If you can’t take the heat, imagine what it’s like in the kitchen

Posted July 17, 2013, at 1:33 p.m.
Last modified July 17, 2013, at 4:24 p.m.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — They call it the Bermuda Triangle of heat.

In the corner of Scratch Baking Co. stands a 550-degree oven, a stove with pots of boiling water and a warm pastry oven. On a hot summer day this air conditioned-free-space can get up to 120 degrees. It’s not a place you would choose to be during a July heat wave.

But what if it’s your job?

Long before the sun comes up, baker Melanie Roy pulls loaves of baguettes and hundreds of bagels out of the triple-decker oven in the bakery, just steps from Willard Beach. On a recent morning, when outdoor temperatures soared into the 90s, she was sweaty but smiling.

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“You have to mentally prepare yourself and power through it,” said Roy, soaking through her pink bandana.

For a core group of people, those who call the kitchen home, heat comes with the territory.

When it’s 94 degrees in July, bakers, pizza makers and cooks, those who toil in hot and humid work zones, endure uncomfortable environments on a regular basis. While many of us can duck into an air conditioned home or office, seek shade or cool off at the lake, they suffer through.

“You need to be a certain kind of crazy to deal with these elements and keep coming back to work,” Roy said. “You really have to love what you do.”

Sonja Swanberg, co-owner of Scratch Baking Co., keeps a watchful eye on her baking staff. If someone looks woozy or lightheaded she reminds them to take a drink or cool off in the walk-in cooler.

To ward off heat exposure, Swanberg said she and her team have a three-pronged approach.

She keeps a vat of electrolyte-infused water in the cooler, encouraging employees to replenish often; has wet, frozen towels on hand for their necks and brow, and tries to remain upbeat.

“Honestly we have a good attitude about it,” said Swanberg. “Keep hydrated and smile through it.”

That’s what pizza cook Spencer McGrath at OTTO Pizza was trying to do on Congress Street in Portland this week. At the slice bar, inches away from a 500-degree oven, it felt much like a sauna.

“On a busy night you can go cuckoo,” he said. “You feel the heat as you walk back there, it’s pretty brutal.”

Even with strategically placed clip-on fans under the front counter, and an air conditioner overhead, there was little relief. The front door was wide open, spilling cool air onto the sidewalk.

“It’s rough, but you go into it expecting it,” he said.

The threat of heat exhaustion is not something most people expect at work. But knowing how to keep your cool when heat is part of your job description is vital, health experts say. In such environments a strategy is key.

“In extreme temperatures, people need to acclimate,” said Christine Irish, an emergency department physician at Maine Medical Center.

A mild case of heat exposure — fatigue, dizziness and becoming light-headed — can be fought off with a few simple steps. First, eat regularly.

“You want to have all of your resources,” said Irish.

Take regular breaks and don’t stand in one place too long.

“The blood will pool to your legs and you’ll become lightheaded,” she said.

The worst thing you can do if working in a hot kitchen is to drink alcohol or coffee, both are diuretics that accelerate dehydration, she said.

“It’s about keeping yourself hydrated all around. Go in prepared. Take good, continuous care of yourself,” said Irish.

Despite best efforts, working in extreme heat “can put anyone in a bad mood,” said Chris Beth, owner of OhNo Cafe in Portland’s West End.

At the neighborhood sandwich shop, where indoor temps reached 94 this week, cooking can be an extreme sport.

Though two air conditioners were blasting, the tiny cafe in the 19th century building was sweltering. With seven heat sources and an oven hood sucking the cool air out of the room, it felt more like Alabama than Maine.

When his lease comes up in February, central air is top on Beth’s list of negotiations with his landlord.

“It would make everybody’s life easier if it was cooler in here,” said Beth, who is considering buying personal cooling devices for his employees to wear while fighting flames.

Frying eggs at the stove, OhNo’s head chef John Martovich looked at the scorching situation philosophically.

“It’s that kind of work. You’re miserable for nine hours, but I try and remember that the same people who ask me to stick my head in the oven are also feeding my family,” he said.

Business actually picks up when its unbearable out, Beth said.

Customers like Jack Kane, waiting patiently for his breakfast sandwich in the sultry cafe, wasn’t sweating it.

“If the food’s good enough, I don’t care how hot it is,” he said.

Kathleen Pierce can be reached at kpierce@bangordailynews.com and on Twitter @PierceNews

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