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ROBERT PRICE: Rat droppings can be fun, but today let's salute perfect kitchens

Jaclyn Allen's cute little vegan restaurant has some things working against it.

The sheer age of the building, built in 1910, creates a vulnerability to multigenerational infestation. The vintage of some of the kitchen equipment heightens the risk of leaks and breakdowns. The vermin-rousting nature of the monthslong road construction project just five blocks away on 24th Street mobilizes unwanted pests.

And yet she is perfect.

She is human, of course, so she is not literally perfect.

But in the eyes of the Kern County Public Health Services Department’s Environmental Health Division, her downtown restaurant is golden. Hens Roost, two blocks from the historic Fox Theater, has not just one inspection score of 100 but three of them in a row.

Which was news to her when I called last Thursday. 

"I have? Oh! I'm just trying to keep the doors open," she said. "It's like when a cop is in the rearview mirror. You think about all the things that could go wrong."

Well, those cops just smile and wave. Other restaurant owners, however, are getting the lights-and-sirens treatment.

Since Jan. 1, 2015, 154 local food facilities have received scores of 75 or below, earning closure orders from the health department. The poster child is the thankfully defunct Johnney's Burgers & Deli on Oak Street, which in June 2016 earned a 4. No typo: four. The inspection report reads like a bad horror movie script.

People are fascinated with news of health department-ordered restaurant closures. They love to be grossed out by tales of rat droppings and roach infestations, unhygienic employees and underachieving walk-in refrigerators.

But the fact is, most inspected facilities receive A ratings from the health department, and a fair number of them get perfect scores. But the Hens Roost, at 1916 G St., is one of 48 Kern County restaurants in a somewhat more exclusive club: zero violations in at least three consecutive inspections. Of those 48, only eight are not fast food, chain fast casual, walk-up counters inside grocery stores or have the word "pizza" in their name. (Not that those businesses deserve any less credit than the golden eight.)

Some of the eight are well-known, others perhaps less so: The Padre Hotel's Prospect Lounge (1702 H St.), Lengthwise Brewing (9000 Ming Ave., Suite T-1), Toro Sushi (9000 Ming Ave., Suite T-4), El Zarape Mexican (2592 S. Union Ave.), Rio Acai Bowls (3560 Gosford Road), Big John's Mountain Grill (Frazier Park), Gloria's Mexican (California City) and the Hens Roost.

Three straight 100s is an achievement of note because a kitchen can get docked for the smallest of infractions. It might be immaculate to the untrained eye, a cathedral of shimmering industrial aluminum, but inspectors know where to look, what to poke and how to judge.

"It could be something as small as one piece of equipment that's dirty, a sanitizer bucket with the wrong concentration of bleach or ammonia, a cracked tile," said Environmental Health Specialist Amy Rutledge, who supervises the food-safety inspection unit. 

And just like that, Mama Tosca's, Cafe Med, Urrichio's — name your favorite fine-dining experience — might have a 97 instead of 100. A high A, sure, but not quite perfect.

The health department inspects and grades virtually every physical location that sells (or gives away) food of almost any kind: Not just restaurants but school cafeterias, prison cafeterias, grocery stores, caterers, hotels, bars, breweries, coffee shops, doughnut shops, snack bars, farmers markets — even department and big-box stores, if they have at least 25 square feet set aside for packaged foods.

That comes to a total of 3,369 permitted, nonmobile, nonautomated facilities. Of those, 385 have scored 100 three times in a row (congratulations, Ross Dress for Less). Most of the facilities represented on the triple-perfection list, by far, are schools, public and private (154). 

I was excited to see Tam O'Shanter on the list of those with three straight 100s, not having even been aware that the legendary, before-my-time east Bakersfield dining and dancing hot spot had reopened. Alas, it had not: This Tam O'Shanter is a liquor store. (But congratulations to those folks, too, anyway.)

All inspections are "surprise" inspections, with one exception: prison cafeterias. Go figure.

"We may go (in to inspect) at any time," Rutledge said. "That includes busy times (like the lunch rush), unless the kitchen is too small and creates safety concerns for all."

That means restaurateurs need to be on their game at all times.

"I tell my staff that if we leave anything open (and uncovered), in no time we've become a five-star health resort for every type of rodent," said Allen, a Hanford native. 

Allen seems like a mild-mannered person — she's a vegan, for crying out loud — but a hero of hers is celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, the short-tempered host of TV's "Hell's Kitchen." With that in mind, it's hard to imagine how any of her half-dozen employees would dare short-shrift the checklist of daily, twice-weekly and weekly sanitation tasks.

"Accountability," she told me Friday, holding up a checklist with employees' initials scribbled down the left side of the page. "Sign your name to this." 

Health inspection reports are an obvious and crucial way to monitor success, but the sight of a repeat customer is better. And as the owner of a restaurant that is entirely vegan — not just vegetarian, but devoid of all animal-derived ingredients — she feels a special responsibility. Some Hens Roost customers have major medical issues such as compromised immune systems.

"A dirty kitchen can really hurt somebody," Allen said.

So can nut residue inadvertently dusted over the meal of a diner with a severe nut allergy.

"One of our chefs is allergic to all nuts but peanuts," Allen said. "We tell customers, 'We haven't killed him yet.' So that's in our favor."

And nuts are a big deal at Hens Roost because, in addition to offering a unique lunch menu — try the Kentucky fried tofu — as well as smoothies, yogurts and other fare, the kitchen prepares a half-dozen or more varieties of no-preservative nut butter, from peanut butter to cashew-coconut butter.

Which means the health department gets to inspect a nut-butter-making machine, too.

Some of Hens Roost's wholesale suppliers, like Giordano's, offer online food-handling classes for restaurant staffs, Allen said. She also encourages her chefs, many of whom have trained in Bakersfield College's well-regarded Culinary Arts Associate of Science Degree program, to take the lead in maintaining food-handling safety standards.

The county's inspectors might seem picky but, generally speaking, all parties know their work benefits all.

"We view it as a partnership and a lot of our inspectors have (used) that language," Rutledge said. 

Allen concurred.

"The health department isn't unreasonable," she said. "If they come in and see that there's a line out the door, and there's french fry cuttings on the floor, I really don't feel like they're gonna ding us. ... They may dock you a point, but it's not like you're failing the whole driving test."

Articles that mention rat droppings might attract more readers, but it's nice to know that county inspectors are working with restaurant owners to keep each other's names out of the news pages and back where they belong — in the dining section.

Contact The Californian’s Robert Price at 661-395-7399, or on Twitter: @stubblebuzz. His column appears on Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays; the views expressed are his own.

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