By Michael Russell

The Oregonian

Shannon Fost might wash her hands more than anyone you know.

It’s the first thing the Multnomah County restaurant inspector does when she enters a working kitchen, dipping her hands into tiny sinks tucked in corners or behind giant refrigerators, testing to see if there’s soap in the dispenser and water that’s suitably hot.

And she usually does it twice, demonstrating the double hand-washing technique required by the state since Oregon doesn’t require food workers to wear disposable gloves.

Last month, the 47-year-old inspector took a reporter along for a rare pre-announced inspection of Le Bistro Montage in Southeast Portland. After meeting Montage chef Derek Ingwood near the front door, Fost looked over the menu for recent additions, then headed to the kitchen, where she washed her hands, checked the temperatures of items in various fridges and tested the cleaning buckets and dishwasher to make sure they had the proper amount of bleach or other cleaning agents.

Until now, the results of those inspections have been nearly as opaque as the process itself. Unlike other cities, where restaurants are required to prominently post letter grades, scores or, in Seattle’s case, emojis, Portland restaurants are asked to sport a small “Complied” sticker near the entrance. Many Portlanders might not be aware of what that sign means — that the restaurant scored at least a 70 out of 100 on its most recent inspection — or that those scores are available online.

Does anyone grow up hoping to become a restaurant inspector? Fost went to school for physical therapy, and spent a dozen years working at Nordstrom before getting into real estate in McMinnville.

One day, she happened to sell a house to the director of the Yamhill County Health Department, and he happened to have an opening for a restaurant inspector. He asked her to apply.

“I was like, ‘I don’t even know what that is,’” Fost said. “But I read the description and thought, ‘Yeah, that might be a nice fit.’ That was 10 years ago.”

Fost is now one of 24 environmental health specialists responsible for inspecting Multnomah County’s 3,500 restaurants and 900 food carts, twice a year.

According to Jeffrey Martin, the county’s Environmental Health Supervisor, that plus reinspections and visits to events and other locales where food is served adds up to about 15,000 inspections a year, with only a few dozen failing grades.

On the last day of May, Fost stepped off the street and onto the wooden floor boards at Montage, a 26-year-old restaurant known for its servers in lab coats.

“Any manager would be nervous when the health inspector shows up,” Ingwood said. “You never know it’s coming. One of your kitchen guys grabs you and said, ‘The health inspector’s here.’ I try not to hover.”

Fost walks through the kitchen, dipping small paper strips into bleach buckets and a steaming dishwasher, checking to make sure the proper amount of chemicals are in each. She leans her head into a tiny walk-in refrigerator and pokes a few ingredients with her thermometer. Everything seems to be in order. Not all inspections go this smoothly.

Inspectors deduct points in three categories, using a system Oregon cherry-picked from the FDA. “Priority” violations, good for a five-point deduction each, include most temperature issues, such as not cooking meats to the required 165 degrees. Subtract three points for any “Priority Foundation” violations, which might include not carrying a working thermometer. “Core” violations have no point value, but include dirty floors and walls.

If the restaurant has no hot water, no power or rodent droppings in the food, inspectors are likely to shut the restaurant down immediately.

Ingwood said he respects inspectors and the inspection process, and takes each encounter as a chance to learn more about food safety.

“We’re putting food in people’s bodies, you know what I mean?” he said. “It’s actually a lot more serious than some people take it.”.