For decades, Toshiaki Toyoshima has followed the same ritual each morning at his downtown restaurant: He ties on his indigo happi — a short-sleeved Japanese chef’s jacket — and dons a white cap before he begins cutting fish for nearly 500 customers who dine at Sushi Gen daily.
But in January, Toyoshima’s tradition-bound routine was upset. He had to add a step: A new law now forces him to snap on a pair of thin vinyl gloves before he can touch the fish.
His gloved hands seem to move no less deftly as he stands behind mounds of tuna fillets glistening on his counter and slices the raw fish with a long knife.
But the normally stoic Toyoshima can’t hide his frustration. Having to wear gloves, he says, is the worst thing that has happened to him in 48 years as a sushi chef.
“I don’t feel connected to my food,” says Toyoshima, known to diners as “Toyo-san.” “It’s like I’m not making sushi with my own hand.”
In a regulatory war against food-borne illnesses in the U.S., where 1 in 6 people are projected to get sick every year, more states are adopting laws that prohibit bare hands from touching food.
Cooks must wear disposable gloves or use scoops, tongs or other utensils when handling “ready-to-eat” food such as fresh fruit and vegetables, bread, deli meats — anything that won’t be cooked or reheated before it goes out to diners.
Michigan, North Carolina, Nevada and New York have similar bans. In California, the law went into effect Jan. 1.
Many chefs in Los Angeles are livid. They say the law is confusing, ineffective, costly and bad for the environment, and can compromise a dish. They share Toyoshima’s complaints.
“It’s very important to me to be able to handle my ingredients with my bare hands,” says Nancy Silverton, the chef and co-owner of Mozza restaurants.
At Osteria Mozza, she often works behind the open mozzarella bar in the dining room and can tell the difference between her bufala mozzarella and her burrata by touch.
“It helps me when I construct my dishes, just like a sculptor touches clay,” Silverton says.
“When I’m plating, it contributes to the beauty of that sculpture, so to speak. If I have this obstacle in the way, then there is going to be some sort of disconnect,” she says. “It would be similar to saying parents can no longer touch their babies with their hands.”
Ludo Lefebvre, the chef of Trois Mec in Hollywood, is worried about how he finishes his dishes. “I season all the dishes at the end using my fingers. For 27 years, all my [adult] life, I’ve touched fleur de sel with my fingers and I know exactly how many grains of salt just by feel. With a glove there’s no sensation. It’s scary.”
Some chefs say they weren’t aware of the law until they saw angry Facebook posts and tweets. David Lentz of the Hungry Cat tweeted: “thank you @JerryBrownGov and the great state of #california for passing this asinine glove law! makes it harder & harder to do biz in CA!”
Bartenders are also required to use gloves or tools, according to the California Restaurant Assn., because they handle ice and garnishes. The gloves aren’t exactly sexy, says Matthew Biancaniello, one of the leaders of Los Angeles’ experimental mixology scene. “When I see it, I flinch a little and think ‘hospital.’”
The regulation is recommended by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is supported by data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But some studies have shown that gloves aren’t necessarily more effective than proper hand washing, partly because they can encourage risky behaviors (most people have seen restaurant workers who touch money in between handling food without changing gloves).
“It’s not about gloves or not gloves,” says Ben Chapman, an assistant professor at North Carolina University and contributor to Barfblog.com, which covers food safety issues. “It’s are you doing the right things when you’re touching food, whether you have gloves on or not.”
Because hygiene compliance can be poor, the FDA reasons that the ban provides extra protection to diners should food handlers not wash their hands properly, Chapman says.
But chefs aren’t convinced. Many think the ban will bring about more detrimental habits. And added costs.
“The Band-Aid of a blanket glove regulation is potentially dangerous,” says Neal Fraser, chef-owner of the Beverly Boulevard restaurant BLD. “People get into the tendency to not wash their hands. And environmentally it’s very unfriendly. It’s funny that at the same time L.A. institutes a plastic bag ban, there’s this.”
Mendocino Farms, a chain of sandwich shops, and other big restaurant operators already use gloves. Its executive chef Judy Han says its seven stores go through about 10,500 gloves per week.
For sushi chefs in particular, the rule is anathema to a tradition that requires laser-like precision when it comes to slicing fish and Zen-like focus that channels all five senses — most important, touch.
It’s said that when making nigiri — the ingot of vinegared rice topped with sliced fish — each grain of rice should face the same direction. Try doing that with gloves on. (A sushi chef wearing gloves is practically unheard of in Japan.)
“The whole idea of making sushi is to touch it, feel it,” Toyoshima says. “It comes from within, and then through my hands.”
Sushi Gen is an early adopter of the law because Toyoshima thought he was required to use the gloves as of Jan. 1. But according to the California Restaurant Assn., restaurants have at least six months to comply.
Angelo Bellomo, director of environmental health for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, says it plans to start strictly enforcing the law in January 2015, when inspectors will deduct points on their reports, which could affect restaurants’ letter grades.
In New York, where health inspectors also issue letter grades, sushi chefs at top-rated Sushi Yasuda in Manhattan are known not to wear gloves (they wash their hands religiously) and instead steel themselves for a citation.
Toyoshima says he won’t risk losing points that could lower his A grade, so he and his son, Sushi Gen manager Jason Toyoshima, set out to find the best possible glove. “Some of them start to stretch as soon as you start working with them,” Jason Toyoshima says. An hour in, “they’ll start to flap.”
The Japanese brand of gloves they’ve found that work the best cost $15 a box for 100 gloves. The Toyoshimas say the kitchen goes through five boxes a week; that would add about $4,000 to the restaurant’s annual operating expenses.
The new regulation includes “a very limited exemption in very rare cases,” Bellomo says. Restaurant operators would have to prove that it isn’t possible to not touch food with their bare hands and show that they’ve met stipulations that include more training and a long list of additional safeguards.
As the lunch rush hour approaches, Toyoshima turns a pristine marbled fillet of tuna to inspect his own handiwork and sets it onto the counter. “I don’t know if wearing gloves is a benefit or not,” he says. “As far as the food, the cooking, it’s not an improvement. And I will never get used to it.”