On January 1, a change to the California Retail Food Code went into effect, making it illegal for any food worker to handle "ready-to-eat food" with their bare hands. It has been, to say the least, controversial.
While the new addendum seems to make logical sense on its surface -- who wants a stranger's bare hands all over their food? -- there have already been a large contingent of chefs claiming a blanket law like this is not only unnecessary, but actually compromises their art.
The L.A. Times asked sushi chefs their thoughts about the new law, and they can be summed up with this quote from Niki Nakayama, chef of N/naka:
[M]aking sushi is incredibly hard to do with gloves on. No. 1, the rice is so sticky, the rice would stick to the gloves undoubtedly. Plus you lose that sense of feel, which is everything in sushi making. You have to know exactly the right pressure to put on ingredients. Wearing a glove would hurt the product.
Another group that's been asked to change their ways? Bartenders. You know those artisan alcoholic creations that take fifteen minutes, fourteen steps, and make a $20 disappear from your wallet? Now, bartenders are being forced to carefully place those fancy garnishes on the eight-ounce glasses by utilizing gloves or tweezers or tongs, which certainly will not be as easy as bare hands. (Not to mention, it won't be nearly as aesthetically pleasing, a major concern in the craft cocktail environment, where every other visual element in the room has been placed with the utmost care and attention to detail.)
But how do managers feel about the change? To find out, I emailed and phoned a few L.A. restaurants to ask. Most came back with dismissive PR-ready quotes:
The Pacific Dining Car maintains a healthy business that cares for the well being of customers as well as employees while gratefully doing so ethically and legally. -Pacific Dining Car
Our chefs, in fact, have no comment. -Animal
And, my favorite, because of its cold directness:
We use gloves. -The Gorbals
But a few owners were willing to open up.
"We were using gloves before, and we use them now," Michal Budny, the chef and owner of Polka Restaurant, told me. He was also of the opinion that this law is a "necessary" one. "You never know what bacteria the handlers can spread on the food," said Budny. "And making sure [workers] wash their hands all the time sometimes is a hassle and impossible. It's a good law."
Matt Daniel, the general manager at Bottega Louie, was equally pleased, although finds it unnecessary for their specific establishment because of their already strict policy regarding glove usage.
"I think it's probably a little overreaching because we were already compliant," said Daniel. "But when you talk about the general awareness of food safety, whether from the public side or the owner/operator side of the business, it probably is warranted because people need to understand what the risks are and how they can better mitigate them." The biggest problem for Daniel, in fact, may just be the restaurant's bottom line. "It may increase our glove usage a little bit, there may be some incremental costs," he said. "And no operator is ever excited about that, obviously."
Peter Kohtz, owner and general manager at Luna Park, is not so enthusiastic. Before the law, all workers at Luna Park utilized gloves for every part of the food preparation process except one: "Plating" the food.
"What's tricky is the plating process, because you're so busy," says Kohtz. In the same way that sushi chefs and bartenders are upset because their ability to perfectly position sashimi or garnishes on the drink has been compromised, many restaurant chefs feel the same way. And, as Kohtz makes clear, the route to a clean-eating environment is not solved by simply forcing everyone to wear gloves.
"I think what's actually controversial about the glove thing, is that if you wear the same gloves for the entire duration, or only change them three or four times, what's the difference?" asks Kohtz. "Because you're moving between different food products, and always the biggest concern is cross contamination." In other words, it doesn't make sense to use the same pair of gloves to handle lettuce, then grab raw chicken for the grill, then go back to the salad to prepare it for the plate? "If you change gloves every single time, then maybe it's worthwhile," says Kohtz. "But that's hard to envision anyone doing."
What we're left with, then, is a law that doesn't do much more than annoy while offering the illusion of safety to the consumer. Which is to say, if you happen to peep into someone's kitchen and see them using their bare hands on your food, there's really no real reason to freak out. In fact, maybe you'll even get a better meal.
Want recipes and food news emailed directly to you? Sign up for the new Food newsletter here!