Click the audio player above to hear the full conversation. CultureShift airs weekdays 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. on 101.9- Detroit Public Radio.
Rats running wild in an alley filled with pizza dough. Fungus growing out of the floor. A can of insecticide kept by the food prep table.
These are just a handful of scenes Agnes Gira has photographed during her 25-year career inspecting kitchens of Detroit restaurants for the Detroit Health Department.
Gira’s photos were initially meant as an educational tool for other health inspectors until a professor at Wayne State University saw the potential in her work, which pairs the energy of street photography with the mystery of what happens behind closed doors in area restaurants.
“My professor Marilyn Zimmerman was fascinated by the photos I took,” says Gira, who retired in 2015. “She more or less taught me how to focus (the camera) better. She gave me help in getting (my photos) even better and she encouraged me to use them in a show.”
Dining advice from a health inspector: “If they can’t maintain the restroom then I wouldn’t want to eat there,” says Gira.
One of the pictures shows the bathroom of a restaurant that kept a cooler filled with pies directly next to the toilet (pictured below).
“I had to get a picture of it,” says Gira. “I made them move the pies out. It was ridiculous. People were actually eating a pie when they used the facility.”
Another photo seems innocuous enough — some celery being chopped up on the cutting board — but a closer look shows a can of Raid pesticide sitting inches away from the food (pictured above).
“What I noticed in that also is the cutting board is horrendous,” says Gira. “It’s possible that pesticide has soaked into the cutting board. I don’t know if they’re using it on the celery.”
Gira’s experience as a health inspector hasn’t stopped her from dining at restaurants in Detroit. She says one of her longtime favorites is the Telway on Michigan Avenue on the city’s westside where Gira and her husband can “see everything they’re doing.”
“We love the people and we love the food,” says Gira. “The food is consistent. I’ve been in the back. There’s no mice. It’s wonderful.”
Gira says there’s a handful of things to look for when you’re going out to eat at any restaurant.
“I check the restroom first. If they can’t maintain the restroom then I wouldn’t want to eat there,” says Gira. ”I never eat in places with no windows. Maybe that’s not good for me to say, but I don’t like to eat in dark places.”
She adds that the outside of the restaurant can also help determine the cleanliness of what’s going on inside the kitchen.
“I always walked around the back,” says Gira. ”I have one picture of an alley full of pizza dough. If they’re throwing stuff out like that, you just don’t want to eat there. The rats will find it.”
Gira remembers a restaurant on Cass Avenue in Detroit that creatively tried to keep the rats out of the restaurant.
“I had a restaurant that kept food by the backdoor so the rodents wouldn’t come inside,” says Gira.
For the record, that’s a violation.
Click on the audio player above to hear the full conversation with photographer and former Detroit health inspector Agnes Gira about her exhibit “The Other Dirty Show” now on display at the Scarab Club.