Recently, I was sitting in a friend’s kitchen, watching her toss a salad with a pair of restaurant-issue metal tongs. I had picked the wild greens just hours before, lovingly washed and dried them, and now was horrified to see her crushing the delicate leaves between the tongs and bowl. I asked her why she didn’t use her hands to gently toss the lettuces with the vinaigrette. After all, fingers are much more effective at this task than tongs. My friend made a face: “I don’t want to get my hands dirty.”
At first I thought she was in the minority, until I called Maria Helm Sinskey, a chef and cookbook author who has plenty of interaction with home cooks. “Oh, yes,” she laughed. “It’s true. No one wants to touch their food. You should see people trying to cut up a raw chicken with a knife in one hand and a fork in the other.”
It could be that restaurants bear some responsibility for this sad state of affairs. When open kitchens became ubiquitous, cooks seemed to use tongs for just about everything. There was always some guy wielding them like a prosthetic limb, casually flipping a steak here and grabbing a piece of fish there, using the tongs to stir his sauces and then guide the food from sauté pan to plate. This was ostensibly more hygienic than using hands—except for the small fact that the cooks generally wiped off the tongs with a greasy towel, twirled them a few times like a six-shooter and then jammed them into the back pocket of their dirty chef’s pants. But it looked pretty cool. So people watched—and then they went out and bought some tongs of their own.
Of course, other factors are more to blame for the hands-free approach to cooking. Consider the rise of equipment like bread machines. And pasta machines. And food processors. Just pour in the ingredients and poof!—instant gratification. Things that once required hands could now be done by machine. This was compounded by the problem that somewhere along the way, people lost their connection to real food. In the 1950s, processed foods soared in popularity, and supermarkets began to sell meat and fish as disembodied, plastic-shrouded parts. “In the ’60s and ’70s,” reminisces cookbook author Paula Wolfert, “the only people close to food were hippies and vegetarians.”
But slowly, our food culture has been evolving back toward the primacy of ingredients. As interest in farmers’ markets and natural foods has exploded, the way chefs handle those ingredients has changed as well. Tongs, for example, are nowhere to be found in today’s best kitchens. “A turning point for me,” says chef Graham Elliot Bowles of Avenues in Chicago, “was when I was flipping meat on the grill with a pair of tongs while working at Charlie Trotter’s, and the chef de cuisine grabbed the tongs out of my hands and threw them across the room.” Many other chefs have similar stories to tell. They now use hands, spoons or a thin, flexible metal spatula, all of which damage the ingredients as little as possible and allow the closest connection to the food.
When you think about it, Americans’ aversion to touching their food is an aberration compared with much of the rest of the world. In countries like Morocco, India and Ethiopia, people eat with their hands, not just with utensils. Southeast Asian cooks pound ingredients by hand with a mortar and pestle to make the chile pastes and purees that form the basis of their cuisine.
Perhaps no other food culture is more famously linked to the sense of touch than Japan’s. “Hands are like a cooking tool in our cuisine,” says Ryuta Sakamoto, co-chef and co-owner of Medicine restaurant in San Francisco. “With touch we can actually tell not only freshness and condition, but the taste of a fish.” I know this sounds absolutely crazy, but it’s a function of repetition and paying attention: Chefs can touch a piece of fish, then taste it and remember the connection between the two. The next day they’ll do it again, and then repeat ad infinitum until they have built up an extremely accurate sensory database that informs them of what a fish will taste like simply by its feel.
I often tell my cooks that the onion on their cutting board is a specific onion, not a generic representation. If the layer underneath the skin feels leathery, they need to peel it off and throw it away—it will never soften no matter how they cook it. The same is true for meat. Before cutting it, cooks will often run a hand lengthwise along the surface. They’re feeling the grain, the tightness of the fibers, and seeing where the natural separations of the muscles are, which is especially important when trimming larger cuts such as leg of lamb. How a piece of meat feels can make a big difference in determining the best way to cook it: A softer, looser texture might mean more tenderness, so perhaps a shorter cooking time is in order, while a tighter, denser feel might suggest slow roasting or a braise. And pulling meats gently apart makes it easier to see where to cut, as with that ever-tricky joint between a chicken’s drumstick and thigh.
When I first started dating my wife, she would test the doneness of a piece of meat by taking a knife and making a jagged cut halfway through its center. If the meat was undercooked, back it went into the pan, leaking juices that spattered everywhere. A few minutes later she would remove the meat and subject it to a second mauling, at which point it began to resemble an outtake from a low-budget horror flick. I never said anything to her, but eventually she began to watch me feel meat with my fingers when I cooked, and then feel it herself, until she learned how to judge doneness by touch. If you don’t happen to live with a chef, a good rule of thumb is to feel your earlobe—that’s rare. The tip of your nose resembles medium, and your chin is well-done.
Alain Passard of L’Arpège restaurant in Paris goes so far as to have his cooks prepare whole chickens entirely on the stovetop, in a large pan with butter. They constantly turn the birds by hand for an hour-and-a-half or so, the movement and modulated temperature keeping the butter golden brown without burning, creating a supremely succulent result. His cooks don’t just prod the surface of the chicken as they move it around—they’re feeling the muscles underneath and the way the proteins are slowly setting, which will tell them when it is fully cooked. I should mention the obvious, however: Cooks have skin like lizards and a high tolerance for pain. It’s probably not the wisest technique for a home cook.
The same can be said for a lot of new cooking methods floating around restaurants these days, used to create things like warm jellies, foams and savory sorbets, often requiring highly specialized equipment. But unlike in home kitchens, the machines that chefs rely on supplement, but don’t supplant, their sense of touch. Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York, cooks pork belly sous vide, slowly poaching it inside a vacuum-sealed bag in a warm-water bath, then finishes it on the stovetop, using the back of his hand to press the meat into the pan so that it crisps evenly. (This technique also works well for fish cooked with the skin on: Pressing gently on the top of the fillet prevents the skin from curling up at the edges.) Johnny Iuzzini, the famously innovative pastry chef at Jean Georges in Manhattan, says, “Touch is important on so many levels, beginning with the ingredients. We constantly have our hands in mixes to check the springiness of gels, or to feel the development of egg whites in meringues. When combining fragile ingredients, I’d rather do it by hand than use a machine, which might deflate the delicate mixture.”
Ironically, as chefs’ understanding of complex cooking processes has deepened, the care and sensitivity with which they handle their ingredients has brought them closer to traditional home cooking, or at least the way home cooking used to be. I had an extremely fine, elegant version of hand-rolled couscous recently at Aziza restaurant in San Francisco, where the chef, Mourad Lahlou, told me a story about his Moroccan grandmother, from whom he learned his technique: “She was blind, and she rolled the best couscous. She would throw it up in the air when it was formed, and feel it as it landed on her hands. If she felt jagged edges, that meant that it was too dry, and if it stuck, then it was too wet. Other family members started to close their eyes when they made couscous to try and replicate the results.”
I remember vividly watching my own grandmother’s hands as she rolled out dough, peeled apples and crimped piecrusts when I was young. I have a feeling that she would be baffled by many of the dishes being served in top restaurants these days, but she would understand the chefs’ primal desire to connect with their food. The resurgence of handmade food is ultimately about a movement toward a more intimate connection with what we eat and where it comes from, what Paula Wolfert calls “the essential taste” of food. As she told me, “Without taste, smell—and feel—nobody can cook well.”