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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Hairy Cooks, Public Health and Public Perception

Cooks Are A Helluva Lot Hairier These Days

Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair
Flow it, show it
Long as God can grow it
My hair
– “Hair,” Galt MacDermot, James Rado, Gerome Ragni –

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, “proper” cooks and chefs, the ones who worked in “nice” restaurants, were always expected to wear white jackets, clean, crisp aprons, tall white hats (called “toques”), and, with the exception, perhaps, of a skinny little mustache, to always be clean-shaven. Cooks of a “lesser” sort, like the ones found in greasy spoon diners, usually wore grubby t-shirts, dirty aprons, paper hats and a perpetual five o'clock shadow. My, how things have changed!

The ratio of chef jackets (white or otherwise) to t-shirts (grubby or otherwise) in today's restaurant industry remains about the same. It's largely a matter of the establishment's style and the cook's personal taste. Aprons are still part of the uniform, too. Traditional toques, however, are all but gone, relegated to the annals of history and the halls of culinary schools. The tall, white, pleated toque has been replaced by a variety of headgear ranging from beanies to ballcaps to bandanas. And sometimes to nothing at all. And therein lies the issue because cooks are a helluva lot hairier these days than they've ever been in the past.

Turn on Top Chef, Hell's Kitchen, or Chopped and you'll see what I mean. Long hair, frizzy hair, curly hair, spiky hair and beards that rival ZZ Top or those Duck Dynasty guys. All of it gloriously unbridled and unrestrained. Even clean-shaven men with average length hair go uncovered in the kitchen. And despite the fact that these are supposed to be “reality” shows, that's not really reality. Every time I watch one of those programs where some guy cooks with a mop on his head and a beard hanging down to his knees, I say the same thing: “I'll bet he doesn't get away with that in a real kitchen.”

Public health codes in every state contain some variation on the verbiage “food employees shall wear hair restraints such as hats, hair coverings or nets, beard restraints, and clothing that covers body hair, that are designed and worn to effectively keep their hair from contacting exposed food.” And I know this section of code is enforced because a quick scan of restaurant inspections in my area turned up the violation “all food employees must wear effective hair restraints when working around food” numerous times. I once fired a guy who refused to keep his head covered in my kitchen. I wasn't about to let the twerp cost me a point off my inspection grade just because he didn't like hats. My cooks could always tell when I was getting ready to cook something myself because I kept a cap under the counter and I put it on whenever I headed into the kitchen.

So what's so bad about hair, anyway? Technically, nothing. The FDA doesn't even place a limit on strands of hair per plate. (It does, however, allow up to two maggots per can of tomatoes.) People who study such things say hair is made of a densely packed protein called keratin, which is chemically inactive and won't cause any problems if digested. It's possible that staph bacteria, which can upset the stomach and bring on a case of diarrhea, could hitch a ride on a strand of hair, but it's highly unlikely that the tiny amount of staph that can hide on a hair or two is going to be enough to lead to gastrointestinal problems. Add that to the fact that the FDA has never received a report of anyone getting ill from ingesting hair found in food, and you have to ask yourself “what's the big deal?”

Well.....it's gross, right? Like major league, instinctively, viscerally, makes you choke to think about it gross. I don't know of anybody who doesn't react with revulsion to finding a hair in their food. It's science versus psychology. The eggheads can tell me all day long that eating a hair in my scrambled eggs isn't going to hurt me, and the intellectual me agrees. But the me whose gag reflex developed at my clean-freak mother's knee just says, “Oh, HELL no!” Most people refuse to eat the rest of a dish once a hair is discovered. Some stalwarts just pick out the offending strand and keep on going, but the average person's appetite is effectively quashed. I knew somebody who tossed an entire batch of cookies (literally, not colloquially) because a hair turned up in one cookie. Overkill? Probably. But people just feel that strongly about it.

And for some reason, a lot of people think of facial hair as being “dirtier” than head hair. That's generally not true. Chemically, it's the same stuff. And as far as cleanliness goes, guys who wear beards are usually pretty fastidious about them. They wash them and oil them and comb them and baby them. It's a fashion statement, after all, and who wants to make a dirty fashion statement? Besides, if a guy's beard is going to be smelly and nasty........well, it's right there under his nose, you know? But again, it's psychological. I don't care how clean and oiled and combed some dude's beard is, I don't want him dragging it through my soup. Or leaving parts of it therein.

Most health codes state that a beard must be restrained in a net of some sort if it “hangs off the face.” I have a beard. It's a close-cut goatee that I've had for most of the last thirty years. My son has a similar affectation. Neither of us restrain our chin curtains in the kitchen because, in my case anyway, the hair on my chin is shorter than my eyebrows are getting to be. Talk about restraining facial hair! Remember Larry Hagman and Andy Rooney? There are a lot of old guys out there who should be sporting eyebrow nets. Anyway, my beard doesn't “hang” so it remains unfettered. Unfortunately, these days a lot of cooks who look like they're auditioning to be one of the “Smith Brothers” – especially the brother on the right – are running around kitchens with their beards flying free.

Part of the problem is that nobody wants to look stupid. And, I'm sorry, but beard nets look stupid. Period. My supply catalogs are full of catchy, sporty, cool and attractive ways to cover your noggin. But there ain't nothin' cool or sporty about a beard net. They're ugly, silly, unwieldy, and uncomfortable and nobody in their right mind wants to wear one. So by and large they don't. Regardless of comfort or appearance, though, customers are frequently turned off by heavily bearded cooks. Here are a few comments I gleaned while researching the topic:

I want my chefs either clean-shaven or with beards clipped close. Anything else IS unhygienic. That beard hair I consume with my soup may not cause illness, but that shouldn't be the threshold for determining policy.

Gross gross gross thinking that one of those beard hairs ends up on the food.

Unsanitary pigs.

A long beard that is not symmetrical or otherwise trimmed says to me "I am too lazy to take care of myself and I really don't care what anyone thinks" which is not the message I want to hear about who has been handling my food before I eat it.

Just shave, already. I don't care how much you groom beforehand, restaurant kitchens are hot, sweaty places and the image of a big old beard hanging down is just gross.

Who knows what's living in those beards! Seriously chef(s) cut them back a little cause it's unsanitary!

Unsanitary pigs? I don't know if I'd go that far. But when some of these tattooed wooly-boogers set out to make a “statement,” they need to realize that in many people's minds, that's the statement they're making.

I guess when it comes down to it, it's as much about public perception as it is about public health. Restaurants don't get “fined” in monetary terms for health code violations, they just get points deducted from their grade score. That score gets posted and, believe me, people notice. They also notice slovenly looking cooks and servers. There were a couple of young cooks working in a place I took over that did a pretty good job with the food, but they were perceived by customers as being slobs because they were unkempt, unshaven, didn't keep their heads covered, and wore the crotch of their pants down around their knees. There were a lot of complaints and when I came in and brought a professional dress code to the kitchen, they didn't make the cut. Good enough cooks, nice enough guys, but people didn't want them cooking their food, and at the end of the day, customers vote with their wallets and with their feet.

I've got nothing against hair. At my age, I'm glad to have it. And I'm okay with beards. I've had my facial fuzz for a long time and I intend to keep it. But in a professional setting where appearance makes a difference, I keep my hair covered and my beard short and trimmed. Nobody has ever found a hair in anything I've cooked and they never will. None of my kitchens have ever been dunned by an inspector for hair restraint violations, and they never will. If you're an up and coming cook who wants to establish a “personal style,” just do it with your food and keep your hair out of it. So to speak. If your “personal style” is such that you can't conform to code and to the expectations of your customers, maybe you should be “styling” in a profession where it doesn't matter.

To paraphrase the title song from the hit Broadway musical “Hair”:
Give me a face with hair, long beautiful hair,
Shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen.”

Just keep it out of my kitchen.

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