June 11, 2012: PSA Sterile Field

June 11, 2012

When I cook for others, I keep in the back of my mind the fundamentals of the Japanese Tea Ceremony, which stresses the thorough cleaning of all tea utensils and the area that the ceremony takes place. This serves several purposes: it shows respect for the participants of the ceremony; it promotes a healthier environment; and probably most important, it corrects and orders the mind of the person organizing the event. In a sense, the cleaning before the ceremony is like a meditation that helps focus the mind.

Over the years I have developed a fairly strict pattern of cleaning: before, during, and after the meal itself, which has served me well. Thorough cleaning of the cooking area and tools is sacrosanct. A chef must provide food that is visually pleasing, perfect taste and texture, but most important is to prepare food under the most clean conditions possible. I’ve learned a few of these habits working with Yoshio, who cooks in the most clean kitchens I’ve ever seen.

Two Days Before Cooking:

I start with the refrigerator. Obviously, this is where the food for the meal will be stored, before, during, and after the meal, so you need room in the fridge and you want it to sparkling clean. Before a big dinner I remove any older food and compost them. I often find some worthy veggies that I turn into stock, then compost the leavings. I generally remove everything from the fridge and clean every surface with a bleach mixture I learned from Yoshio that will kill any germs and create a sterile field:

1 Capful of Bleach to 1 Gallon of H2O Exactly this proportion. Any more bleach and areas will smell like a pool and do no more good. You don’t want to wash the area and tools after applying this mixture. The water itself may have microbes in it that can be transferred to the area. Simply wipe the tool/area with  paper towel. I wear surgical gloves when I do this. Wear kitchen whites or clothes that you don’t mind getting a few bleach spots on them.

1 Day Before Cooking:

I launder any clothes to be used during the meal: aprons, tablecloth, napkins, etc. I scrub both the stove-top and the sink with soft-scrub. I clean inside the stove if it needs it. I clear and clean well all surfaces of the kitchen. I compose a list of materials for the meal and later in the day shop for these.

Just Before Cooking:

I don an apron and cap (hair restriction is a must when cooking for others) and my first set of surgical gloves, changing them often during the day and always when I have to handle raw meat or fish! My knives are always stored sharpened, but this is when I check them and sharpen and/or hone them as necessary. I immediately wipe them with a paper towel and the Bleach/H2O mixture. [Wiping the knives after sharpening is very important as sharpening digs up fine pieces of metal on the knife-edge that can be then transferred to the food!] I also wipe down any tools I will be using with the Bleach/H2O mixture and most importantly the cutting boards.

Cutting Boards:

Probably the most daunting area of the kitchen to clean well are cutting boards. Think about it, probably thousands of small grooves just under the surface of the board itself, with all manner of foods used  on it. We’re talking microbe city! Giving this surface a wipe down with the Bleach/H2O mixture is a must! You also want to cut on the board with foods from “clean” to “dirty.” What this generally means is going from veggies to meat and clean well and disinfect between foods. Yoshio uses color-coded cutting boards system: red for meat only; green for veggies, etc.

During Cooking:

Wash all food inside and out (i.e. wash a pepper [outside] before and after [inside] you cut it!) As always, clean dishes/tools as you go. I clean dishes after each part of the meal I prepare. I have a small kitchen, so this helps clear the area for the next thing I’m preparing. All prepped-dishes are covered and go into the fridge as soon as they are prepared.

After the Meal:

I don’t have the luxury of a dishwasher, so cleanup at my house can be a bit of a chore. Just after the meal, I immediately scrape and then immerse dishes in water, and if guests are amenable, start the first phase of cleaning. Probably the best tool for cleaning dishes is plain white cotton cloth. You can get a bunch cheaply and cycle them often (cleaning with bleach each time you launder.) Being a bachelor, I still use sponges, although I admit that it is probably the worst cleaning tool possible! The sheer microbe surface area of the sponge makes it a terrible cleaning tool, but as old habits die-hard I have some tricks: first I have color-coded sponges, one color for wipe-downs and another color for dishwashing. I also throw them out often. I weekly immerse them in a bacterial-stat and before cooking I soak them in the bleach/H2O mixture. My friend Dan says that nuking a wet sponge in the microwave on “high” for two, two-minute cycles will destroy bacteria. I would recommend a chemical sterilizing before this, as you just might be baking in any food on the sponge if you go directly into the microwave.

There you go…today’s WOO PSA: easy steps for a safer. cleaner cooking environment. Happy cooking folks!



  1. These are good tips. I’ve never had the guts to use a bleach solution, no matter how diluted, on my knife blades, but maybe I should start. Is it one capful per gallon or one cupful?

    I don’t have any sponges onhand right now, but when I’ve used them in the past I’ve microwaved them for a couple of minutes before using them. I also would soak them in a vinegar and water (or lemon juice and water) solution before nuking them.

  2. The reference for microwaving sponges is here:


    I read it to mean that optimum results are achieved by microwaving for four minutes continuously, not two periods of two minutes.

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