County inspector works for the health of it

Local restaurants toe the line to win vital green placard.

By Lisa Heyamoto - Bee Staff Writer
Published 12:00 am PDT Friday, August 10, 2007

Sonia Lee is not an ominous figure. Petite, professional and unfailingly polite, she's not exactly the type of person who inspires fear.

But as a Sacramento County health inspector, she can poke around in restaurant kitchens with impunity, arrive unannounced and command change, and even close a restaurant down with a furrowed brow and a flick of her pen.

So, it's with some trepidation that chefs welcome her into their kitchens.

They want to receive their green pass placard, of course. And 88 percent of them do. But when you see a cop on the highway, well, there's always a chance you might have been speeding.

Restaurants "should be ready all day long," Lee says of her drop-in visits. "We want to see how they're actually operating."

A sports therapist by training, Lee's career took a turn after college. The prospect of a paying job in health inspection sounded a bit better than years of debt racked up in graduate school.

The health inspector gig, first with Yolo County and then with Sacramento County, sounded interesting, kept her out of an office and incorporated the element of education -- important components, she knew, of any career she undertook.

"It's a perfect job for me," she said. "Every day, it's different, and you don't get in a rut."

With a bagful of safety gadgets and notebook in hand, she randomly visits any place that sells food: restaurants, grocery stores, markets and even the occasional pool. She teaches food safety courses in English and Cantonese and strives to teach operators how to pass a test. She wants them to pass as much as they do.

"She's definitely one of our leaders here," said Alicia Enriquez, environmental health program manager for Sacramento County. "She goes above and beyond to try to assist the operators, the community and her colleagues."

And though Lee is poised to answer even the smallest question about food safety and county health code, there are a few queries she gets more often.

Has she ever been chased out of a restaurant by a crazed, pot-wielding chef?

"You're dealing with the public, so you meet some very nice people and some not-so-nice people," she said.

What's the grossest thing she's ever seen?

"I've seen roaches, mice and sewage," she said. "But very rarely in the facility."

Is it hard to dine out when she knows every restaurant's dirty little secrets?

"Sometimes when I go out to eat, it's hard," she said. "I try to turn it off."

Does she have, like, the cleanest kitchen in the land?

"Mine is OK," she said. "(But) I'm like, 'Mom, I would give you a yellow (needs some improvement).' "

Lee inspects a handful of establishments every day, mainly in midtown. Some take longer than others, especially when, in the recent case of Paragary's Bar & Oven, she has to take on a full-service kitchen, a pizza station and two separate bars.

Walking into the kitchen, Lee was met with a chorus of good-natured "uh-oh's." She went right for the handwashing sink and commenced to scrub, as much to set an example as to test its usability.

Finding the water satisfactorily hot (146 degrees, to be precise), she proceeded to inquire how frequently the meat slicer is cleaned (every day), where, exactly, those tomatoes were going to be washed (at a nearby sink), and whether all the raw meat in the walk-in refrigerator was stored on the bottom shelf (it was.)

From there, it was a shuffle through the line cooks to the food prep area, where she suggested that the staff keep sauteed vegetables in the fridge, that they get a thermometer that goes down to 0 degrees and that they should probably replace the missing tile at the base of the wall in the corner.

"Whoa, good eye," mutters sous-chef Terry Brewer. "We just want to fix everything that needs to be fixed."

In the end, both Brewer and Lee were happy with the green placard she carefully taped by the restaurant door.