Don't Try This At Home
I used to watch a lot of food TV. Not as much anymore since Food Network became nothing more than a useless collection of mindless game shows, but I suppose I still watch more food programming than most. It's part of what I do. And I've been a little concerned by what I see: TV cooks setting really bad examples for health and food safety.
It's surprising because, theoretically at least, these people should know better. Anybody who has been through culinary school or run a restaurant should have a thorough working knowledge of food safety. But considering the caliber of “stars” Food Network is turning out these days, maybe it isn't so surprising after all.
I've run a couple of restaurants and I've done some catering, so I'm quite familiar with health codes. The average consumer would not believe the standards to which the people who prepare and serve their food are held. State, county, and local health departments establish incredibly strict policies and practices aimed at making sure the food you eat away from home is handled as hygienically as possible. Health inspectors enforce these regulations. Most restaurateurs will tell you that some of the enforcement borders on the ridiculous. But whether restaurant management and staff like them or not, the rules are there for public safety.
As many as one in six Americans are exposed to foodborne illnesses every year. Sometimes the results are nothing more serious than a little “stomach bug,” but oftentimes “food poisoning,” as it's commonly called, can be much more serious, even fatal. And it's up to us, the people who cook for other people, to make sure that kind of thing doesn't happen on our watch.
It's not just the responsibility of professional cooks. Home cooks have to be just as diligent in following health and safety rules in the kitchen. If I screw up in a restaurant kitchen, I could sicken or kill a customer. If you screw up in your home kitchen, you could sicken or kill your kids. And that kind of brings me back to my point: a lot of home cooks look to the pros for examples. But it's not just recipes they're copying. They're also looking at the way the professional TV cook conducts him or herself in the kitchen. And some of that conduct is pretty scary.
For example: you almost never see any form of hair restraint on TV. Let's face it, hairnets look dumb. Hats, bandanas, skull caps – it's hard to look like a TV star while wearing stuff like that. Some TV chefs, like Mario Batali, wear a ponytail. Then there are the guys who sport those curly locks and big bushy beards on TV. Bet they kept 'em covered in culinary school. Guy Fieri might look super cool rockin' that spiky 'do on TV, but he'd have to keep a lid on it in a real restaurant. Of course, guys like Michael Symon and Tom Colicchio don't have to worry about it. But I can't recall the last time I saw a female “celebrity chef” wearing anything that would resemble something the health code for her restaurant would require her to wear. I know these ladies spend lots of time and big bucks maintaining their stunning coiffures, but a health inspector in my county would throw the likes of Anne Burrell right of the kitchen. Sometimes contestants on “reality” shows like “Top Chef,” “Chopped,” or “Hell's Kitchen” make an effort to reflect actual reality. But the scripted shows? Almost never.
And it's not just hair covering. Have you ever noticed TV cooks touching, brushing back, or just generally fussing with their hair? I promise you, if a health inspector saw that in a restaurant kitchen, he would make the cook stop what he was doing and go wash his hands. Same goes for scratching your nose, wiping your eyes, or touching your face in general.
It's not just me noticing these things. Separate studies conducted last year by the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Kansas State University, and Tennessee State University all reached similar conclusions: that TV cooks are failing to demonstrate proper safety and food handling techniques. In the Kansas State and Tennessee State studies researchers watched a hundred TV cooking shows featuring twenty-four prominent celebrity chefs. The results yielded numerous instances of unsanitary food preparation practices. The study noted, for instance, that twenty percent of the TV cooks viewed touched their hair or dirty clothing or other dirty objects and then touched food again. The same study found twenty-three percent of the cooks licking their fingers. Nasty. Other egregious findings included not changing out cutting boards between prepping raw meat and vegetables, and not using a meat thermometer to check meat doneness.
Okay, so every chef I know can tell the doneness of a steak by touching it. There's a little trick you learn that involves touching the heel of your palm and touching the meat and comparing the feeling. But that doesn't really take the place of temping a piece of meat with a thermometer, especially when you're trying to demonstrate proper food safety. There are tons of little kitchen short cuts that every chef knows. And every chef knows the health inspector will bust him if he gets caught using them.
Another thing cited in the studies was improper handwashing. It was noted that some TV chefs washed their hands when they started cooking something but failed to do so again at times when they should have, like when handling raw meat and then picking up other foods or utensils. Some chefs didn't seem to wash their hands at all. Technically.......technically they should be wearing gloves when working with food they're going to serve to other people. That's they way they work in restaurant kitchens. I can show you loads of citations issued to restaurant workers around my area who violate that regulation. I even saw one the other day where some doofus washed his hands while wearing gloves. Needless to say, that one didn't get past the inspector. Does that mean you have to wear gloves at home? No, of course not. But you should exercise hygienic handwashing procedures, and if the people you're watching on TV aren't doing it, you likely won't do it either.
See, there's the problem: the balance between entertaining and educating. Intentionally or not, these people are setting themselves up as teachers. In our current era of government mistrust, it shouldn't be surprising to learn that only thirty-three percent of recently polled consumers said they trusted the government for food safety information. An astonishing seventy-three percent of respondents said they got their food safety information from the media, with twenty-two percent of that figure saying they used cooking shows as their primary source of food safety information. Wow.
But in order to be successful, you've got to be glamorous and attractive on TV. It's all about personality and hair and makeup and sets. You've got to be witty and entertaining. You've got to make it look so easy and appealing. TV cooks have everything laid out for them. They just smile, assemble and stir. You seldom see the hours of work the prep cooks behind the scenes go through in order to make the “star's” work look effortless. And that's a shame because proper prep is more than half the battle. I'm not saying the people in front of the cameras aren't real cooks because most of them certainly are. With the exception of the current crop of talentless “talent” produced by “Next Food Network Star,” all of them have paid their dues and have the chops to show for it. But when you take them out of real kitchens and put them on kitchen sets, they become less professional cooks and more TV personalities with greater concern for the camera, the lights, and the clock than for actually teaching you how to cook.
One of the study authors feels that the TV chef's purpose should be not only to to entertain but also to educate about food preparation techniques and helpful kitchen hints, including proper food safety practices. And some of them do. Although none of the chefs studied had a perfect record, a few were seen saying things like “remember to wash your hands” or “don't forget to change your cutting board.” Some even did it onscreen. But most weren't going to squander valuable air time walking over to a sink and spending precious seconds washing up several times during a segment. And according to those conducting the studies, that's setting a bad example.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sponsor a program called “Fight Bac!”, a campaign that encourages home cooks to properly clean, separate, cook, and chill to help prevent foodborne illness. (www.fightbac.org) It was by the standards of this initiative that the TV chefs were judged by Kansas State and Tennessee State. Researchers at U Mass Amherst developed their own nineteen question survey adapted from the Massachusetts Food Establishment Inspection Report. The survey measured hygienic food practices such as use of utensils and gloves, protection from contamination, and time and temperature control. A panel of state regulators and food safety practitioners participated in the Massachusetts study, viewing a total of thirty-nine episodes of ten popular cooking shows. Like the studies conducted in Kansas and Tennessee, researchers found a lot of problems. Safety practices were out of compliance with recommendations in at least seventy percent of the episodes viewed. Worse, appropriate food safety measures were only mentioned in three episodes.
Look, let's be real. In my home kitchen I'm generally only cooking for my wife and myself. So do I wear gloves and keep my hair covered? No. When my wife cooks or bakes does she remove her nail polish as the local health code would demand if she were in a professional kitchen? Of course not. But we do adhere to the same basic standards in our home kitchen that we use in restaurant cooking. We wash our hands as required by whatever we're preparing. We have a spray bottle of the same kind of chlorine sanitizer used in restaurants and we spray down countertops and cooking surfaces as necessary. We keep our utensils and appliances clean, sanitized, and in good condition. And we practice good technique. I made sauce the other day. Like Julia Child famously said, I was alone in the kitchen. Could I have just stuck a finger in the sauce to taste it? Sure. Who would have known? But I used a tasting spoon and I got a clean one the next time I tasted the sauce. I find it's easier to maintain a higher standard if I just do it all the time. And if I'm cooking for other people – like if friends come over for dinner or something – I ratchet that standard up even higher. I actually do have gloves in my home kitchen and hats are hanging with the aprons on the back of the door. I like it when guests sit in my kitchen and watch me cook. They can observe what I'm doing and sometimes they even ask why I'm doing it. Those are called teaching moments, and if I can do it in my kitchen for a handful of guests, the TV chefs who make the big bucks and have huge audiences should certainly do it in theirs.
Study authors have thoughts regarding opportunities for improvement in televised food programming. One of the ideas put forth is to require food safety training for TV chefs and guests on their shows. That's okay, but most real chefs already have such training. It was part of their culinary school curriculum and it's a daily factor in the restaurant world. Another idea involves changing the structural environment to support safe food handling. That'll be a hard sell among the bean counters and suits, I'm afraid. But one suggestion that might actually work is to include food safety elements in the shows' scripts. That one could fly because it wouldn't cost anything and it would enhance the chef/host's image as a knowledgeable source.
Bottom line? As with most things you see on TV, don't try this at home. There are numerous sources and resources available to home cooks seeking to improve their health and food safety knowledge. Local health departments and community colleges often offer courses and classes. There are scads of websites that provide tips and tricks. Don't put your health and the health of your family and friends in the hands of some TV cook, no matter how “famous”, who's primarily being paid to entertain you. Salmonellosis, listeriosis, hepatitis, and hemorrhagic colitis are awfully high prices to pay for a little entertainment. Cooking is not a clean business. It's full of blood and guts and dirt and raw meat and smoke and grease and lots of other unpleasant things. A major part of learning to cook is learning to cook safely. Don't rely on TV for that vital education.