Your hands are incredible tools. Think about these hand facts for a moment:
- 27 bones in the hand
- 17 muscles in the palm alone and 34 others that control the fingers and thumb
- 123 ligaments in each hand
- 48 nerves
- 30 arteries
25% of the brains motor skill sensors are dedicated to the hands and their movement.
“The hand is the cutting edge of the mind.”
Needless to say, the hand is important. What many fail to contemplate is the ways with which the hand allows you to be you, and in the case of this article – how the hand allows you to express yourself as a cook. Additionally, aside from those palmologists who claim to be able to read into a person’s past and future by looking at the hand, the hand does tell a story or stories about a cook, his or her level of skill, the depth of involvement in the profession, and the intensity of the work that he or she is involved with every day. So, let’s take a look at how all of this plays out in the kitchen.
A cook can easily take his or her hands for granted. We glow about the value of our personal tools in the kitchen and marvel at those that bring the kitchen to life like char-broilers, stove tops, combi-ovens, mandolines, mixers, stick blenders, Robot Coupe, Paco Jet, and blast chillers, but fail to show the same level of respect for the most important tool in a cook’s kit: his or her hands. Take a look at the versatility of the hand and the job description that each five-digit extremity faces on a daily basis:
 PREPARING OTHER TOOLS
It is the touch and memory of your hands that is able to guide a knife across a wet stone at the right angle and then the steel to remove any burrs before that piece of steel is able to perform.
 GUIDING THE KNIFE
Tasks that we become accustomed to, such as: turning a potato, fluting a mushroom, cutting perfect julienne, oblique, or brunoise vegetables or pulling perfect strips of lemon skin with a channel knife – are only possible with agile, well-trained hand memory.
 THE SYMMETRY OF BREAKFAST
Cracking an egg without leaving shards of shell, separating the yolk from the white, whisking whole eggs, masterfully flipping an over-easy egg in a pan, or tapping a pancake to ensure that it is fully cooked before sliding it off the grill, are tasks that require instinctive hand motion.
 BASIC PREP
Peeling an onion, drafting a French knife through the onion as it transitions from its whole state to a neat pile of evenly diced mise en place, gently but quickly pulling the shell from a shrimp, palming the side of a flounder as the other hand guides a fillet knife through the flesh without leaving so much as a trace of meat on the bone, precisely cutting 8 ounce filets from a Angus peeled tenderloin, and grabbing tightly on a hot – 20 quart pot of halibut bone fumet as you move it from stove top to ice bath requires an incredible amount of communication from the brain, your memory bank, and strength and dexterity to accomplish.
BREADS AND PASTRY
On the other side of the kitchen, the baker/pastry chef is working palms, fingers and bicep muscles as flour; water, yeast and salt are kneaded and transitioned into the daily bread. This physical task is complemented by the skill with which this same person’s hands delicately draw a spatula across a base iced cake and demonstrate finesse with a pastry bag that extrudes delicate buttercream roses and cake top calligraphy in celebration of someone’s special event. After bowl and final proof, that bread dough is pulled from a deck oven and tapped by well educated fingers to feel and listen for that hollow sound that signals, from memory, that the bread is ready.
 ON THE LINE
The team of evening line cooks take center stage after 2 p.m. putting the final touches on prep before service. Skilled hands whisk raw butter into sauces (Monte au Beurre), pick delicate herbs for garnishes, brush the grates on 1,200 degree char broilers, season sauté pans, and fold side towels in the same manner as they have done countless times before. When tickets start to fly off the printer, those same hands are sliding dupes down the rail, flipping vegetables in sauté pans, moving proteins from stove top to finishing oven, working tongs on the grill as perfect marks are made on steaks and chops, and expert grill masters tenderly touch the surface of meats to determine the exact degree of doneness that is somehow sensitized through the finger tips.
As each item reaches perfection, the synchronicity of plating is demonstrated through the subconscious memory of hands to place brush strokes on a plate and place each component in it’s precise location, wiping the edges of a pristine plate and presenting it in the pass for the expeditor’s final inspection. With a final act of grace and acknowledgement of a job well done, a cook’s hands pull the dupe off the rail and spike it with a sense of accomplishment. We turn to our fellow cooks, raise our hands and connect with a high-five or fist bump as the signal for a job well done.
 WHERE IS THE RESPECT
While all of this takes place, it is rare that we stop and think about how important these hands are. We fail miserably at showing any respect for the role that they play in our daily work. We ignore the fact that our success is dependent on how well these palms and digits perform. In fact, we tend to go out of our way to challenge the hands ability to perform. In any given kitchen day the hands are burnt, cut, steamed, strained, stained, plunged into very hot water, washed fifty times until they crack and shrivel, and use them to adjust items in the freezer at the next minute.
Think about this the next time you drool over that new Chef knife that will certainly make you a better cook. Where would that knife be without well cared for, perfectly trained, resilient hands?
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Restaurant Training and Consulting
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