Five-star hygiene at Ledbury Hotel London

25th of September 2014
Five-star hygiene at Ledbury Hotel London

How do the kitchen staff of an exclusive restaurant keep their hands, surfaces and equipment clean and hygienic throughout the entire service shift? Ann Laffeaty talks to Brett Graham, head chef at The Ledbury – a Michelin-starred London restaurant with a five-star hygiene rating – to discover how it is done.

Hygiene is of paramount importance in any professional kitchen where food is being prepared for public consumption. Food poisoning needs to be avoided at all costs. Besides being the cause of much human misery, an outbreak of a food-related illness could also ruin the reputation of an establishment - and ultimately, its business as well. Diners who become ill after eating at a particular restaurant will quickly spread the word, and the news is likely to go viral in no time in these days of social networking.

The importance of maintaining good standards of hygiene has come increasingly under the spotlight in the UK following the introduction of the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme four years ago. This was set up by the nation’s Food Standards Agency in a bid to reduce the estimated one million cases of food poisoning in the UK each year. Inspectors carry out ad hoc visits to restaurants, cafes and takeaways and after making a thorough assessment of the kitchens, they award the establishment a food hygiene rating of between zero and five stars.

While it is not currently compulsory for restaurants in England or Northern Ireland to display their ratings, it is a legal requirement in Wales to do so. And in any event, the results of inspections in all three regions are uploaded onto the Food Standards Agency’s website. Potential diners can then look up the ratings of any restaurant before booking while members of the public – and the media - can also obtain lists of restaurants in each hygiene rating category.

As a result there has been much media interest in those restaurants that have received a hygiene rating of zero stars. And the higher the restaurant’s profile, the more media interest there is. The fact that a Birmingham restaurant run by celebrity chef Marco Pierre White recently received a zero hygiene rating quickly became an internet sensation.

So it can be argued the higher profile the restaurant, the more important it is to maintain high standards of hygiene since media interest is heightened when an ‘exclusive’ restaurant fails the hygiene test. So other top restaurants need to work hard to avoid having their poor hygiene ratings emblazoned all over the web.

One of London’s leading restaurants is The Ledbury in Notting Hill. This establishment holds two Michelin stars and has been named the tenth best restaurant in the world in the latest San Pellegrino list of the world’s top 50 restaurants.

The kitchen at The Ledbury is run by head chef Brett Graham who began his career at a fish restaurant in Australia, aged 15. He then moved to Sydney where his career went from strength to strength. Graham has won several awards including the Josephine Pignolet Award run by the Sydney Morning Herald. This earned him a trip to the UK where he secured a job at Michelin-starred The Square restaurant in London’s Mayfair, and in 2002 he was named Young Chef of the Year.

The Ledbury - sister restaurant of The Square - opened in 2005 and Graham was installed as head chef in charge of a young and energetic team. Besides the many accolades the restaurant has received for both its food and service, The Ledbury is also an example of a hygiene success story. The establishment received a five-star rating at its last Food Standards Agency inspection in November 2012.

Achieving such a high score is not easy for any restaurant since FSA inspectors make their assessment on a number of complex factors. These include: how hygienically the food is handled, how it is prepared, cooked, re-heated, cooled and stored. Inspectors will also look at what the management is doing to maintain high hygiene standards in future.

So how does a top chef combine creativity and flair with rigid hygiene standards and tight discipline? “We try to be as organised as possible during the morning prep,” said Graham. “We also stop work about four times a day for a full clean-down. This involves sanitising all our work surfaces and equipment, and we also scrub the floor and clean the drains then.”

Full clean-down

He says all surfaces are scrubbed with detergent during each clean-down. “We allow a detergent contact time of 30 seconds before rinsing and drying the surfaces,” he said. “During the day we are also constantly wiping down surfaces between clean-downs using a sanitiser. And at the end of the evening’s shift and first thing in the morning we use an antibacterial product on the units.”

Graham and his team of between 12 and 15 staff begin work at 8am and will generally carry on through until around 12.30 at night, with only an hour off in the afternoons. The 70-cover restaurant is open seven days a week.

According to Graham there are strict rules about personal hygiene at The Ledbury. “Caps are compulsory for long hair and we also supply staff with aprons and jackets,” he said. “We find that this is the best way of making sure that all members of staff have clean uniforms. Wedding rings are the only rings allowed and we have a rule that nobody under any circumstances is allowed to leave the premises wearing either their kitchen clothes or shoes.”

All staff undertake a training course about the restaurant’s sickness policy, and are asked to sign a document to ensure they understand it. This policy requires that any chef who falls ill will not return to work until 48 hours after all symptoms have ceased.

“I have just finished my Level Four hygiene course which has really helped to expand my hygiene knowledge,” said Graham. “Others here hold similar qualifications.”

He says that he and his team use only disposable paper products when wiping down benches and food surfaces in order to reduce any risk of cross-contamination. “I do use a wet muslin cloth when preparing fish, however, because muslin is slightly abrasive,” he adds. “This means it keeps the fish boards nice and clean. I always rinse the muslin between fillets and then dispose of it afterwards.”

Graham also has strict rules about hand washing procedures in his kitchen. “Hand washing is massively important,” he said. “There are three hand washing stations in the kitchen and we use a great deal of paper roll. We wash our hands and then dry them when we enter the kitchen and we use an alcohol hand gel between tasks. In the changing rooms we use a hand dryer instead of paper towels.”

Gloves essential

He says his kitchen staff also wear gloves when preparing food. “Gloves are essential and we are constantly changing them between jobs,” said Graham. “Some people seem to think you don’t need to replace gloves, but we use lots.”

He says he and his team are very proud of their five-star hygiene rating. “It is a challenge to maintain such high levels of hygiene because we turn over product so quickly and our kitchen is very small,” he said. “The guys are very professional here, but service is the most demanding time. We are constantly changing spoon water and are also frequently sweeping and mopping up during peak times.”

The Ledbury uses Food Alert - a safety consultancy - to help to maintain its high hygiene rating. Food Alert advises a number of UK restaurants and chains on hygiene, health and safety. “They are a wonderful company,” said Graham.  “They help with our paperwork and make suggestions to help us improve our food safety manual.”

Producing Michelin-starred dishes while also maintaining high levels of hygiene in a professional kitchen – particularly one that measures only five metres by eight and populated by a staff in double figures – is a remarkable achievement, particularly for a chef who is still only 35. But according to Graham the hygiene standards at the Ledbury keep on improving over the years.

“We had to invest in extra equipment such as a sous vide water oven and scales to enable us to keep cooked and raw foods separately,” said Graham. “But getting that five-star hygiene score is worth it since our customers’ safety is my number one priority.”


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