Photograph by Michael Amsler
Exposed Kitchen: At the West County Grill, part of the fun is watching the chefs work.
Who's Minding the Kitchen?
With California's health codes now allowing bare-hand contact with food, who's to say what's right and what's wrong?
By Carey Sweet
Use your fingers. I don't care if you burn them, you weren't given fingers not to burn them.
—Chef Marco Pierre White, White Heat
Anyone who watches the Food Network knows that professional chefs work their magic with bare hands, citing the increased dexterity, tactile finesse, speed and even safety that skin provides over rubber or metal.
And with the proliferation of exposition kitchens in restaurants, diners may be seeing the barehanded magic up close. Yet in the eyes of national restaurant inspectors, these chefs are no artists. They're a potential health hazard, and what they're doing is against the law. Since the Federal Food and Drug Administration's most recent food code was issued in 2005, bare-hand contact has been prohibited for commercial kitchen personnel. The rules are clear: gloves or utensils, such as tongs, are required when handling anything ready-to-eat.
Unless you're a California chef.
Because in a compromise reached last summer between the State of California Food and Drug Branch and the FDA, Golden State restaurant workers have been granted special permission for bare-hand contact.
Under the new California Retail Food Code (Cal Code) that went into effect last July, how a chef handles food is now up to his or her preference. That means food can be touched with naked fingers, then sent out for immediate consumption by a diner.
California may be the first to adopt such lenient guidelines; the FDA allows variance within its codes for states, and even for the 58 counties within California. Many chefs are cheering, but some are ready to throw up their hands—bare or gloved—as they try to figure out how it all really works.
Long Hand of the Law
The FDA Food Code prohibits bare hand contact with ready-to-eat foods under section 3-301.11 Preventing Contamination from Hands.
—Lisa Whitlock, regional food specialist, FDA, email March 8, 2008
The bare-hand issue is nothing new. Extensive FDA research concludes that many viruses are spread through hands, and food is an excellent vehicle for pathogens, so workers are required to use serving utensils, tongs, single-use gloves, deli tissue or dispensing equipment when touching it.
When the new Cal Code went into effect, however, it replaced the California Uniform Retail Food Facilities Law (CURFFL) as the governing legislation for retail food facilities throughout the state. The goal was to update food vendor rules to bring them in line with national guidelines focusing on current risk factors for food-borne illness as identified by the Centers for Disease Control.
It was an enormous undertaking, spanning a full decade of discussion between numerous boards and restaurant industry professionals throughout the state. When the California Department of Public Health drafted the final language, it resulted in an exhaustively detailed 132-page manual.
Before it was unveiled, chefs and kitchen workers were encouraged to attend county food handler's programs outlining the changes. There they learned that while the Sonoma County Environmental Health Division (SCEHD) now "discourages" using bare hands, according to division director Walter Kruse, it does in fact allow it.
Except that maybe it doesn't. Or maybe, depending on how you interpret CURFFL, it has all along.
Gloves Are Off
A busy North Bay cafe sports a novelty sign in its front window reading, "Sorry We're Open." Guests sit at a counter overlooking a tiny open kitchen, watching the chef prepare a full carousel of tickets. She scoops a handful of fresh greens to a plate, and then dumps a bowl of fried calamari over it. She slices some bread, tosses frozen french fries into bubbling oil, then turns to answer the phone.
The call finished a few moments later, she slices some raw chicken and puts it on grill, takes toasted bread off a neighboring burner, picks a few slabs of bacon out of a package and wipes her chin with the heel of her hand. After dragging her hands down the front of her apron, she salts some raw burger, drops the patty on the grill, slices a chunk off an enormous piece of raw tuna, then builds a chicken sandwich, piling cooked bird, lettuce, avocado and cheese over the toast.
The chef is wearing gloves. Yet throughout an hour-long lunch service, she never stopped to change them. The number of violations that have just occurred are too numerous to count.
It's a graphic, real-life example of why Cal Code officials rethought the FDA gloved-hand mandate for the new laws. "Gloves can offer a false sense of security," says the SCEHD's Walter Kruse. "People think because their skin is insulated, they can't contaminate."
Instead, Cal-Code has now toughened its hand washing requirements, within a new, 1,215-word description of what clean hands mean. To not properly wash hands—as when between touching raw and cooked meat—is a "major" violation in the new law.
"The issue we're concerned about is cross-contamination," Kruse says. "Hand hygienic practices become the area of concern, [and new] hand-washing procedures and requirements are specified.
"Bare hand is OK," Kruse adds, "but cross-contamination is not."
Fingering a Violator
On a busy Saturday night at the West County Grill, the seats at the counter overlooking the exposition kitchen are filled. Mere feet away from the diners, chef Darren McRonald is a dervish in a short-sleeve shirt, black pants and a long white apron. He's manning a fiery, charcoal hardwood grill laden with perhaps a dozen orders of Fulton Valley chicken, Niman Ranch pork loins and Liberty duck breasts.
He pokes the meat with his fingers, and when a piece of chicken springs back the way he likes, he uses tongs to move it from the flames to a plate. Quickly, his hands almost a blur, he drops the tongs, positions the poultry just so with his fingers, arranges a pile of matchstick potatoes, plops down a bunch of watercress, brushes a stray bit of jus off the plate rim and moves the dish out to service. He wipes his hands on a clean cloth flung over his shoulder, then whirls back to start another set-up.
Since the restaurant opened last spring on the Sebastopol Plaza, the pace has been like this for McRonald and crew, through lunch and dinner, seven days a week. He's used to the pressure, having worked in the business for more than 20 years, including at Chez Panisse, Napa's Table 29 and Barbuto and Bellavitae in New York.
For a guest perched at the dining counter overlooking the exposition kitchen, it's like watching a frenetic ballet. Later, McRonald is asked if he was aware how much he'd used his bare hands, and if perhaps he shouldn't have.
Maybe. "I have to admit, I've gotten used to doing things a certain way," he says. "But no matter how busy it gets, we need to be ever mindful and diligent about our actions."
Then he shrugs. The Cal Code rules can be confusing, he says, on what he's now allowed to touch, or not to. "I've talked to the health department," he says. "The response I got from them was that they're not too sure about [all the details] either.
"I moved from New York City two years ago, where the health codes are different," he continues. "[Last] January, I attended a seminar given by the Sonoma County Health Department where even the health inspectors admitted that there are a lot of gray areas they'll have to iron out in time."
No wonder chefs are confused.
The Bohemian contacted a half-dozen California health officials to track down the exact nature of the new guidelines. Inspectors and officers provided often conflicting regulations, contradicting correspondences and bureaucratic language that made deciphering one single question nearly impossible: Are chefs allowed to touch ready-to-eat food with their bare hands?
"It's important to note that there has not been a change in California law as it relates to bare-hand contact," wrote SCEHD environmental health program manager Jerry Meshulam in an email dated Feb. 20, 2008. Yet this was as a response to a follow-up question for Kruse's Dec. 20, 2007, statement that "as to why California decided to allow bare-hand contact, you should contact the State of California Food and Drug Branch within the California Department of Public Health," the party responsible for drafting the new code language. (Several emails to their communications staff went unanswered.)
Indeed, the new Cal Code section 113961(a), reads, "Food employees shall minimize bare hand and arm contact with non-prepackaged food that is in a ready-to-eat form."
As Kruse points out, "The word 'minimize' is important, because it does not say 'eliminate.' Cal Code allows bare hand contact."
Yet Code F03 – §114020 of Sonoma County's own Explanation of Critical Violations warns in very specific terms, "Employees shall use proper utensils (tongs, spoons, spatulas, plastic gloves) to eliminate unnecessary hand contact with cooked and prepared foods."
If it's possible for Meshulam to sound frustrated via email, when responding to another request for clarification, he does. "There is no conflict between the older CURFFL wording and the new Cal Code wording. Both allow bare hand contact. The phrase 'eliminate unnecessary hand contact' still allows necessary hand contact, under conditions specified in the code."
Well, what's necessary? Listening to the chefs, it seems that all bare-hand contact is.
As McRonald points out, "If you're wearing gloves, that sometimes causes you to wash your hands even less, because you're unaware of how your hands feel or what's on them." He adds that he does use gloves for handling raw chicken, but otherwise finds them restrictive.
"I'm sort of old-school in that I like hands for certain things I know," he says.
Some chefs feel gloves are unsafe, noting that they can numb feeling and cause knife cuts. Rubber or latex can melt around a hot stove. And they can be impractical, says Mateo Granados, chef-owner of the eponymous catering company in Healdsburg. "It is much harder to change gloves than to wash hands. It can slow down production in a busy restaurant. Wearing gloves also limits artistry, because you lose sensitivity to feel temperature or assemble dishes," he says.
"My feeling is that it is much better to work with your hands," agrees Douglas Keane, executive chef and co-owner of Cyrus in Healdsburg. "Cooking is often based on feeling how something is finished, and you learn from an early age as a cook to touch and feel. Gloves take the personal feeling out of it. If you make a cook cover their hands, you may as well blindfold them, too. I am actually baffled that this law exists.
"How can you dress a salad and feel if it is coated perfectly when you have gloves on?" he continues. "You would have to put some of the salad in your mouth and taste it. You are going to use your gloved hand and put it to your mouth and then use the same gloved hand to redress the salad if any modification is necessary—it just doesn't make sense."
It also doesn't necessarily go appreciated. "You get customers calling and asking if you wear gloves in the kitchen," McRonald says. "And then they'd say, 'Well, we can't eat there because we have a latex allergy.'"
Tong vs. Right
Utensils aren't the solution either, chefs and county officials agree. "Do they say you can't use the same tongs for chicken and steak? Use different spatulas for turning fish versus turning poultry?" McRonald asks. "If a chef is using tongs for handling food, does he need to disinfect the tongs between use of raw and ready-to-eat foods?"
The SCEHD's Kruse says, "The preferred method would be to have separate tongs for raw meat, for example, and cooked meat, rather than relying on the employee to stop and wash, rinse, sanitize the utensil between uses."
Tongs can ruin food, says Granados, who has worked at Charlie Palmer's Dry Creek Kitchen, San Francisco's Masas, 42 Degrees, Alain Rondelli and Rubicon, as well as Manka's Inverness Lodge. "In my experience with fine dining," he says, "everyone has their own spoon, with washing in between tasks."
Keane, too, uses spoons instead of tongs, so as not to "rape" the delicate food.
Yet even the biggest arsenal of utensils doesn't guarantee perfection. At a Scottsdale resort recently, a Food Network Iron Chef laughed and pointed to a pile of spoons sitting on his workstation during a cooking demonstration. He'd just stuck his forefinger into a blender of pear balsamic vinaigrette, then into his mouth for a taste. "I have to stop and pause for a spoon," he shrugged. "My hands, they're always with me."
Cleanliness Next To?
Food employees are required to wash their hands with cleanser and warm water by vigorously rubbing their lathered hands and arms for at least 10 to 15 seconds and rinsing with clean running water followed by drying of cleaned hands.
—Cal Code, Section 113953.3
At Go Fish in St. Helena, a trio of chefs decked in crisp whites and black caps work quickly and quietly behind the sleek marble sushi bar, rolling rice bundles in bamboo mats and slicing exquisite cuts of silky bluefin tuna belly. Their hands are bare and as softly pink as the salmon sashimi they lay out on the glistening steel countertops.
Every few minutes, they glide their hands under sinks at their station, scrubbing like surgeons with soap from a turquoise pump. They pluck a disposable towel from a pile, rub thoroughly and then drop it in the trash.
Their ritual should pass muster with the pickiest health inspectors, and is a perfect example of why bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat foods can benefit both chefs and diners. According to Kruse, "It is the scrubbing action of rubbing soapy hands together and running water that washes dirt and other contaminants away."
Regulated or not, it's what the best professional chefs are doing anyway.
"I worked at Le Cirque, and every shift we would have to present our hands to the chef," McRonald remembers. "Hand checks like in the military. They'd look clean, he'd check our nails. We'd keep nail brushes by our hand sinks."
Ultimately, whether or not California actually has introduced groundbreaking rules with its bare-hand contact regulations isn't clear. Meshulam directed the Bohemian to the FDA's Whitlock, who in turn directed the Bohemian to Meshulam. Yet it seems it would be a good thing for them to take credit for.
Meanwhile, the county continues to monitor kitchens by instructing inspectors to watch chefs at work, weighing their feedback and sending the kitchen staff scurrying.
"I think the inspectors are doing their best to work with us, trying not to make anyone angry," McRonald says. "It's a tough position."
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