The city's Department of Health doubled down on its ban on bare hands touching sushi this week in light of Sushi Dojo's David Bouhadana fighting the rule: "If neurosurgeons can operate with gloves, sushi chefs can use gloves to roll teka maki," the DOH says in a statement to Eater. The DOH shut down Sushi Dojo and Sushi Dojo Express last week for repeated violations, and Bouhadana argues that the closures only happened because his chefs don't wear gloves — a method that violates the traditional sushi making process. But Bouhadana is not the only sushi chef who dislikes the rule. The city's top sushi restaurants have a history of bucking the rules in favor of craft.
In 2012, Scott Rosenberg of Sushi Yasuda joined a slew of other chefs to say that many of the health code rules were unfair, citing the bare hands rule in particular. "Any sushi chef worth his or her soy sauce will use bare hands for making sushi," Rosenberg said at the time. Sushi Yasuda had — and still has — an A rating from the city, with no violation for using bare hands, but many of the top sushi operators in the city choose to log negative points instead of have their chefs wear gloves. The error docks a whopping seven points from a restaurant's score, not too far from the 13 points that will knock a restaurant out of the A range. Both Neta and Cherry have B ratings in part because of bare hands violations. Sushi Nakazawa, one of the city's most hard-to-get reservations, also has a B rating due to the rule. Danny Meyer even once tweeted to ignore the B health code rating at Ushiwakamaru when it was on Houston Street, saying the experience was "exceptional" and the grade simply meant the chefs wouldn't wear gloves.
"You can certainly operate through gloves, but it's definitely not the same. It's like wearing a condom during sex." — John Daley
"You wanna be able to feel what you're doing," says chef John Daley of New York Sushi Ko and the Church Street Tavern sushi pop-up, who admits that he only wears gloves "when I need to." "You can certainly operate through gloves, but it's definitely not the same. It's like wearing a condom during sex." Sushi Seki manager Yasuyuki Suzuki thinks that the sushi making process is "very sensitive" and requires naked hands to judge everything from the texture of the rice to the tightness of the roll. Like Daley, he has his chefs put gloves on when they need to pass inspections. Otherwise, they go through a standard of sanitization that's embedded in the long history of Japanese sushi-making, he says — including regular hand washing and rinsing with rice vinegar. "If someone already has a good system, try not to kill the culture," Suzuki notes.
Other restaurants say they simply suck it up and follow the rule. Aung Win of Sushi Katseui in Park Slope says the health department glove rule doesn't make sense, noting that the Japanese don't have widespread food-borne illnesses despite years of bare hands on fish. Still, to keep his restaurant open, Win only takes his gloves off if he absolutely needs to, like to feel for whether a fish has a small bone, he explains. "When in Rome, you do Rome rules," Win says. "In Japan, I have Japan rules."
[David Bouhadana by Paul Crispin Quitoriano]
None of the restaurateurs or chefs who spoke to Eater were interested in a battle against the DOH, and some worried that Bouhadana's restaurant closure was a poor way to start talking about the issue. In a statement, the DOH explains that the rule exists because bare hand contact can cause Norovirus and Hepatitis A, and Sushi Dojo flouted the rule. But the department also notes that inspectors found mildew in ice that was going to be served in September and a spider infestation in a food prep area in April. Plus, Sushi Dojo "repeatedly refused to post its C grade," which also docked points, the city explains. "Sushi Dojo has regularly performed poorly on its inspections, and failure to wear gloves while handling raw and other food that is ready to eat is not the only risk it imposes on the public," the DOH says in a statement."The time to take action about the gloves policy isn't after you're in trouble for it," Daley points out.
Bouhadana argues to Grub Street that the DOH unfairly targets him with more violations because he has been vocal about breaking the bare hands rule with inspectors. He's trying to be a voice for the issue when many chefs are afraid to get involved with the controversy, he says. Nobody wants their own restaurant to be a target of a shut down, too. "The goal is to sit down with the DOH and find a solution together and amend the bare-hand-contact rule," Bouhadana explains. "When you go eat oysters, it says at the bottom of the menu that consuming raw oysters is a risk. I want the same thing when you walk into my restaurant. Sign a waiver. At the bottom of the menu, it says the chefs are bare-handed, consuming this could be hazardous to your health."
Despite any shortcomings about Bouhadana's style, others hope that change will come. Suzuki points to California, where a law requiring gloves was overturned after backlash from the hospitality industry, and Andrew Lee, founder of neighborhood sushi restaurant group Silk Hospitality, notes how the industry convinced the health department to allow a different temperature for rice that had vinegar in it. "I wish they would go to Japan and say, 'Wow, this is how it’s supposed to be' and see how they can help their cause and also help our cause," says Lee, who has his chefs wear gloves. "I wish there was more collaboration."
There are no plans to change the Health Code's rule about bare hand contact with ready to eat food.
Change may be tough. Most sushi purveyors don't want to run the risk of the city shutting down their restaurants, even temporarily. They'll either keep playing the system by occasionally pulling out gloves or just totally follow the rules — and the DOH will be able to keep using them as an example of how making good sushi with gloves is possible. A rep for the DOH notes, in a statement: "The Health Department has seen widespread compliance throughout the City's sushi restaurants, and there are no plans to change the Health Code's rule about bare hand contact with ready to eat food."
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