For sushi chefs, crafting sashimi or a great roll is a lot like creating art. It requires skill and feel. Bare hands are essential.
The new California law that makes it illegal for culinary workers to touch uncooked food with their bare hands is not sitting well with chefs like Toshi Sugiura. He's the owner of sushi Bar Hayama in Los Angeles, where diners devour everything from yellow fin to kozara, a kind of Japanese tapas.
Sugiura was making spicy tuna rolls with gloves on when we caught up with him recently. He has made thousands of these rolls before, molding each grain of rice with great attention and precision.
"Looks OK to me," he says, eyeing one in his hands. "But still it really feels — something different. I've been doing 30 years making sushi, and it's never been using gloves!"
Sugiura says that his sense of touch is lost in loose fitting, disposable gloves. The roll he's just made probably won't fall apart, but it won't live up to the sushi tradition's exacting standards either. But Sugiura says he'll reluctantly wear the gloves because he wants to follow the law.
For all the attention the law is getting, California is not breaking new ground. Angelica Pappas, a spokesperson for the California Restaurant Association, says many other states already ban bare-hand contact with food to improve food safety and hygiene. In fact, the change in California wasn't a surprise to big chain restaurants.
"They were well prepared for this," Pappas said. "I think it was very much expected. It seems like it was more the California-based companies and independents that weren't expecting this, necessarily."
Still, gloves aren't a substitute for hand-washing. Christine Bruhn is director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California, Davis. She says that cooks who wear gloves forget to wash their hands more often than cooks who don't wear them.
"So if you put gloves on dirty hands, you're handling food with dirty hands," Bruhn says. "Gloves are not the barrier you would think they are."
Restaurants can apply for an exemption to the rule. It's something fine dining establishments might do, but chain restaurants might not. It's not yet clear which ones will qualify, or how violations will be prosecuted.
California health officials have agreed to a soft rollout of the law for the next six months. Restaurants not complying with the rule will receive only warnings until July.
On our recent visit to Bar Hayama, Sugiura's spicy tuna rolls looked perfect, and the tuna was exactly as rich and savory as it should be. But the rice fell apart a little too quickly in our mouth. It was a tiny flaw in a great dish, but for Suguira and other sushi chefs in California, that's still a big deal.