Chris Tribbey, Napa Valley Register City Editor, did a story today on the relationship between the restaurants of Napa County and the inspectors from the Napa County Department of Environmental Health. They have an alliance, albeit an uneasy one. Both want good things for the restaurants, but being inspected isn’t a restaurant owner or manager’s idea of a good time.
“We catch people when they least expect us. That’s part of our game plan,” said Ruben Oropeza, the county’s environmental management coordinator.
To get an understanding of how restaurants are inspected and graded, the Register went with Oropeza on an inspection of Celadon, a high-end restaurant and bar in downtown Napa. Normally, restaurant inspections are unannounced, however in this case the health department contacted Celadon and secured an agreement to let the newspaper come along.
The inspection begins between the lunch and dinner rushes, and there are only two diners inside Celadon during the inspection. On unannounced inspections, the health department can show up at any time, and preferably during peak serving hours.
“During the busy hours, we get to see how they handle the food, and (cleanliness) when they’re rushed,” Oropeza said. He walks right through the front door of Celadon, since the owner knows he’s coming and the restaurant has scored well in the past. “Usually places we have problems with, we go through the back door,” he said.
The first thing people see when entering Celadon is the state-mandated sign telling customers the restaurant’s health report is available. Greg Cole, the owner of Celadon, has photocopied the sign and framed it, turning what some restaurants consider a green-and-red eyesore into a subtle notice. “It’s kind of ugly,” Cole said. “They let us dress it up a bit.” Cole also had a copy of his last health report available, and all his permits and required signage are up. At least one person at every restaurant needs to pass an approved food safety certification program. At Celadon, two people are certified.
Step one is complete.
Disease and food
Most of the inspector’s time is spent in the kitchen, where the biggest health threats are and the most problems can occur. Oropeza goes straight to the hand-washing station. “This serves two things: clean hands (for the inspector) and I check for soap and hot water,” he said.
He added that it’s surprising how many restaurants do not have their hand-washing stations in proper order. According to studies done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only two-thirds of Americans wash their hands after going to the bathroom, only one in three wash after sneezing or coughing, and one in every three E. coli outbreaks is caused by the poor personal hygiene of food handlers.
Next, the cleanliness of restaurant workers is checked. Right now, it’s just Cole and head chef Marcos Uribe in the kitchen, and both look healthy and clean. No cuts or dirt on hands are allowed, lots of jewelry is a no-no and long hair must be restrained.
Then it’s on to the moment of truth, the part that makes or breaks most restaurants: food temperature checks. Oropeza breaks out his thermometer and checks the temperatures of the hot food cooking areas, the walk-in fridge and the food stored in the preparation area.
As a slightly nervous cook and owner watch, Oropeza looks at his thermometer after each check, and announces all is well. With only a few exceptions, hot foods must be maintained at temperatures of 140 degrees Fahrenheit or above, and any food that’s already been cooked must be reheated to more than 160 degrees. Meat and foods that aren’t cooked or stored right can quickly become host to a variety of disease-causing bacteria and organisms, including E. coli, salmonella, campylobacter jejuni (the most common cause of diarrhea) and listeria monocytogenes. These are four of the most common food-borne diseases, according to the CDC. Potentially hazardous foods must be stored at or below 41 degrees Fahrenheit, and anything that’s been cooked, then stored, must reach a temperature of 160 degrees within two hours.
Everything looked perfect for Celadon during the temperature checks — Cole said his staff is armed with their own thermometers — but then Oropeza began looking around the walk-in fridge. After pointing out that Celadon was doing a good job of “keeping raw and cooked meats separated” to avoid cross-contamination, he noticed a container of cooked sauce that was sitting on a middle shelf. It was uncovered.
“You need to move that up to the top shelf and cover it,” Oropeza said to Uribe. Food left uncovered is risky, especially when stored underneath other food items. Something could easily drop into it. Celadon would not be repeating the perfect score from its last health inspection.
Clean machines and environment
Oropeza looks everywhere for signs of dirt or food remnants that could cause problems in the kitchen, and at Celadon he finds things in excellent order. The areas above, behind, beneath and to the sides of the grills are nearly spotless. Same with the areas around dishes, utensils, cutting boards (color-coded for different foods, to prevent cross-contamination) and food prep areas. Celadon has most of its cooking equipment on wheels (“Easy to pull out and clean,” Cole said) and Oropeza compliments them on their cleanliness. He checks under cutting boards (to make sure no food is hiding), behind ovens and on the floor. Even the cracks of the seal in the mini-fridges are clear of gunk that many people might find in their home refrigerator.
His only suggestion is that the plastic containers for condiments could be switched to stainless steel, which stays cool longer.
Where and how food is stored is nearly as important as the temperatures. Food, boxed or not, cannot be stored on the floor, and must be at least six inches off the ground, and cleaning supplies and other chemicals cannot be stored anywhere near food (Celadon passed with flying colors).
The ice machine is in good order with the scoop stored outside (“Sometimes you get it inside, and people have to reach in there,” Oropeza said), the equipment is all approved for use in an American restaurant (sometimes restaurants are marked off for using food and equipment not approved by the Food and Drug Administration) and, perhaps most importantly, the Celadon kitchen area smells pristine.
“One of the first things inspectors check on when they come in is how does it smell? If you have bad odors, there’s a reason,” Oropeza said.
The roach traps in the corners of the kitchen have no roaches in them: they’re a preventative measure. Oropeza looks on the walls, in the corners and under the dishwashing machine for signs of bugs or other vermin. He finds none. “The key is for (Cole) to take care of it before it happens,” Oropeza said of the bugs. The Napa Mill building where Celadon is located was built in the 1880s, and roaches and rodents have appeared in other parts of the building.
The bar, the building and trash
Kitchen doors that lead outside must stay closed. The walls, ceiling and floor must be in reasonably good order (Celadon’s kitchen has a tile missing along the base of the wall, which makes the area harder to clean and sanitize). The bar at Celadon checks out fine. Oropeza checks the temperature of the fridge at the bar, and examines all the liquor, to make sure all the pour spouts are secure and clean. “The main concern behind the bar is insects, with all this liquid,” Oropeza said. He asks how long a carton of half-and-half has been resting in a half-melted container of ice. Cole answers that it’s only been a few hours. Oropeza seems satisfied, and is ready to go on to the last step: the trash.
Celadon shares trash facilities, including a compactor and grease disposal trap, with other businesses at the Napa Mill. Celadon’s own area is pretty good for a trash bin, with little in the way of foul odors. The grease is completely in the trap, and isn’t leaking anywhere, which is especially important for a restaurant near the Napa River. “This is the kind of stuff you don’t want to end up near water,” Oropeza said.
The shared trash facilities, on the other hand, are in poor shape. One trash can is caked with filth, and the trash compactor is surrounded with spilled, stinking garbage. “This needs to be steam-cleaned,” Oropeza said of the can, and “I should call the (building) manager and tell them that on this day (the compactor) wasn’t clean.” Celadon does not take the blame for either of these problems.
When all was said and done, an hour after Oropeza walked in, the missing tile had cost the restaurant one point, and the bowl of uncovered food in the walk-in fridge had cost it three. Celadon had a perfect score on its previous report, though the -4 on the new report is still an easy A.
“That’s about as clean as you can find places,” Oropeza said.