in shock. A Big No No alright. Salamander man was fired on the spot and both he, and the restaurant, ended up in court losing money.
That gory, potentially deadly mistake put the willies up me. From then on I checked every little thing in my section . . . for the next 28 years.