Hands Are A Cook’s Livelihood

About four years into my career in the Industry, I was having dinner at my parents’ house, and at one point, my mother looked down at my hands on the table and innocuously commented, “you clearly have the hands of a man who works with them for a living.”  This surprised me at the time, the same way that it surprises anyone to hear an external commentary on the toll that the passage of time might be having on their body: when you see something every day, it’s hard to recognize the long-term changes that might be happening therein.  But with her external prompt, I looked down and realized that she was right:  I already had callouses, scars, and lines that already surpassed those of my father: a man who worked hard his whole life, though virtually none of it was labor of the manual variety.

Fast-forward another half-decade, and I find myself giving my hands a bit more attention than they probably deserve.  They are a mystery, to which the answer is staring me in the face the whole time, but I’m too enthralled with the explanation to care:  I know why my nails always seem grimy.  I know why I have to caution others that things I’m handing them may be hot, even though I don’t feel such sensations of heat.  And I know why I’ll make slips with my knife that, for most people, would result in a trip to the first aid kit, and in lieu of that, I just kick myself for my knife not being sharp enough to have cut myself when I should have.

As a professional cook, your hands are your livelihood.  Arthritis is just a ticking time-bomb every single one of us will continue to pray we don’t have embedded in our hands until the day we retire.  Without our hands, we are useless, we have no purpose.  We are dead – without our hands.  They need to be both rugged and eloquent – stoic, but sensitive.  My first sous chef used to tell me stories about his baking chef-instructor in culinary school (who I was told was a certified master baker in Germany, France and America – if you don’t know how much of a bad-ass that makes him, then much will be lost on you moving forward), who used to pull trays out of 350 degree ovens with his bare hands, hand them to students without cautioning them, and then laughing when they burned themselves receiving them.  Skipping the part about how it was a little bit of a dick move, but that 1) the rookies should have been using a dry towel to reach for something metal anyway, and 2) looking at it from his perspective, that shit would be funny as hell to me too.  Having never met him, I guarantee that man had as much pride in any of his Master Baker certifications as he did in the heat his hands were able to withstand.

The amount of damage your hands can endure are just as sure a mark of your reliability as is how many days you’ve gone without calling in sick, because if your hands can’t work, neither can you – at least not any more than you can if you’re kneeling in front of your toilette because you ate at the wrong taco stand the night before.  It sounds very counterintuitive, but the last thing a cook should ever cut him/herself with, is their knife.  And I’ll explain.

Cuts happen.  Especially in a kitchen.  Every half-way domesticated home has a first-aid kit handy, and most of them don’t even have a professional cook living in them, let alone working in it.  Wine foil is a common “stupid” one.  Cleaning/scrubbing has accounted for roughly 60% of my hand wounds over the past decade.  Burns – OH SHIT! I haven’t even addressed heat-related wounds –

To conclude: the knife is the one thing you can reliably control: if you cut yourself with it, it happened because you were stupid/cocky/disrespectful, and everyone with whom you work can and should laugh at you for it, and you should probably be the first one in that line, because the first thought that should have gone through your head when it happened was “goddamnit! I’m a fucking idiot… *look down* okay, I don’t see anything that used to be a part of me, so I can go patch myself up.  But, fuck! This going to be annoying, cutting with a glove on.”

I don’t even know where to start with heat.  This is a sure-fire way to properly assess a new-hire, whose resume seems a bit too incongruent with their general presence.  Find something that you (someone who you know has been doing this for a while) know is right along the appropriate heat spectrum of tolerance (basically something you can comfortably handle with your bare hands, but then chuckle at a server who attempts to grab what you’ve just handed them and react extremely at the prospect) and hand it to said person.  If they don’t bat an eye, they’re legit.  If they grab it and have to take a half-second to regroup and gather themselves, they’re full of shit – or at least their resume is.  But even after all of that, if you have delusions that you’ve “made it” as a bone fide line cook, and you still feel the hair singeing off your wrists/forearms before you smell it, then I have a major spoiler alert coming for you.

The final point is the one with which I’m still the most frustrated: your hands always look dirty!  Before I really get into the “how dirty are they!?” issue, let’s talk about the ‘why?’ first: pepper.  99% of cooks have ground pepper in a mise dish or a 9-pan for service, and after a busy one, where you didn’t have time to smoothly swipe a three-fingered pinch of pepper, but instead were were slamming those three fingers into that dish of pepper, slowly but surely jamming more and more pepper into your nail-beds… well, not only does it get painful, but also dirty.  If it looks like someone who just came out of the kitchen has just come from the garden, there’s a pretty legit chance that the explanation is pepper.

Other than that, when trying to get to the bottom of why a cook’s hands might always be dirty, it’s pretty simple, if you allow yourself to think about it:  food!  That’s right: food is dirty.  I could be talking about those beets that just came out of the circulator that need to be appropriately sphered.  I could also be talking about those succulent cherries that you just got from the farmers market that chef just told me he needed me to pit the entire flat by hand.  Or shit – maybe it’s about to be valentines day and you have to clean and portion five beef tenderloin.  Beef particles will find solace in your cuticles: I take pride in the cleanliness with which I’ve done every minute of my job, but honey baby, if you can pit 500 cherries without your prep area looking like the episode of Dexter that finally got him thrown in the can, then you’re either God’s gift to prep cooks, or it took you way too long to do that shit!  If your hands aren’t inescapably dirty by the end of your shift, you’re either lucky (regarding the tasks you’re being asked to do) or you’re doing it wrong.

Now, I’m not talking construction worker or carpenter dirty.  But nobody has a problem with the guy building their neighbor’s house having dirty hands, however if the person handing their food doesn’t have hands that just got narrowly rejected for a Revlon commercial, then suspicion arises.  And I don’t see anything wrong with this.  I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that anyone handling the food that a paying customer eats should look like they just walked out of a manicure.  That being said, I’ve been doing this for nine years and have never received a manicure.  What I’m trying to say makes me harken back to my first chef’s response when I brought him an avocado that I wasn’t sure was up to snuff, asking if it was okay to use.  He looked and it, and then looked me in the eye and asked “would you serve it to your mother?”.  The point there should be self-explanatory.   How it relates to hands only exists in an ideal world.  I do my best to make sure my fingers and nails are the paradigm of cleanliness before every work day.  The reality is that it’s not possible.  The intricacies of the cuticle/nail bed system, relative to the market (or lack thereof) of nail-scrubbing products available to the general public, are just going to result in some people having some fingers that are totally sanitary and healthy, but don’t really look convincingly so.

I guess the icing on the cake is that there’s no such thing as a cook with weak hands.  The moment you present one to me, is the day I’ve found a new piñata for my crew to go to town on when I bring them to stage in my kitchen.  Weak hands (or physical weakness in general, for that matter) is a sign of a weak cook.  I work with an intern, coming from a small Asian country, just barely 22 years old.  Part of her daily tasks include bringing down 50 lb.  bags of wood to fuel the wood-burning oven on her station.  When she started, she’d go to great lengths to get others to bring down wood for her.  Now I’ll hear her giggling as she helps the people she’s training for her station, as she brings down wood for these guys who aren’t used to this cross-fit workout that is known as line-cooking.

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