Head Off Problems with the Preshift Line Check
Is your kitchen one of many that do not conduct preshift line checks, in which a chef, kitchen manager or front-of-the-house manager tastes, smells or physically examines all food ready for service? If so, you are forcing your guests to do your job.
The line check ensures that the food you serve is consistent and of high quality. It requires you to use all your senses and be in control of every corner of your kitchen. Here's how it works. Begin by making a simple map of the kitchen production area. This will include all reach-in refrigerator units, chill tables, soup warmers, steam tables, ice baths, inserts, or any food-holding vessels. Next, grab a handful of clean spoons for tasting, your stem thermometer for ensuring proper temperatures, your appetite, and -- of course -- your map. In the same manner as you conduct your month-end physical inventory, follow your map the same way each time you conduct a preshift lineup so that no food holding or preparation area is overlooked.
Start the line check in the pantry by tasting all salad dressings. Using your clean spoons, (no double-dipping), taste for recipe adherence and correct flavor profile. How do they taste? Are they made to recipe specifications? Using the stem thermometer, are the temperatures at or below the safe holding temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit?
Moving on to the prepared greens and lettuces, determine if they are crisp and fresh looking. Is the prepared amount appropriate for the next shift's business level? Don't forget those pesky croutons that seldom get a look, let alone a taste, just because they are "just croutons." I have found homemade croutons to be the plague of many line checks as they don't hold their crispness well, especially in humid climates. Are tomatoes, strawberries, papaya, etc., cut fresh for the shift as delicate fruits and vegetables ought to be?
The soup station is next and one of my favorites as this is an area rife with inconsistency. First, stir the soup with the ladle and carefully look at it. Does it look appetizing and fresh? Is the consistency correct? Use the stem thermometer to ensure the temperature is at least 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius) (for food safety, but for palatability it should be at least 170 F [77 C]. I don't know a soul who likes lukewarm soup, unless you are serving a chilled soup, such as gazpacho). And remember, the danger zone for food temperatures, during which bacteria is most likely to grow, is between 40 F and 140 F (4 C and 60 C). The same rules apply to cream sauces, mashed potatoes, the chicken pot pie special and that whipping cream for desserts.
Next we check if everything is "in its place" for cooked-to-order items. This will include food prepared by hand, whether it's sliced, diced, minced or squeezed. These could be sliced mushrooms, chiffonade basil, chopped garlic, diced baby carrots or freshly squeezed grapefruit juice. Generally these are done each shift since they are highly perishable. For example, check to make sure the mushrooms are white and not soggy, the basil hasn't turned brown, the garlic is chopped to the proper size and the juice hasn't soured. Be sure to include the staff members in this process as it is a powerful teaching tool for the expectation of prepped items.
Raw proteins require the nose and touch for checking quality along with accurate labeling techniques. All quality fresh seafood has individual inherent fragrances and aromas. If you hope to develop a reputation for quality seafood, you need to learn how to identify these characteristics. It is not intuitive. Fresh, untreated scallops, for example, emit an "odd" fragrance when stored in a closed container and then opened. I have found this aroma to be unpleasant to the untrained nose, but a bit of heaven for those in the know. They will also be a bit on the sticky side, which once again is preferred, but not always embraced.
For the most part, seafood should not have "off" odors likened to ammonia, which indicates the flesh is beginning to break down and stickiness will occur. This is not preferred and should be discarded. Never try to save old proteins by brining, rinsing, smoking or masking it in any way. Old food should be thrown away. Then work backward through the storage process to find where the breakdown occurred. Beef, chicken, pork, veal and the rest require the same nose and eye treatment, and should be checked with the stem thermometer for temperatures below 40 F (6 C). Continue through the kitchen until all food has been examined, and record problem areas in the kitchen or manager's log.
The next step is to create a checklist with all food items. Each one should have a brief description of its ideal form; for example: "Lemon butter sauce -- bright-yellow color, smooth, not grainy." This is particularly helpful as a training tool for front-of- the-house managers and training staff.
The Preshift Line Check