At first glance, the walls, floors and ceilings of a kitchen do not add anything to its cooking output. A closer look says otherwise. If they are poorly maintained or constructed from porous material, they can add something highly unwelcome to the food.
The state of walls, floors and ceilings is the ultimate responsibility of the kitchen manager, but the watchdog is the local environmental health officer (EHO).
There is no standard textbook from which all EHOs work - one might accept an aspect of the fabric of the kitchen where another would warn of closure - generally, to an EHO, acceptable walls, floors and ceilings mean they can be cleaned easily and they don't harbour bugs.
The underlying purpose of any kitchen flooring is to ensure safety of food and staff. Simple material, such as heavy domestic vinyl flooring, is unlikely to be frowned on if it is in good condition, as the surface can be easily cleaned. However, it is relatively soft and can be easily penetrated by heavy cooking equipment on castors or legs, forming a bug trap.
The best vinyl floorings for commercial kitchens are heavy-duty tiles, planks or screed. Tiles are fitted together using a bonding agent, as are vinyl planks. Screed is gap-free and can be bought in a wide range of wearing and porosity values. Where a vinyl floor is fitted there should be coving between the floor and the wall to make for good cleaning.
Floor-grade clay tiles are extremely hard-wearing and unlikely to attract comment from an EHO unless there is cracking or wear in the grouting.
Gullies and a central drainage system on a kitchen floor are not the hygiene risk they are sometimes accused of being. The floor needs to be at a slight angle, directing waste water towards the gulley, which itself needs to be angled. This allows for efficient drainage when the floor has been scrubbed and sluiced.
With any gulley system, the central drain has to be kept clean and regularly disinfected. One reason that EHOs are happy with well-maintained open-gulley systems is that they encourage the use of lots of detergent and water to wash away food debris and bugs.
Of the three planes in a kitchen, the floor presents the smallest food-safety risk, since any food that falls to the floor is thrown away; but there is a need for regular sanitising of both the floor and the gulley in addition to daily general cleaning.
An alternative to smooth flooring is open-weave plastic matting, which is laid on top of a hard floor. The main benefit of this type of flooring is that the matting is anti-slip and gives a cushion effect for kitchen staff moving constantly around the room.
Slipping on kitchen floors is no longer regarded as part of the job of being a chef any more than burned fingers are. The Health & Safety Executive says that slips and trips in the food and drink industry cost more than £20m a year in sickness and compensation claims. An effective way to reduce this risk is to fit an anti-slip surface.
Water and grease are the two main causes of slips and falls in kitchens, but there is an unexpected third hazard: too much polishing, which makes the kitchen floor look pristine but is slippery when just a small amount of water collects.
Degreasing of floors is essential and should be done to the recommendations of the suppliers of cleaning materials.
Walls present a higher food-safety risk than floors, because staff hands may touch the walls and bacteria or bugs may fall from the walls into food. Ceramic tiles are no longer the first choice for new kitchens, because pitted grout presents a bug haven and old grout tends to go black with mildew and other airborne fungi. Cracked tiles are almost certain to be condemned during an EHO visit for their potential for harbouring bacteria, yet properly maintained and cleaned ceramic tiling is still acceptable for all but high-risk kitchens.
The wall covering of choice for new-build kitchens is PVC cladding. PVC is long-lasting and easy to clean and there are few crevices where bacteria can collect.
Some older kitchens may have plastered and painted walls, which, while frowned on by some EHOs, will pass inspection if they are smooth, crack-free and regularly washed down. As with floors, having coving between wall and ceiling will aid cleaning.
Hands seldom touch a kitchen ceiling, but that does not make ceilings risk-free. Plastered and painted ceilings are acceptable if they are in good condition, but there is a risk of paint and plaster contaminated by airborne bacteria flaking off and falling into food.
Fibreboard suspended ceilings are equally unsuitable, as pests can easily find a home within the fibres and either the bug or its droppings can fall into food being prepared below.
PVC cladding is an excellent ceiling surface for the same reasons it is good for walls. Also gaining popularity for ceilings is stainless steel. This can be incorporated into ventilation canopies and, with sealed coving, provides a ceiling that will last longer than the kitchen and be very easy to keep clean.