ON THE HOTTEST DAY OF 2011, Eyob Mazengia, health and environmental investigator for the Seattle and King County Public Health department, stands on an unshaded street corner awaiting the magazine writer—me—who is scheduled to follow him around on his afternoon visits. Right away, I spot him. It’s easy, since there are few other contenders for the part of restaurant inspector among the characters loitering at this particular intersection on this particular afternoon. It seems unlikely that the raggedy duo confabbing in front of the drug store, their cigarettes squeezed tightly in their dishwater-colored fingers, are in the business of preaching proper food-cooling practices to line cooks. And while it’s possible that the young beauty across the street from them (matte lipstick, short skirt) spends her days querying dishwashers about the ratios of sanitation solutions, I doubt it.
No, here is the man for the job: Eyob Mazengia, compact and evenly proportioned at about five foot six, wearing black trousers and an ironed oxford shirt. Squeezed in his right hand, the handle of his attache case works hard to bear its heaving burden: inspection reports; laminated sick-leave-policy reminders in English, Mandarin, Spanish, and Korean; a digital thermometer sheathed in purple plastic.
We shake hands. It’s a reflexive nicety, but one that later, after I see him open a men’s room door so that it touched only his sleeved upper arm, will seem less benign. Isn’t such palm-to-palm contact unwelcome in the world of restaurant inspectors? Does this potential passage of pathogens inspire a ripple of anxiety in a person so preoccupied with contamination? Or does Eyob Mazengia’s attraction to positive human connection overpower his acute awareness of potentially disastrous microbial contact?
Properly introduced, we walk at a speedy clip toward Mazengia’s first scheduled destination, a conveyor-belt sushi bar. On the way, he launches into his spiel, a spiel I will hear many times during our afternoon together. The health inspector is not an enforcer. He is not here to dig up reasons to shut down restaurants. Think of him as an educator, rather than a cop. He is here to help! The restaurant inspector, the restaurateur, and the staff are a team, and their goal, together, is to keep the public healthy.
He’s still talking when we arrive at the sushi bar. It’s the waning moments of the lunch hour, and there is just one couple eyeing the saucers of shrimp nigiri and steamed edamame that travel around the room on a brand-new track. Invented in Osaka, Japan, in the late 1950s, conveyor-belt, or kaiten, sushi bars were designed to cut costs by reducing staff and simplifying pricing (the color of the plate corresponds to its cost). The concept came to Seattle about 12 years ago—as it happens King County Public Health temporarily shuttered one of the area’s first kaiten spots, Marinepolis Sushi Land in Bellevue, just a month before Mazengia and I darken the door at this one. Two people who’d dined there had come down with salmonella. The county never established a direct correlation, and the restaurant was quickly reopened.
Mazengia opens up his investigation the way he does every visit. He rolls up his sleeves, squares off in front of the hand-washing sink, and gives his mitts a good, long, soapy scrub. This, he explains as the kimono-clad sushi chef and I hover around him, reinforces the practice of meticulous hand washing to restaurant owners and workers.
It can come off as condescending, this whole scrubbing show, but hand washing is serious business in the food safety sector. Food makes us sick when it is contaminated with bacteria, parasites, or viruses—things that get there by way of dirty hands. Clean hands, plastic gloves, sanitizer: These precautions are, to Mazengia’s mind, the central weapons in the war against outbreak.
At the automatic dishwasher, another lecture. A pH strip reveals that no chlorine is traveling through the machine; the sushi bar’s colorful plates are not being properly sanitized. Repairs will be necessary. Crouching in front of coolers, peeking into Tupperware containers, checking the labels on chemicals, Mazengia makes frequent use of what teachers like to refer to as the “shit sandwich” approach to criticism—every negative comment is smooshed between compliments. I’m happy to see you using separate knives for cutting raw fish and vegetables, but you need to call the dishwasher guy so you’re actually sanitizing your dishes. But I like that you have a system for knowing when food went onto the conveyor belt. And so on.
King County Public Health color codes the risks associated with health-code infractions—red equals high, blue means low. Food in a cooler that’s warmer than 41 degrees is code red; while, surprisingly, winged pests or rat scat only earn blue. The dishwashing snafu is considered a blue offense. If it was the only issue Mazengia encountered, or if the restaurant had only received three or four blues, the sushi bar would have received a satisfactory report. However after Mazengia inspects the (immaculate) kitchen and travels out to the front of the house to peruse one of the menus, he discovers a big red no-no. There’s no this-could-kill-you warning against the potential pitfalls of eating raw food. A posted warning about the health risks of uncooked food is required by the state, and most especially if you traffic in raw fish. The result of this oversight: an “unsatisfactory” report.
As we head out again onto the sunny street, I ask Mazengia what will happen if the restaurant doesn’t address its issues. He says he’ll continue going back until the problems are fixed. Eventually, if the offender refuses to improve, King County Public Health will begin billing the establishment for Mazengia’s “services.” Against its will, the restaurant will have an inspector on its payroll.
He tells me all this smiling. Eyob Mazengia loves his job. A native of Eritrea, he came to Seattle to study public health at the University of Washington. Before he became an inspector, he was a microbiologist toiling quietly in a lab inspecting compost and wastewater for contamination. He loved the science, but yearned for social interaction. The restaurant inspector loves people, loves walking into their worlds and learning how they work. Even though dishwashers sometimes go running out the door at the sight of him? Even though people tend to either roll their eyes or wring their hands in his presence? It doesn’t bother Mazengia. The point, he explains, is to educate them so they know not to be afraid because he’s on their side. Besides, he says, most people are wonderful.
Right after he tells me that, this happens: We approach a fine-dining restaurant that Mazengia says has had a few problems in the past. He raps on the door. Nothing. He raps again, nothing. But then, from my position on the sidewalk, I see a cook in a white apron emerge out the side entrance. Spying us, he sneaks back in the kitchen. If he notices, Mazengia doesn’t acknowledge it. He knocks again, then gives up and says he’ll try again tomorrow.
We backtrack to a ramen restaurant, where Mazengia is scandalized by a hand-washing sink that’s doubling as a receptacle for empty wine bottles. He’s placated by another empty sink nearby, but concerned anew when he discovers the stainless steel bottom is dry—evidence it hasn’t been used recently. But the restaurant will pass with a satisfactory report, despite the hand-washing question and the fact that its college-age staffers drape dish towels all over the kitchen and leave jeans in a heap in the corner as if this were their dorm room. Despite a few fruit flies looping around the dishwashing station.
The final stop of the day is an Ethiopian restaurant, a neighborhood institution that moved into this location in 2005. The owner is tall, a friendly giant who towers over Mazengia as he takes us back to the kitchen. It is astonishingly bare bones—just one old stove, one fridge—but it’s clean and cozy. A young woman preps for dinner alongside an older one. Both smile instinctively as we appear behind the tall guy; the only authentic-feeling smiles Mazengia and I have received today. The night’s dishes, orange and saucy, are set out in metal warmers.
Around 5pm, the first of the diners arrive and the younger woman slips out to greet them. I follow her. The guests—three female friends—order drinks and discuss the menu. The server returns to take their order; then goes to the bar and pours a beer for the injera purveyor, who has stopped by to drop off a fresh order of flat bread. I go back to the kitchen where Mazengia and the older woman scoop stews from containers on the counter into pans and pots on the burners. He takes the temperature of the food with his purple gauge, asks her how she heats it, asks her where she sources her spinach. Mazengia explains that the injera should be picked up using tongs, not fingers.
Back in the dining room, the food arrives and the guests pass plates, unaware that they’re currently consuming one of the safest dinners in King County—stews brought to optimal temperature in the optimal time; spongy pancakes untouched by human hands…at least since they arrived at this restaurant.
The main thing at the Ethiopian restaurant, Mazengia tells me, is that the unfinished floor in the bar needs to be replaced, and that there is water damage in the restrooms. Mazengia and I shake hands with the owner and the two women and walk squinting into the still-bright sun. There, he presses his well-scrubbed palm against mine and we say our goodbyes. And then the restaurant inspector walks east toward his car, where, I imagine, a bottle of hand sanitizer awaits him.