Jim Zimny doesn’t have a taste for raw oysters or sushi. He wouldn’t be caught dead eating bar nuts, either. And he’s not shy about getting up and leaving a restaurant if he sees something amiss.
The Kitsap Public Health District food inspector says he’s more of a meat and potatoes kind of guy. Meat and potatoes that are properly handled and cooked, that is.
About one million people get sick from food borne illnesses in Washington state every year. Of those, about five or six will die.
“Most of those come out of people’s kitchens,” Zimny said. “They come out of your kitchen or my kitchen.”
While Zimny can’t make sure that folks don’t get sick while eating at home, it’s his job to do everything he can to make sure they don’t get sick when choosing to dine out.
“Our job, to me, it’s 95 percent education,” Zimny said of random restaurant inspections. “We come in to help these guys with things they may not see or may not know. It’s not our job to come in and shut down restaurants. It’s our job to come in and educate the guys who have skin in the game when it comes to making sure this restaurant is successful.”
Late last week, Zimny headed for the Bremerton Bar and Grill to perform an inspection. Typically, his visits are unannounced but last week’s inspection was set up in advance in order for a reporter to tag along. Apart from that wrinkle, everything about the inspection was routine.
Zimny announced himself at the server stand and restaurant manager Jessica Knutelsky was summoned. From there, Zimny hooked up with head chef and kitchen manager Nate Tabtab who would tag along and answer questions for the rest of the visit. In the end, the restaurant got a perfect score of 100.
The first thing that Zimny and Tabtab did when entering the kitchen was to wash their hands with soap and hot water. From there, Tabtab took Zimny to the cooking line to measure various temperatures with a digital thermometer.
Zimny is on familiar ground as he walks around in a world that most diners never see.
“I worked as a line cook for seven years when I was younger, from 18 to 25, so I know my way around a kitchen,” he said.
Zimny doesn’t measure every bin with food in it or every item there is along the line. Instead, he takes more strategic readings, making sure that a bunch of prime rib has cooled quickly enough in a walk-in refrigerator for example. Zimny also makes sure that the water in the dishwashing machine is hot enough.
At one point, Tabtab stops to stir a huge pot of soup sitting in a sink filled with ice.
“When we go into a facility, the things we check are temperatures, hot holding temperatures and cold holding temperatures, because what we don’t want to see is food in the danger zone,” Zimny said. “That’s the area where bacteria can grow. We look at cooling because when food is cooling from hot to cold, if it doesn’t do it fast enough, it can grow those pathogens.”
One of the biggest things that Zimny looks for during an inspection is called bare hand contact with ready-to-eat food.
“We don’t want guys touching food with their bare hands that’s about to go into somebody’s mouth,” he said. “That’s a big violation.”
Zimny says that the reason it’s so important is there are three main things that make people sick.
“Seventy percent of the food borne illness comes from sick people making food,” he said. “It comes from people touching food with their bare hands and not washing their hands good enough. So, those viruses and bacteria that go into food are introduced by sick people or people with dirty hands. That’s what we’re trying to prevent.”
Zimny knew a long time ago that he wanted to be a food inspector.
“I was washing dishes at Denny’s in 1982 and a health inspector came in to do an inspection,” he said. “I asked him what he was doing and he said, ‘I’m a health inspector.’ I asked how do you get that job and he told me you get a degree in biology. It was a couple years after that I went to college and got a degree in biology and my first job out of college was as a health inspector.”
Zimny joined the health district in 1991. In the ensuing years he has worked on drinking water, shellfish, on-site septic inspections and more. He started doing food inspections three years ago.
“I applied for the food position originally,” he said. “As time has gone on a spot opened up and they shifted me over to that.”
It seems like a perfect fit.
But Zimny says a big part of keeping food safe falls on the shoulders of people like chef Tabtab and manager Knutelsky doing what they do every day at the Bremerton Bar and Grill.
“When we walked through that restaurant I couldn’t tell you if anyone was sick or not,” Zimny said. “That’s the job of the manager to know and for the employees to tell them.”
The general public also has a role.
“We’re only there two hours,” Zimny said. “It’s really the public’s job and I’m a proponent of educating the public as much as the restaurant guys so they keep the restaurants accountable for food service. A lot of our food complaints about businesses come from people who work in the food industry and know the rules. They’ll say somebody touched my food and refuse to pay for it because it’s not fit for consumption.”
Simple economics are also a factor.
“When you talk about a place being dirty or clean, it’s really up to the consumers and people deciding whether to visit an establishment,” Zimny said. “We get calls from people saying it’s dirty in there and you guys should do something. And we say you should probably go talk to the manager because it’s your dollar that is gonna drive their business and keep their floors clean. We’re not gonna close a place that’s got dirty carpets because people aren’t going to get sick and die from those dirty carpets.”
A list of Bremerton restaurant inspections can be found here on the Bremerton Patriot's website.