Buying knives for an engaged couple is considered such a sure way to break up a marriage that gift givers who buck superstition tape pennies to their blades so recipients can symbolically pay for the houseware of doom. But there are no similar folk beliefs about mandolines, the paddle-like slicers that Martha Stewart Weddings, Bon Appetit and BuzzFeed say belong on every wedding registry.
Mandolines are good for turning potatoes into French fries, cabbage into coleslaw, zucchini into noodles and a block of cheese into a spaghetti condiment. They’re also good at turning hands into thumbless, blood-gushing appendages.
It’s unlikely that mandolines alone are to blame. But at the same time that the tool was charming food media types and tantalizing a new breed of ambitious home cooks, emergency rooms were seeing more and more kitchen wounds. The number of patients injured by slicers or choppers nearly doubled between 2001 and 2011, when an estimated 21,699 people sought treatment for cuts, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Since then, a number of companies have introduced cut-resistant safety gloves, often accompanied by a promotional online video showing a wearer trying and failing to slice off his finger. While there isn’t any evidence to suggest new glove technology has made a serious dent in kitchen injury stats, more than 10,000 Amazon customers have left favorable reviews for an $11 lightweight glove hailed as life-changing.
“There were, of course, versions of cut-resistant gloves before,” says Anna Selecka, spokeswoman for the company, which in 2014 launched the NoCry glove. “But the gap was the cheap gloves were quite bad quality, and the other option was very expensive cut-resistant gloves for shucking oysters. Home cooks turn to us after an accident.”
Yet much to the annoyance and puzzlement of the safety glove industry, professional chefs have refused to do the same.
“No,” St. Stephen bladesmith Quintin Middleton says when asked if he can foresee a day when restaurant workers will don polyethylene gloves as routinely as chef coats and hair ties. “That’s not going to happen.” (Middleton allows that chefs will slip on latex gloves after cutting themselves, in order to keep blood out of the food.)
Safety glove sellers point out that there was also a time when football players shunned helmets and baseball players took the field without cups. They stress the cost benefits of keeping employees whole, citing lawsuits and time lost to injuries. But few independent restaurateurs have been swayed.
Gloves come off
Traditional restaurant culture has lately become notorious for incubating verbal abuse, sexual harassment, addiction and wage theft. But in addition to the emotional and financial toll of kitchen labor, workers also have to cope with physical danger at a rate that rivals highway construction and transportation equipment manufacturing.
Three out of every 100 South Carolina food service workers in 2017 suffered a non-fatal occupational injury, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That adds up to 4,700 instances statewide. At the Medical University of South Carolina, which doesn't distinguish between home and commercial kitchens in its record-keeping, close to 500 people have shown up with injuries related to knife contact or food preparation since 2014.
Under federal law, restaurants are required to take basic measures to keep their employees safe, such as mopping up spills and properly labeling chemicals used for cleaning. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration doesn’t have any specific standards for restaurants, though, so it’s largely up to restaurant owners to take steps to prevent injuries.
In a recent story outlining how to reduce common workplace accidents, the trade magazine Restaurant Hospitality advised operators concerned about the threat of cuts and lacerations to coach employees on proper slicing techniques, and to “keep a first aid kit handy, and regularly replenish bandage supplies.”
If those in charge of kitchens don’t see to the first recommendation, they’ll have to heed the latter two, warns Prohibition chef de cuisine Analisa LaPietra. When short-staffed restaurants take a chance on an untrained cook, they run a greater risk of an ugly mandoline incident, she says.
“When injuries occur, it’s people who are not paying attention or using a paring knife to cut a butternut squash: There’s a reason it didn’t go well,” she says, adding: “I’ve cut myself on the aluminum foil box more than I’ve cut myself on a knife.”
A knife, LaPietra says, shouldn’t end up anywhere the person holding it didn’t intend for it to go. Construction workers wear hard hats because they can’t control what might fall on their heads, but chefs should have total authority over where a knife alights.
“If you’re in control of your knife, you shouldn’t need to be protected from it,” LaPietra says. Wearing safety gloves is, “almost like admitting you don’t know how to use your knife.”
LaPietra prefers bare hands when cooking, because she relies on touch to determine if a steak is cooked to the right temperature or a tomato is past its prime. As Middleton, who makes knives for the country’s best-known chefs, says, “When you have gloves on it dulls your sensitivity. How can you connect with something when you’re not touching it? If you can’t feel it, you can’t put love into it.”
Still, LaPietra wonders if it might make sense for some novices to glove up, since she’s seen too many of them trash perfectly good potato ends and squash nubs. They’re afraid to get close to the blades of the mandoline.