“Who cooked this chicken?”
Oh boy, I thought. Here we go again. One of the managers was already on the scene, trying to reason and match step with the next round of this belligerent ballet. I knew the drill. Just stay in the kitchen.
“Can I help you?” the manager asked. “What seems to be the problem?”
“Is your cook trying to kill us? There is pink in the chicken!”
I could tell you of how I’ve been through the food handler’s safety course three times, been working in kitchens for thirteen years (twelve as a cook), and even suggest that I’m not the type of person who would willingly put a sub-par product out on the line. But I’m sure you are well aware that anyone could say that and probably would to cover their tracks. It really wouldn’t matter: there are folks who just don’t care. Time and experience doesn’t matter if you don’t care about what you’re doing.
But hey, how could they, or you, know for certain where I fell on that chess board?
Around this point in the conversation (a word I use loosely to describe the irate customer’s tirade) they would become experts on baking chicken. That was the point of contention. The baked chicken was always a point of contention. Why? Because there would be spots of pink in it.
Why would I admit that? You’re going to think I’m crazy . . .
I should turn back the clock. Let’s say ninety minutes. The chicken comes from the distributor in twenty-pound boxes. It’s a buffet, after all. The morning prep cooks distribute the bird onto sheet trays for easy access, half remaining bare and the other half coated in a dry batter for the fryer. It’s not ideal but I have certainly seen worse. I clock in around two o’clock, prep what I need for the evening, and then get ready to bake a tray. You season it liberally, flip it onto a rack placed on another sheet tray, and season the other side. You place it in the oven and time it for sixty-five minutes. When the timer goes, you stick the probe thermometer in the thickest part of the bird. Then you check different points around the tray to make sure the whole thing cooked evenly and thoroughly.
165 degrees at the bare minimum . . .
“I demand a refund!” I lost track of the conversation but was unsurprised that it came back to that. It always came back to that. But would the manager comp the meal or stand his ground? After all, there was no ground for the customer to stand on. They were in the wrong.
There’s a difference between pink chicken and chicken with some pink in it. Maybe you know the difference, and if you do, I applaud you. You won’t hear too much about it on the Food Network, or on some food blog that relishes in aesthetics, or even your cookbooks. Not typically, anyway. And I certainly understand why people would be rattled or concerned if they didn’t know about it. But here is the difference between the colors: a properly cooked bird–one that is up to temperature–will not have pink in it. If it is a light pink inside, then it probably didn’t reach temperature. And here is the even more important part, the tell-all of your cooking plight: does it have bones? Bones have a little something on the inside called marrow which will come out and color the cooked meat. But it is cooked and it is safe to eat. This will be a darker pink. This buffet used bone-in chicken.
Things sounded heated out there now, and the customer would not let up. I decided to come out since it wasn’t terribly busy. The customer was an older man with gray hair, glasses, and a knitted sweatshirt.
“Are you the cook?” he said to me. I was wearing a chef jacket and apron so I could understand his confusion.
“Yep, that’s me.”
“Your manager is trying to say that chicken gets pink inside of it when it bakes. I cook chicken all the time. It never has any pink in it!”
“How do you cook it? I need some pointers.” He didn’t think that was funny and he didn’t want to divulge his culinary secrets either. I continued with the usual, the same speech given a few times each week. “I assure you, the chicken is safe. As long as it reaches the correct internal temperature all over, it is safe to eat. Because it still has its bones, the marrow cooks out into the meat. The health inspectors will tell you the same thing. It is safe to eat.” Which was true. Contrary to what people thought in the kitchen, health inspectors were usually great to work with.
He turned back to the manager. “I want a refund!”
The manager sighed, defeated. “Okay.” This was a frequent battle and it was frequently lost. I felt a sense of defeat too that the customer managed to bully a comped meal out of him. It would usually end the same way too. The customer would be rude to the other staff but continue to return to the buffet for more. If they would listen or do a little digging around, they would find out that it was safe to eat. Was it pretty? Not really, but some folks love the taste of marrow. Most of the customers who ate the baked chicken knew that marrow would color the meat. Most of the customers weren’t entitled and looking for a fight a family buffet either.
The manager came back from the register and stood next to me. “Well, I wonder what he’ll complain about when he comes again tomorrow.”
“Does he come here regularly?” I asked.
“Yep. Regular enough. Anyway, back to it.” He went out to the dining area.
I turned around to go to the kitchen but was stopped by soft voice.
“Excuse me, sir?” I turned back around. It was a short, elderly lady who had walked up behind me. She had a piece of baked chicken on her plate.
“What can I do for you?” I asked.
“Well, I didn’t want to raise a fuss.”
“There’s no fuss at all,” I smiled. “What seems to be the problem?”
“Well, there’s a little bit of pink in my chicken . . .”
Author’s note: Things Heard and Said was an online diary of sorts back when the Unnecessary Blog was on Blogspot. The posts are fictionalized, though mostly true stories about some of life’s little absurdities. It is not chronological. Here is the previous and unrelated post in the series: The Ballad of Mickey, My Friend