The concept of cleanliness and hygiene in restaurant establishments and bars is not a novel concept. Just one case of Salmonella or E. coli could lead to a severely damaged reputation, or even the demise of a locale, not to mention a trip to the hospital for the unsuspecting guest. These days, with websites like Yelp, just the simple mention of a nauseating experience post-meal can spread like wildfire across the Internet, burning well-intentioned restaurateurs and innocent employees in its wake.
For these reasons, health inspectors and establishment owners have upped their game in the last decade or so. With stricter hygiene laws and grading systems, chefs and bartenders really need to be on their toes. However, there has been some controversy in California recently, with the institution of a new law. Required gloves for all employees who handle food that goes “straight to the plate” is a policy that does not seem to “fit” well with at least one California restaurant and its staff.
Hock Farm, a Sacramento, Calif.-based restaurant, stands in protest against the new state law, which went into effect in January. Signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the legislation forbids any staff member – including bartenders and executive chefs – from handling ready-to-eat food items barehanded. This includes everything from grabbing a head of lettuce at the garde manger to plopping a maraschino cherry into a Shirley Temple. At first glance, it may seem counter intuitive to boycott this notion. After all, how could anyone argue against more safety precautions in the kitchen or bar area? Believe it or not, there is some reasoning behind the push back from Hock Farm.
Hock Farm owner Randy Paragary (who is involved in multiple other California eateries) sees the downside to the new regulation. For one, not unlike many chic restaurants today, Hock Farm touts an “open kitchen,” where the customers can observe much of the food preparation and cooking process. The addition of gloves may just dissipate some of the intimacy felt between guest and staff. He added, “… there’s a doctor back there preparing your food.” But there are other reasons why the California restaurant and its staff feel the new “gloves” policy does not fit.
It has also been posed that, along with the mandatory gloves policy, there will come a discouragement of hand washing (although both gloves and hand washing are mandatory by the new law). Moreover, the plastic gloves required may add more unwanted refuse in the kitchen.
But the most distressing issue for bartenders and chefs could be the hindrance to their creative process of carefully constructing meals and drinks. In the fast-paced environment of restaurant kitchens and bars, the mere thought of having to constantly change gloves while working may not only produce frustrated workers, but it may also cause mistakes and slow down efficiency.
While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been recommending glove use in U.S. kitchens and bars since the early 1990s, California would now become the 42nd state to “embrace” the practice, although it is not followed or enforced similarly in every state. For example, in New York City’s bar scene, tenders will keep tongs or gloves handy just to cover themselves in case of inspection. By the same token, it has been rumored that health inspectors have also been known to “look the other way.” If one were to ask a bartender of the “city that never sleeps,” they might say it is practically “impossible” to change gloves for every different drink garnish used while also remaining efficient. This is besides the fact that squeezing a lime with a pair of tongs is not feasible.
Michael Waterhouse, a well-established barman of NYC, had something to say on the subject: “What’s next? We all become bubble boys… Everyday we shake hands. We pick up things other people touch… Bars now have tools to pick up their fruit… We have become a Purell society and people’s immune systems are becoming weaker. To quote Peter Jennings [upon seeing food being dropped on the floor]: ‘My grandmother said if you don’t eat a pound of dirt in your life, you ain’t nothing.’”
Despite the backlash from Hock Farm, the FDA is firm that hand washing is simply not enough to prevent the transmission of food-borne illnesses, which are a major cause of illness. Liz Frias, chairwoman of California’s Retail Food Safety Coalition, says, “[The new law] is an additional barrier to help protect the food… [There are] everyday consumers who are looking for glove use.”
For now, Hock Farm is allowing its staff to disobey the “gloves” policy as it sees fit. However, the repercussions will not be handed down until the legislation is enforced, beginning in July. It will be interesting to see if the boycott has any effect on appealing Gov. Brown’s new rule. Already, California politicians, such as Assemblyman Richard Pan of Sacramento, are getting ready to fight the law, which does not discriminate between well-established, clean restaurants and those with subpar standards. A petition from California bartenders, calling for exemption from the recently instituted law, has already garnered over 10,000 signatures.
Opinion by Josh Taub