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Chefs tasting food in unsanitary manner with fingers, prep utensils...is this acceptable?

My wife and I went to a new, high profile restaurant recently and were seated at the "chef's table", which was actually the counter in front of the open kitchen. While the restaurant is clearly still working out some service kinks, the food was decent.

What wasn't cool was watching the chef/owner tasting everything with the prep utensils or his fingers and then continuing to use those utensils, or his fingers, to prepare the food. My wife was freaked out, and finally said something to our server about it. This was not just hi-temp dishes like sauces, but we also saw him tasting dressings on salads with his fingers, then go back to prepping the salad.

We also noticed some of the line cooks tasting food with spoons held in water-filled pots, which were then just dumped out and refilled with water -- but not cleaned in any way.

This just seems unsanitary, and I remember seeing an episode on Top Chef when Tom Colicchio busted one of the contestants for doing pretty much the same sort of unsanitary tasting.

I can understand this is one of the drawbacks of an open kitchen, and that most guests would not have seen it, but should we say anything more? What would you do?

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  1. Chefs have been tasting food for thousands of years. Assuming he was clean at the beginning of the shift and has no transmissable diseases, no harm is likely to be done. But appearences count too, and some diners are squeamish. So an open kitchen should have higher *visible* standards.

    1. Best reason I've read for restaurants not having open kitchens.

      Far better to enjoy the food and not worry too much about how it's being prepared.

      1. Don't have any major phobias about this kinda thing but... EEWWW!!

        When cooking for friends/family, will admit to tasting more than once with the same spoon, tho I don't ANNOUNCE the move by any means.

        I came across a big package of plastic "soup" spoons at a yard sale. I have a bunch in one of those "French" water/jam glasses. Will use to taste something that's slow cooking... used spoon can get a bit gunky once cold. Also use to dip into salt container... especially if fingers are a bit damp. I just toss spoons into sink and run thru dishwasher to reuse.

        1. The water filled pots were probably sanitizer (water and bleach) that is what most restaurants keep their utensil and tasting spoons in.

          16 Replies
          1. re: LexiFirefly

            That's not correct; anything in bleach or sanitizer is supposed to be rinsed before using according to the health dept that inspect restaurants

            1. re: Cherylptw

              Health departments vary, where I live all food prep equipment on the line must be kept in a sanitizer solution, this includes whiskies, tongs etc.

              1. re: LexiFirefly

                I see you're in Canada...here in the US, utensils used to handle food on the line should not be sitting in a sanitizer, because it would have to be rinsed (or washed if it had bleach on it) first PRIOR to using. Now, dishes, etc. must be sanitized when it goes through the dishwasher or if if there is no dishwasher, there must be three sinks, one each for wash water, sanitizer, and rinse water. Regardless the method, they are rinsed before using.

                There also must be a container at all times with sanitizer (usually bleach water) to be used to wipe down counters and other surfaces which is required by the health dept also. But putting a tong or fork in bleach water then removing it to stick in a piece of meat or other food item or picking a tasting spoon out of bleach water and using it to taste something without rinsing that off first is digusting.

                1. re: Cherylptw

                  Anything in a bleach rinse should be air-dried before being used. So you would never remove a utensil from bleach water and use it, still wet, in food.

                2. re: LexiFirefly

                  I have never seen anything that has said things must be kept in bleach, and have never worked in a restaurant in Ontario, including at a culinary school restaurant, where anything was kept in bleach or sanitizer of any sort.

                  1. re: TeRReT

                    I worked at a place that got pinned by the health inspector for it. They alwayshave to find something!

                  2. re: LexiFirefly

                    In culinary school, we kept a big container of tasting spoons next to the range and used each one once. I've worked in a couple restaurants and they also only used clean spoons to taste foods before sending to the dish room.

                    1. re: mn_praline

                      Tasting spoons were only used once. Bit the egg spatula and stuff like that they wanted in there. Also this same health inspector once gave us an infraction for hollandaise being in the danger zone. She was nuts.

                3. re: LexiFirefly

                  So there's bleach in my food? Yuck.

                  1. re: Hobbert

                    It's a small amount that you use litmus strips to test how much. Too much is just as bad as too little. If you ever eat at a restaurant than yes bleach has touched everything, but it evaporates out.

                    1. re: LexiFirefly

                      Litmus strips are a PH indicator used to test whether a solution is acidic or basic. Here's some info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Litmus

                      1. re: Cherylptw

                        These ones are specifically for ammonia or chlorine to test how many ppm are in the water.

                      2. re: LexiFirefly

                        I'm skeptical. I worked in a deli when I was young and my sister managed a small restaurant. Both had utensils out and no bleach was involved. The place I worked actually had a bin that was hooked to running water so that the utensils (ice cream scoops in that case) we're being continuously rinsed off and no bleach was involved. I hate the odor of bleach and am pretty skeptical that I wouldn't detect it on my food.

                      3. re: Hobbert

                        So how do you feel about the chlorine that's in the water you drink?

                        1. re: Bkeats

                          I drink filtered water, but thanks for playing!

                      4. re: LexiFirefly

                        The water filled pots were only filled with water -- we saw them empty them out and refill them from a tap right in front of us. The dirty spoons & forks were put right back into the (new) water without washing them.

                      5. That's nasty & unsanitary; I don't even do this in my own home. I know of one chef in a restaurant near where I live who does the same thing...

                        1. Restaurant kitchen prep work more often than not is the equivalent of watching sausages being made.

                          There are few kitchens where the prep work is elevated to a work of art worthy of display. Yes, there are the elBulli and the counters at Urasawa, but those are few and far between. In this case, the exception does not make the rule.

                          1. Unsanitary practices abound in restaurant kitchens. I'm generally ok with that. What doesn't kill me makes me stronger.

                            1. It's not acceptable, but it is commonplace. There's a variety of reasons I would never want a "chef's table" and this is one of them. Ignorance is bliss.

                              1. This is what a lot of people do. But I taste the dressed salad greens, not the dressing by itself. When you work in front of customers, usually there is a higher standard of apparent cleanliness.

                                1. Pardon my french but that's fucking lazy. When I was a head cook (not a chef but the main cook of sauces, etc. and overseer of the slice and dice prep cooks) I had a can of clean spoons at various stations to taste dishes. Then into the bus tub went the spoon after one use. I admire a crew that can be loose on the line, but there's no excuse for lazy, unsanitary practices.

                                  1. I wouldn't do anything but I *do* remember a very famous chef (will go unnamed) who did the same thing ( and I mean huge bite with numerous tastes) in his very famous Beverly Hills restaurant a few years ago.
                                    We still talk about it and laugh.

                                    4 Replies
                                        1. re: latindancer

                                          Not the "live, love and eat" dude, was it?

                                        2. I just assume that whomever is cooking my food is tasting it with the prep utensils or a finger - I would be shocked if a busy kitchen was using a new spoon every time they needed to taste a dish, and then carefully washing it and sanitizing it immediately after.

                                          1. What the board of health mandates and what actually happens are tenuously related at best.

                                            1. Chefs tasting food with a used utensil or hands without washing is reason enough to leave the establishment.

                                              Two nine pans, one with clean spoons, the other with dirty. That's it.

                                              A restaurant group in town had a kitchen featuring webcams. I started tallying simple violations. Hand to nose - no wash. Drinking from a container with no lid on the line. Raw hands to cooked food. A festival of incompetence.

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: Karl Gerstenberger

                                                It may be lower down on the risk levels, but I get yucked seeing a cook run his fingers through his hair, then continue prepping with that hand (and I see that on TV all the time).

                                                That said, a relative worked for a moving company that specialized in relocating restaurants. His horror stories about what they found in kitchens were just scary.

                                              2. Chefs have been doing this since the reign of Charlemagne. We're all still here.

                                                1. I am a little surprised they weren't on better behavior with a chef's table..... But not especially surprised. Sounds like an alarming abuse though with the fingers and spoons.

                                                  If you are very upset call an anonymous tip to your health department.
                                                  And never eat out again.

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: Ttrockwood

                                                    I'm in the camp of "don't do it in public". I freely admit to "double dipping" with family, regularly, and even with company-prepared meals (though I try to be better behaved there), but I would never do it when people might see. I understand that this stuff goes on, regularly, in restaurant kitchens. I sure don't want to see it.

                                                  2. Mildly related, I remember reading somewhere that Ferran Adria tasted food in his kitchen by constantly carrying one spoon (which he'd use all service) but instead of using the spoon to directly put food in his mouth he'd dollop the food on the space between his first thumb knuckle (the one farthest from the nail) and index fnger then lick it off from there like a cat.

                                                    I've adopted this habit when cooking for others - anyone see anything particularly unsanitary here?

                                                    1. I'd have a real problem with double-dipping chefs. When I'm dining out, I try to put the mental blinders in place and hope that I'm not going to see any red flags that compel me to regret my choice of restaurant and/or confront staff/management. If I was at the chef's table and witnessed anything off-putting (double-dipping, hands in hair, etc. etc.), I would have to speak up.

                                                      Between all the reality cooking shows, I think the awareness of what happens in restaurant kitchens is heightened and, frankly, the thought of a chef's sweat dripping off his nose and plopping into my food would never have entered my mind before and I could have lived without that visual.

                                                      As far as my own behavior at home, I know I'm more careful now than I was 30 years ago. Back then, I didn't have a whole assortment of google results telling me what is happening to the food if I've taken a couple midnight spoons of pudding from the container or taken a swig from the orange juice. Today it's entirely different. Ignorance was bliss.

                                                      1 Reply
                                                      1. re: Harts52

                                                        The first time I would have watched the chef 'share his saliva' with me, which he was in fact doing, I would have asked to speak to the owner/manager and told him why I was leaving. The chef might as well have been licking my plate before passing it.