Keep Your Dirty Paws Off: Why Don’t All Chefs Wear Gloves?

Don’t touch my food. Please.

I was reading the New York Times food section recently and came across a photograph of a chef at one of the new restaurants in the Time Warner Center (I’ll kindly withhold the name) who was preparing a dish of yellow snapper filets. Leaning over the serving plate with the intense gaze of a watch dealer, he seemed to be molding them into some kind of interlocking sculpture. This handiwork was being performed bare-handed as his assistant, also sans protective gloves, picked at another morsel of seafood.

About a month ago, I visited one of New York’s most acclaimed seafood restaurants in order to watch the chef prepare a dish that I wanted to write about. Again the gloveless nudging, the prodding, the arranging—in the course of an hour, I saw more flesh-fondling than at a drive-in movie.

Call me overly hygienic, but the idea of someone barehanding my food in a restaurant kitchen is about as appetizing as lunching on the subway. For one, there is always the possibility of food contamination. And then—if you become aware of it—there is the “yuk!” factor.

Years ago, before open kitchens became as common as breadsticks, diners had no way to know how much pre-prandial food petting was transpiring in the kitchen. Today, however, you can walk right up and conduct your own inspection, as I frequently do. (“Hey, you—get your fingers off my John Dory!”)

The way I see it, if a chef inappropriately—and illegally—toys with food in a New York Times photo spread, I can only imagine what is happening in less conspicuous settings.

A few weeks ago, I was leafing through a back issue of Food Arts magazine, in which there was an article on something or other, accompanied by the photo of a chef from Philadelphia. With an earnest expression, he hunched over what appeared to be an appetizer and, with unprotected hands, was garnishing a skyscraper of food. On a nearby page was a photo of Charlie Trotter, of Chicago, one of the country’s most eminent chefs, touching a very good-looking entrée—wearing kitchen gloves!

It doesn’t seem like such an imposition, donning gloves. And, in fact, it is mandatory by law.

The city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene requires cooks to wear protective gloves when handling food that is not to be cooked before serving. (Oven mitts decorated with fish or cats wearing chef hats do not qualify.)

Maybe some chefs feel that gloves in some way inhibit their art, in the same way bare-knuckle boxers groused when bulky gloves became the norm.

As my recent informal inspection of 10 establishments (with open kitchens) revealed, restaurants tend to fall into one of two categories: total compliance with the law, or total disregard.

In some kitchens I visited, everyone who handled raw food wore gloves; in others, only the dishwashers did. I found that most of the touching occurs—I spotted three examples—when the plate is being assembled before serving. (“Steer that salmon starboard!”)

The odds of becoming seriously ill from kitchen workers failing to wear gloves are low, though the result can be serious: hepatitis A or some form of bacterial infection.

“If restaurant workers regularly wash their hands before handling food and leaving the bathroom, there should be no problem,” said Dr. Sharon Balter, of the city health department’s Bureau of Communicable Diseases. When I asked Dr. Balter to offer an example of a “problem,” she cited “fecal/oral contamination.” At that point, I terminated the interview for fear that we were going places my readers might prefer to leave to the imagination.

One of the risky kitchen procedures is handling raw chicken, she said, which carries traces of salmonella. So what good are gloves if they can become contaminated? Most importantly, they protect the food (and eaters of said food) from an employee who might have an open sore or other unspeakable afflictions.

City restaurant inspectors routinely demote restaurants that violate the glove law, and as a result the compliance rate is improving. In fiscal year 2001, for example, 1,481 violations were logged; in 2004, it was down to 976.

That said, I am amazed that I am still alive. Restaurant writers consume hundreds of meals, involving all manner of human contact. Worse, we pass dishes around the table, so that every coughing, wheezing, feverish guest can dig into every serving.

Dr. Balter says that, in general, this is not a major source of illness.

“Except if you use the same utensil for the whole table,” she warns.

Another group which evidently believes that gloves stifle creativity is sushi chefs. To be sure, sushi chefs appear to have clean hands—and they’d better, touching all that raw fish all day long. If you sit at the bar, as I usually do, they can’t pull anything over on you, like taking a quick break to use the pay phone, or counting their tip money.

In fairness, I’ve made the rounds with New York restaurant inspectors more than once and can affirm that the vast majority of upper-end dining establishments are sanitary and well-kept. Yet I’ve found that there’s an inverse correlation when it comes to this food-touching issue: The odds of getting a meal that has been handled before serving are in direct proportion to the price of the establishment. This was especially true half a century ago, as was most graphically portrayed by George Orwell in his classic book Down and Out in Paris and London, in which he describes his time working in upscale kitchens of both cities:

“When a steak is brought up for the head cook’s inspection, he does not handle it with a fork. He picks it up with his fingers and slaps it down, runs his thumb around the dish and licks it to taste the gravy, runs it round and licks again, then steps back and contemplates the piece of meat like an artist judging a picture.”

Having witnessed a fair amount of food-touching in restaurants of all kinds, I have come around to the belief that a chef toying with my food is sort of like watching professional wrestling—it’s disconcerting to behold, even if few get hurt.

Keep Your Dirty Paws Off: Why Don’t All Chefs Wear Gloves?