Top | Sift

Finger food

(article, Kim Carlson)

Daniel Patterson wants you to handle your food. I don’t mean he wants you to eat with your hands, although he probably wouldn’t object to that. No, Patterson wants you to cook with your fingers.

In Food & Wine magazine this month, Patterson, the chef and owner of the San Francisco restaurant Coi, eloquently argues for less prodding with forks and tongs in the kitchen, and more touching of food:

bq. 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."

Patterson acknowledges that some of the responsibility for this phenom may come from chefs themselves, who, when open kitchens became fashionable, began brandishing tongs:

bq. 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.

Maybe that’s the reason — or maybe it’s just another sign of a common disconnect with our food. We don’t want to get our hands dirty, and thus we lose out on one of our best secret weapons in the kitchen: our sense of touch, which, along with sight, smell, and taste, can help us determine the status of much of what we eat — the readiness of a pie dough or the rareness of a cut of meat. (On this last point, Patterson’s wife learned from a master, but there’s hope for the rest of us too if we follow his touch tips: “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.”)

Patterson is optimistic about how chefs are feeling their way back to success in the kitchen. 

bq. 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.

Maybe the trickle-down will be that we home cooks can begin, once again, to take full advantage of our fingers in the kitchen.