Cut, stitched, bruised, burnt, swollen and callused – a cook’s hands are a testament to the torturous work that they endure and the symbol of an incredible work ethic that they represent. It is not uncommon for people to take the wellbeing of their body for granted, but aside from the profile of the farmer, steel worker, blacksmith, or lumberjack, there are very few hands that tell a story like those of the cook.
The hands of a concert pianist or a surgeon are protected to ensure that they remain acutely sensitive to the delicate work that they connect with, while a cook’s hands are battered and torn and scorched and stabbed, all with the similar intent that they remain sensitive to the work they must perform.
I believe that given adequate thought a chef or cook would agree that his or her hands are essential to the performance of their craft and quite possibly the most important tool at their disposal. Every other tool in the kitchen is but an extension of the hands’ ability to control it and use it to the advantage of a cooking process. Without the incredible complexity of the human hand a cook would be unable to impact food the way that he or she does.
Look first at the mechanics of your hand and you will see that this tool, like no other, is a highly sophisticated machine that is deserving of our attention, respect, and care. The hand is comprised of the greatest concentration of nerve endings in the human body since the brain to appendage diverse commands are difficult to even imagine. This is also why we have such acute sensitivity in our hands and fingertips. We have 27 primary bones in the hand, numerous tendons and ligaments, and complex compartments of muscles that help the hand perform remarkable tasks.
Some believe that there are pressure points in the hand that can impact on the heath of various organs and even relieve the negative impact of stress. The hand can suffer from over-use causing carpel tunnel syndrome (from repetitive motion) and/or arthritis. Whatever your opinion of these considerations it would be hard to dispel how important this mechanical wonder is to our existence – especially to a cook.
Knowing that most of us fail at contemplating how important the hand is and thus fail to take care of this significant tool of the trade, I thought that I would point to the numerous ways that the hand contributes to our success in the kitchen and how blatantly we disregard our role as protector.
 THE TOUCH
The cook uses his hands constantly throughout the day to assess anything and everything. The grill cook has trained fingers to determine degree of doneness by touch; the prep cook relies on the hand to discover the freshness of fruit and vegetables (the snap of a bean, the rigidity of a carrot, the softness of zucchini, or the exterior feel of stone fruit and avocado). The baker relies on his or her hands to test the strength of flour and to determine when bread is adequately proofed. It is the touch of the pastry bag that allows a pastry chef to appropriately pipe a border or rosette. The gentle touch of the sauté cook sends a brain signal that informs the hand that the lightly sautéed fish fillet is ready for plating, and a tap on the bottom of a loaf of bread from the oven sends a hollow thump to the bakers brain that signals the product is ready to leave the oven.
Cooks might claim that the most important tool in their arsenal is the French knife, yet what would that knife be without the firm grip of the hand that allows this razor sharp weapon to slice, chop and dice with precision. The grip is the control and the hand must be able to respond to the command of a human brain that says how to properly hold the knife.
While one hand grips the knife, the other serves as the guide for precision slicing, dicing, julienne, boning of meats, or filleting of fish. Watching a seasoned cook rely on the concert of grip and guide is truly magical. When they work in unison a cook can fly through the process of perfect cuts, without waste, and without much thought. When the hands are in sync the process is mechanically perfect.
The fingers are testers of heat, process, and planning. Although every cook should certainly rely on tasting spoons, the temptation is always there to use the hand. There is almost an innate need to make the connection between the mechanics of touch and the complexity of taste. The hands are the intermediaries, the means to an end. Now I certainly do not encourage this in a professional kitchen, but acknowledge that the brain wants to use the hand, the fingers for this purpose.
Using a strong grip, it is the hand that allows a cook to lift heavy objects and direct their placement. Our hands are the clamps that give the biceps and triceps the ability to test their own strength and conditioning.
Cooks and chefs, as rugged and crusty as they may at times seem, are artists at heart; artists with the desire to paint a picture on every plate and sign their work. Each plate that is assembled is done so with a distinct desire to appeal to the sense of sight, to create an opportunity for the guest to pause, take in the visual impact of the food, and simply state “WOW” before they take the first bite. It is a cook’s hands that control the brush on the plate, whether it is a sauce spoon, ladle, pair of tongs, or tweezers placing those finish herbs on the plate before it leaves the pass.
The finger as a communication tool is used in many ways. First it is a pointer that makes the connection between an order ticket and the steps that a cook must take to begin preparation, the index finger and thumb are the pointers that eventually work in unison to grip the plate for finishing, the fingers formed as a fist to bump recognition with a fellow cook signifying a job well done, or at the other extreme – a middle finger to express frustration or anger.
Watch some time, as a burly line cook is able to take a Crimi or white button mushroom in hand and with an inverted, razor sharp paring knife – flute a beautiful mushroom cap to adorn the top of a steak. Watch the prep cook attack 50 pounds of potatoes and uniformly trim them into equal football shapes with seven sides – a tourne. On buffet day, it is the garde manger who builds a sense of wonder in the kitchen as he or she carves melons, daikon, and carrots into centerpieces that demonstrate how artistic this person is. Maybe even on those special occasions a shy prep cook suddenly wears the hat of ice carver converting frozen water into swans, eagles, turkeys, and baskets of ice. The hand is the control and the vehicle for expression.
Controlling cost is always critical in a restaurant and although portion scales are preferred by management, a seasoned cook has such sensitivity in his or her hands that cutting perfect 12 oz. steaks, trimming and portioning 7 oz. fillets of salmon, or even knowing what 3 tablespoons of salt looks like in the palm of a hand when measuring spoons seem impossible to find. The hand can be trained to be as accurate as any scale or measuring device.
THE RECORDER AND PLANNER
At the beginning and end of every shift and every event, the cook must think through what must be done the following day or the next time that such an event comes into play. The hand, knives and other tools aside, is now the means by which those thoughts are transferred to paper or a computer screen.
This list could certainly go on and on, but the point is that our hands are crucial to success in the kitchen. Those cuts, stab wounds, misplaced oyster or clam knife that finds a palm or finger, meat slicer that is unafraid to attack fingers as a careless cook cleans the machine while it is still plugged in, the pan handle over a open flame that is inadvertently grabbed without a side towel, or the hand wrapped in a damp side towel with every intent of grabbing a 350 degree strap pan handle from the oven are avoidable mistakes within your control. Your hands are far too important to be treated with such disrespect.
Cooks treat their knives with respect, care, and passion – they should do the same with the tools they are born with.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training