Most cooks I know—including me—hate wearing gloves in the kitchen. That’s probably why you can find so many of us ignoring health-department regulations that prohibit touching food with bare hands. Gloves are no fun. They make your hands clammy; they make you clumsy; they don’t do well with heat. When you use a mandoline, little slivers of glove always seem to land in the food. And, yes, as with sex, the sensual pleasure of cooking is dulled when there’s latex in the way.
Cooks are supposed to wear gloves to prevent the spread of foodborne illness, which is a major problem in this country. According to the CDC, food-borne diseases cause about 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year. It’s likely that the last “stomach flu” you contracted had something to do with something you ate. Disease-causing bacteria and viruses—Norwalk virus, E. coli, shigella, hepatitis A, and Staphylococcus aureus, among others—can be transmitted by dirty hands, and most localities now prohibit (or at least discourage) cooks from touching “ready-to-eat food.” Tongs, spoons, and deli paper are also acceptable barriers, but for a line cook doing detail work—say, twirling a little festoon of microgreens and balancing it atop a quenelle of tuna tartare—the only viable option is gloves. For the most part, I follow the rules. But I’m not convinced that gloves are the best way to keep eaters safe.
Workers in food-processing plants and cafeterias have been wearing gloves for decades. But gloves didn’t become common in restaurant kitchens until the ‘90s, when a few high-profile E. coli outbreaks made food safety a major public concern. Corporate restaurant chains, terrified of lawsuits, committed themselves more seriously to formal food safety programs. And during the same period, the federal government issued its first health-code guidelines since 1976. The 1993 uniform Food Code, a set of recommendations that states could choose to adopt, homed in on critical ways to improve food safety. The code, which has been revised five times since its ‘93 debut, lays out proper cooking and storage temperatures, cleaning procedures, and ways to document the origins of potentially contaminated food like shellfish. It also instructs food retailers on three things food employees must do: wash their hands properly; stay home if they’re sick; and avoid bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat foods. As of March of 2005, 48 of 56 states and territories had adopted some version of it.
As a cook in the trenches, though, I’m not convinced that rampant glove use has made cooking more sanitary. There are times when gloves work well. “We love them when we’re eviscerating squab,” said one chef in Washington, D.C. They’re also effective when a cook has injured a hand—gloves keep vinegar out of the cut and blood off the plate—or when a worker can stick to one job for a while, like making sausage or assembling sandwiches. The real problems arise for multitasking line cooks, who often use gloves poorly. Ideally, a line cook would change gloves with each new task and wash her hands every time she put on a new pair. But this takes time, and in real kitchens, it rarely happens. There are too many tasks, too many tickets, and too many unconscious behaviors: I’ve seen gloved hands scratch heads and noses and butts.
One chef I spoke to said that cooks treat gloves like a bulletproof vest—once you’re wearing them, you can become careless about other food-safety measures. And that can be dangerous. If you leave a pair of gloves on between, say, handling raw meat and slicing cooked meat for a plate, the glove can pass on nasty bacteria. And if you put gloves on unclean hands, they can become infected inside and out. An emphasis on glove use can overshadow the importance of washing your hands, and washing them well, which is probably the most crucial step cooks can take to prevent the spread of disease. Personally, I think a cook is more likely to wash her hands frequently if she feels something on them, be that the guts she handled when cleaning a fish, the flour and egg she used to bread it, or the parsley and sea salt she sprinkled on top.
If gloves aren’t foolproof, then why are they so widespread? Easy: You can see whether a cook has gloves on. You can’t see whether his hands are clean. Gloves are visible to kitchen managers, government inspectors, and the busy practitioners of dirty-restaurant journalism (who follow not the money, but the mouse poop). Perhaps most important, customers can see them: One study conducted by the glove industry showed that 85 percent of customers who observe gloved workers say they “believe [the] operation is trying very hard to be sanitary and cares about me.” Because hand-washing is a process, and one that must be repeated again and again throughout the day, it is harder to confirm that it’s being done properly. (Not for long, though. One company has devised a Big Brother-esque sink that can, using an employee ID card, track how often and thoroughly workers wash up in a given day.)
Given the problems with gloves, it’s not surprising that the National Restaurant Association has lobbied the FDA to loosen up the food code’s language on bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat foods. And they’ve had some success. The brand new 2005 food code, which was released on Friday, allows restaurants to apply for permission to allow bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat foods if they pass a gamut of hygiene tests. How such language will trickle down to states and localities remains to be seen.
But not all restaurants bother to ask for permission. Even in certain cities and counties where the practice is a violation, cooks continue to serve food with bare hands, particularly in higher-end restaurants. There is, in fact, a kind of latex class barrier in the restaurant world: Every Subway sandwich I’ve ever eaten has been made with gloved hands, but whenever I eat sushi, my raw fish, ginger, and wasabi have all been handled by bare fingers. Frank Bruni, the New York Times restaurant critic, noted this phenomenon in his rapt review of Masa, Manhattan’s obscenely expensive sushi mecca: “From just inches away, you watch this ritual, which culminates in the chef’s placing the sushi in front of you with a bare hand.” Never mind that in New York, bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat food is a critical violation on a health-inspector’s report. I have yet to sign a waiver at a restaurant door, but if that’s what it takes to get a perfect piece of nigiri assembled by a bare-handed sushi master, just show me the dotted line. Because in the end, it’s not gloves, but engaged cooks—those who care about the outcome of their work—that make for good food, and safer food. The trick is expanding that mindset to all restaurants: from high-end kitchens to greasy spoons.