Life in a Restaurant, Week 29: Nothing Strikes Fear Like HACCP

"My father taught me to work; he did not teach me to love it."

-William Adams

The story of how Christina Tosi became the chef at Momofuku’s Milk bar is an interesting one. Actually it’s not even interesting at all - it’s stupidly boring (not because of her of course). When David Chang got in trouble for using a vacuum sealer by the Department of Health during the early stages of starting Momofuku, he hired Tosi to write the mandated health plan for him. She just also happened to make some kickass pastries, and is now the figurehead of a delicious, tooth-achingly sweet dessert empire.

We have a vacuum sealer at the restaurant. It’s a marvelous, hulking piece of machinery that reminds me of a Soviet Era super computer in how it’s presence demands equal parts respect and terror. Clamp down the pexiglass lid and it explodes into life for the next twenty seconds as it extends the shelf life of our proteins and lets us to do magical things like compress watermelon into dense, bursty bricks and seal large hunks of pork shoulder to throw into the immersion circulator so they can become tender steaks. But like David Chang, few people know that it’s one of the most regulated pieces of cooking equipment by the Department of Health, requiring a safety plan known as an HACCP, or a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point Plan. (I just got fatigued re-reading that previous sentence.)

I’m not sure how I became the one stuck with writing the plan. Maybe it was the consequence of deciding to get a college degree instead of jumping into a random dish pit at age 16 and working my way up the kitchen hierarchy. No one in the restaurant had even heard of HACCP until the inspector dropped by, but before I knew it, The Chef gave her trademark twinkling gleam to the health inspector and I was then handed the manila envelope containing the documents we needed to submit to the California Department of Health along with our deadline.

HACCP loomed in my head for the next month. It took me three weeks of focused research just to figure out what it was, and what we were even required to do. If it took a recent college graduate that long just to figure it out, I wonder how most small restaurants with back of house staffs made up of non-native Hispanic and Latinos fair. The recommended prerequisites are inane: Assemble a team to write you plan - it should involve someone with a P.h.D preferably. Have someone with an advanced degree in microbiology. You mean your restaurant doesn’t have a full time biochemistry engineer? One cannot vacuum seal fish, unless the fish has been frozen beforehand. One cannot vacuum seal produce with a ph under x or a water activity level above y, which by the way you measure via a tool costing at least three thousand dollars. There were no online templates or resources to be found, except from the smart few who decided to take advantage of lost and frustrated line cooks to turn HACCP writing into a full fledged business.

After I would get home from a shift I’d sit behind my computer, telling myself tonight would be the night I would hammer it out, before admitting defeat over a bowl of soggy Cinnamon Toast Crunch whilst a Netflix marathon was going around in the background. (Again, still in my jeans and apron corrupted with the trademark smell of onions, Callebaut chocolate, and brown sugar.)

Decision trees made up of arbitrary choices looking more like random guesses than anything else plastered my word document, along with proposed procedures that, if actually implemented at any decent restaurant, would make us constantly behind on prep by hours on end. Every single piece of meat has to have its temperature taken before and after you fire it for a table. Make sure your steak is at least 145 degrees for ten seconds! (Haha yeah right.) Log your lowboy refrigerator temperatures every hour during service. Have flowcharts detailing every single process step of making every dish served at the restaurant (Does stirring the pot of risotto count as a process step?). Promising we’d keep a logbook detailing what time every produce and meat delivery came in and if it arrived at the proper temperature. Yes, we promise we’ll unnecessarily sanitize the already sanitized area each and every time we use the vacuum sealer.

I doubt our plan came anywhere close to the ones sent in by wd-50 and momofuku. As I mailed the printed report one day before the deadline, I’ll concede though there was one positive outcome of making an HACCP plan: I’m supremely glad I chose not to pursue any professional endeavours remotely related to science or math. There are moments you experience in your lifetime in which you are god awful you do what you currently do.

Now you might be curious. Did the state approve our plan?

I don’t know, it’s been over six months as I’ve been writing this and we still haven’t heard back. We don’t have a Momofuku-like cult following, and I have yet to become the face of a national pastry empire filled with birthday cake sprinkles and crack pie. I’m just sitting here behind a laptop.