To glove, or not to glove?

Hey, guess what, kids – it’s National Food Safety Education Month!  Coincidentally, some thoughts on gloves in the kitchen:

Recently I attended an industry event sponsored by Plate Magazine, which was great fun.  Hosted at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Cambridge, we spent the morning watching (and smelling, and drooling over) chef demos of favorite recipes from their restaurants.  Next came a tasting lunch of all the morning’s dishes prepared by the students whose school we’d invaded, and in the afternoon, a Top Chef-style cooking competition.  Actually, it was more like an early-season-Hell’s-Kitchen competition, since we were in teams of 6 or 8 chefs competing against other teams…each team with a color-coded hat so we could tell each other apart in the super-heated insanity of the kitchens. I was on the Maroon team, or perhaps it was Burgundy – let’s go with Burgundy, since that summons a vastly more delicious connotation…you just can’t go “mmmm, maroon” the way you can with Burgundy.

lunch
Lunch!

Anyway, it was a blast and there was great food and fun, and it felt wonderful (and humbling) to be in the company of so many talented chefs.  For the cooking competition, we had to develop recipes based on a list of ingredients that had been provided by sponsors – Barilla Pasta, the Australian Lamb Board, California Raisins, etc.   The theme of the event (and the latest Plate issue) was Mediterranean cooking, and each team had to produce an entree, a tapas-style small plate, one with shellfish, etc., in enough quantity so that everyone, judges and other chefs alike, could sample all the finished dishes.  In the kitchen I worked alongside Chef Mike,  head chef at a large local private university, and so well accustomed to cooking for large audiences.  I of course usually cook for only one family at a time, so cooking in any sort of volume is definitely not my comfort zone.  So I became something of a wing man for Mike, contributing to the development of the dishes but letting him take the lead on quantities and final garnishes (another thing I don’t get to do very often – sprigs of fresh herbs not holding up particularly well for days at a time. )

PlateCooks entries
Some of the entries from the PlateCooks competition

Each team had a student popping around offering things – kosher salt, more towels, gloves.  I passed on the gloves but saw that everyone else – all restaurant or foodservice cooks – was taking them.  I asked, don’t they get in the way?  The fingertips caught under the edge of your knife, ending up with tiny rubber slivers in the ratatouille?  Always too large or too small, and ending up full of water like a cartoon hand when you’re at the sink every 2 minutes?  Most of them replied that while that might be true, health codes required them to wear gloves whenever in contact with food, especially prepped foods that were ready to be served without further cooking.  Which makes sense in a foodservice setting, of course, for two big reasons: lots of people with lots of unknown hygiene routines work there, and unlike personal chefs, they aren’t always two steps away from a sink to wash their hands.   But in the client’s kitchen, if you’re like me then you’re at the sink washing your hands roughly every 3 or 4 minutes all throughout the cook date.  Mince some garlic, wash your hands.  Zest a lemon, wash your hands.  Sandwich break, wash your hands.  Clean your cutting board, wash your hands.  Leave the room for any reason, wash your hands.  And certainly, touch poultry, crack an egg, skin a salmon fillet  – wash your hands.   It’s why super-creamy hand lotion becomes part of my chef kit every fall, to help with the inevitable red, raw, or even cracked skin you get from so much exposure to water and soap.   But, I learned, or perhaps realized is a better word, since I guess I already knew that hand-washing sinks are rarely right next to a commercial stove – in a commercial kitchen, you don’t wash your hands every two minutes: you change your gloves.

I used to wear them cheffing, and I still do for dinner parties where I’m refilling trays and bustling about.  I think I just ran out once, and didn’t get them again when I realized that they bugged me anyway – the fingers are always too long and they end up under my knife, which is dangerous; they diminish sensitivity (insert condom-related joke here), so for instance if I’m pressing my lamb chop to check it’s doneness, there is just [thatmuch] less accuracy there due to the latex-free vinyl barrier between me and my meat.  I always end up stripping them off every few minutes anyway b/c I have to wash my hands between tasks –  not doing it feels exactly like not washing them after using a gas station bathroom. It’s icky.  My hands must be washed every few minutes around food, and so I ended up going through dozens of pairs of gloves during a cookdate. And as a ferocious recycler/friend of the earth, that just bums me out. So there you go.  I don’t usually wear gloves in the kitchen.  But I bet you I am, and you are, light years more sanitary than the average foodservice worker.  Not to besmirch their general reputations – but these are OUR businesses, so every little teeny detail matters, right?  In my state, the regulations regarding Personal Chef businesses are wafer thin, but I don’t recall ever seeing anything stipulating we go gloved.  We operate in a sort of murky twilight as far as the Health Department is concerned anyway, somewhere between domestic servant and a caterer…but do us all a favor and nobody go ask them. 🙂

What say you, chefs?  Do you love the gloves, or do your hands need to be up close and personal with your foodstuffs?

(PS: wondering who won best-in-show for their individual dish?  This guy:

Jason Santos
Blue-haired Jason Santos, victorious at the PlateCooks event - one day before losing the Hell's Kitchen finale
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4 thoughts on “To glove, or not to glove?

  1. Sadly I feel that the (improper) use of gloves gives people a false sense of security and isn’t any safer than proper handwashing.

    I have walked out of a certain sub sandwich operation (which Jared frequents) because the glove wearing sandwich maker used those same gloves to handle money, then went back to making sandwiches.

    I understand that gloves are required in certain commercial operations, but I absolutely don’t think it is always safer or cleaner.

  2. Nice post! I bet Plate or plateonline might like to see it – send it their way.

    Regarding gloves, I’m with you – I’m a non-stop hand-washer while cooking at home or at a client’s, and find gloves get in the way more often than not. However, when working at an event, I always wear them because that’s what the public wants to see. They give an illusion of cleanliness or sterility (think of surgeons snapping on their gloves before delving into you) – and that’s all there is to it in the cooking world.

  3. I have certain tasks that I always wear gloves for. For example, peeling shrimp, but mostly because shrimp shells can be sharp and the gloves protect my hands from cuts. I also use them when making meatballs or meatloaf. And for working with hot peppers. And of course if I have cuts on my hands.

    I wash my hands incessantly (and have the chapped hands to prove it) when I am cooking. That feels a lot safer than much of the glove wearing I see in food service situations. People do not change gloves with every new task. Nor do they wash their hands before donning and after removing gloves.

    At a music venue we frequent, the food counter worker leaves the gloves on while handling money. Makes me CRAZY. We don’t eat there.

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