Can we bring training from the bar into the kitchen? by Mark Barnes

Usually, professional food handlers are referred to as “cooks” - a bit of an oversimplification considering the job also consists of receiving, storing, preparing, cooling, hot & cold holding, cleaning, etc. Yet actual cooking, whether over an open flame or in a precisely temperature-controlled water bath, is about as fundamental for us “cooks” as it gets. Applying heat makes food more digestible & nutritiously available. More importantly, heat applied properly makes food safe to eat.

According to the CDC, failing to cook food adequately is one of the five most significant contributing factors to foodborne illness. While that makes sense, it’s also frustrating given that we have a tool which can verify that we are cooking food adequately - the thermometer. The Food Code provides us with minimum cooking temperature requirements which quantify exactly what it means for a food to be cooked properly, and hence safe to eat. All we have to do is check the internal temperature with a thermometer so we can be sure we’ve reached the critical limit (minimum temperature requirement).

The only problem with the above scenario is that during the reality of a busy dinner service, the grill cook is not inserting a thermometer probe into every burger, steak, and salmon filet. Nor is the fry cook checking the temperature on every chicken wing, or the sauté cook potentially ruining a plate presentation by inserting a probe into a delicate rainbow trout. Most cooks are going by sight, timing, maybe a little touch to test firmness. And I hate to tell you, but that’s not going to change anytime soon. Thermometers during service can sometimes be viewed as training wheels, something to be left behind. That’s not to say that thermometers aren’t used - quite to the contrary, we are constantly using them to check on foods being hot or cold held, to monitor the cooling process, verify our refrigeration is working, etc. So how do we ensure adequate cooking if the thermometers aren’t being used every single time? My idea comes from another section of your restaurant, the bar.

Many great bars and restaurants require their bartenders to regularly pass a “bartender pour test.” The test comes in a variety of options, but ultimately, it's just a tube with the measurement markers hidden from view so the bartender is free pouring blind. Some bars will make the employees take and pass a pour test every day before their shift - after all, 1/2 oz here, 1/4 oz there, adds up when we are pouring hundreds of drinks every day. Applying this concept to cooking and thermometer use, a kitchen could utilize a “temp test". For example, each dinner service, the chef could randomly verify the temperature of four steaks, four burgers, and four pork chops. In order to “pass” the test, the grill cook needs to be within +/- 2 degrees Fahrenheit for each item. The idea behind the bartender’s pour test is to practice and test consistently so that free pouring can be done accurately - if we test our cooks with that same consistency, they’ll be able to consistently hit those cooking temperature requirements with confidence.

This blog is not intended to be a substitute for the user's judgement and common sense. Any errors are unintentional. This blog is opinion based and does not mean that we advocate against the use of thermometers. Ensuring safe food is always paramount. 

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