On a recent morning, a cool breeze drifted off the lakefront, promising an idyllic time for thousands headed to the annual Taste of Chicago for a day of food and revelry.
Meanwhile, Virginia Castaneda and Annette Grimes readied themselves for eight hours of sticking thermometers into meat.
As city food inspectors, their main focus is the potential disease lurking in the pizza, turkey legs, corn, elephant ears and countless other treats cooked at the Taste's outdoor booths.
Two years ago, a salmonella outbreak sickened 700 people. This year, the city's Department of Public Health is deploying about 60 staff members – trained food inspectors and supervisors – to continually drop by the 56 vendor booths, making sure the food stays safe.
But while inspectors are there to monitor food safety, Frances Guichard, director of CDPH’s food protection division, says they aren’t there to cause vendors trouble.
“We are in more of a role of consultation,” she says. Inspectors visit each vendor between four and six times a day, taking the temperature of food, ensuring storage and service conditions are sanitary and giving vendors assistance, if they need it.
If food temperatures are too low or too high, inspectors will recommend the food be thrown away.
“We’re always on guard,” Guichard says.
The most common reason for a booth to be shut down is if no manager is present while food is being served to patrons. And, even then, a restaurant can begin serving food as soon as a manager returns.
Unlike regular inspections, at Taste, there is no fine if inspectors find code deficiencies.
Castaneda and Grimes started their shift at 8:30 Friday morning. The day begins with a daily briefing, and then it’s off to patrol the wide open plaza that vendor booths have created along Columbus Drive.
Armed with a pair of thermometers, a few dozen sanitary wipes and a pen – “That’s the most important thing, the pen,” Grimes says – they head off. Friday afternoon, Grimes and Castaneda, a supervisor, stop by Tutto Italiano’s booth.
Castaneda keeps a checklist, as Grimes inserts the thermometer in a vat of steamy burgers, piping hot marinara sauce and fresh vegetables. It all checks out. So do the restaurant’s frozen goods.
Lou Malnati’s Pizza, Polo Café Catering and Mazzone’s Italian Ice all pass their inspections with flying colors.
And why wouldn’t they?
“They all know we’re supposed to be there,” Guichard says.
The inspectors’ shift ends at 4 p.m. A second shift works until midnight.
Castaneda and Grimes says their jobs don’t change much during the busy days at Taste. The heat can be tough, Castaneda says.
The hardest part for Grimes?
“Getting through the crowds. Going from booth to booth without being trampled on.”
And sometimes there’s a testy restaurant owner, though most are congenial.
They don’t like it “when we start discarding the food; they get angry at us,” Castaneda says. “But they just have to follow the code.”
None of the frozen foods sold by Mazzone’s Italian Ice had to be thrown away Friday afternoon. Manager Sonny Nuccio, who has been working Tastes for 13 years, says that’s because he and his staff have experience (also, they can’t sell their goods if they’re not frozen).
“We know how to keep food safe. We like that they’re going to the other restaurants to make sure they’re safe,” he says.
Just to stay on the cautious side, though, Nuzzio and his co-manager never eat at the same restaurant when they’re running their booth at Taste.
“If one of us goes down, that’s bad. If we both go down, that’s worse,” he says.
Daily News Staff Writer Alex Parker covers public health. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 17, or alex [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.