The Mindful Plate:
A Look at Best Culinary Safety Practices at Museums

October 30, 2010 No Comments

While a few museums in the United States operate their own restaurants and catering services, most outsource the job to professionals who take on the responsibility of creating, managing, displaying, distributing and removing food and beverages for special events.
For those catering companies who do operate in museums like this one, working offsite can be challenging, especially when it comes to maintaining proper food sanitation.  
At Max & Me Catering, General Manager Scott Swiger said training staff in proper food handling and clean up is key to any successful, streamlined catering experience, no matter the location. The Philadelphia, Pa.-based catering company regularly works with the Please Touch Museum at Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park, the National Constitution Center and Independence Visitors Center, serving more than 1,000 events each year.
“We train staff to always clean up as they go,” said Swiger, who says the company creates an overall culture of good personal hygiene. It’s a foundation, he said, on which most of the other food handing is built. And it’s an issue Swiger takes very seriously considering Max & Me has served such notable guests as Presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, Prime Minister Tony Blair and U2 frontman Bono.
“One of the biggest challenges is transporting product from prep kitchens to the service area,” explained Swiger. “This becomes especially challenging for kiosk locations that require staff to pass though busy public areas.” To overcome these issues, he said the staff moves as much as possible from prep to the final serving location prior to the museum opening.
The company also uses insulated cambro carts to transport hot and cold food, and locates non-perishable items as close as possible to the event site in order to minimize lifting and transport through crowds.
“We train staff to proceed slowly and be aware of museum guests at all times,” said Swiger, which is especially important at children’s museums. Since Max & Me is a popular catering company at the Please Touch Museum, a destination for kids, Swiger said, “All products prepared in our café are peanut free.” The company also maintains a binder of labels and recipes that allows staff to respond to any questions about ingredients.
Max & Me also uses color-coded cutting boards to prevent cross-contamination, and have instituted a system to label and date products to assure that perishables are used on a first in, first out basis. “Chefs and managers must be vigilant in inspecting food prep areas,” said Swiger, “and addressing any potential issues immediately.”
Common Sense
Goes a Long Way
Because museums have sensitive fire alarms and climate controls, preparing food in these environments can sometimes be tricky. Joan Long, manager of Patty Long Catering, Inc., in St. Louis, Mo., said she spends much of her time training staff on the dos and don’ts of food preparation and service specific to each museum.
Over the years, Patty Long Catering has worked at all of the top museums in St. Louis. Long says she emphasizes three tips overall for keeping food safe: time, common sense and training.
Timing, she admitted, is especially important during special events. Preparing food impacts how quickly servers can deliver the food to guests. “When in doubt, throw it out,” she said, never taking chances on food items that may be past their expiration dates. She’s also a hand-washing advocate who admits that staff hygiene is important, especially since servers are usually the first, if not only, connection guests have with the catering company.
From Hot to Cold
While many caterers consider their employees to be the most valuable assets, others rely on equipment that ensures safety and sanitation, especially in museum environments. “Cambros and coolers help keep food cold,” explained Chef Alexander Heijiligers at Santa Barbara Catering in Tempe, Ariz. “Hot boxes also keep food hot.”
The Southwestern caterer regularly works with Phoenix’s Heard Museum and Art Museum on special events throughout the year. Heijiligers admitted  that museum events can actually be easier, at times, because they generally take place indoors. During events that require outdoor production, more equipment is needed and temperatures and weather can become variables, especially with food safety.
“It’s the same procedure as any other event,” he said. “Just use common sense and keep hot food as hot as possible and cold food as cold as possible. And of course, always wash your hands when dealing with food.”
An Inside Job
At the Oakland Museum of California in Oakland, Calif., Chef Robert Dorsey III is very busy. After the museum opened on the first of May this year after extensive renovations, the Blue Oak Café is set to launch as the new on-site restaurant this month with a 24,000-square-foot dining room.
“We are still running our test kitchen right now and currently have 15 employees,” said Dorsey. “I plan to increase that number to around 20 when we launch in November.”
As a fixture on the Bay Area culinary scene, Dorsey is interested in introducing museumgoers to locally grown food and samples of his award-winning cuisine, like handcrafted apple galettes.
To ensure the finest quality in both food prep and service, Dorsey said he ensures that all raw and cooked food is always separated. “Source all food from reputable sources and make sure they are USDA approved,” said the chef, who buys local and sustainable items whenever possible.
In the kitchen itself, Dorsey said three items really make his job easier, especially when it comes to food safety. The museum café features a cold walk-in, refrigerators and hand-washing sink, items he says enhance the overall safety of the kitchen.
“The biggest challenge to food safety is control,” he said, “controlling the food from the time it is sourced to the time it is served. To address this, I buy local as much as possible and practice proper labeling and documentation of food with a ‘first in and first out’ philosophy.”
He said ordering daily is also important: “I buy breads, meats and fish daily, with quantity in mind so that I use all of the food in service that day.”
On the Go
“There is no difference in catering at a museum or any place else when it comes to safety and sanitation,” said Lance Thompson, manger of Sarasota Catering in Sarasota, Fla., a company that’s catered events at the Ringling School of Art and Design, Selby Gardens and many other locations that don’t have on-site kitchens.
“The number one issue is keeping food free from contaminates and at the proper temperature,” said Thompson, who recommends really knowing all about the venue before signing on for an event.
“If the venue, like a museum, doesn’t have running water, then it is necessary to bring in the proper supplies with you,” he explained. “If you are preparing food, then more needs to be done for cleaning.  If only food service is done at the venue, then it’s relatively easy to keep things clean.”
Sarasota Catering has earned several distinguished honors this year for its events, many of which have been held at museums, including The Knot’s Best of Weddings.
Thompson admitted it takes combined efforts to not only deliver presentation but also quality and safety. “If food is stored, then it must be refrigerated or heated to the right temperatures,” he said. “Food can sit out at room temperature for a limited time depending on the type of food.” -

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