The Hands of a Cook

Do you have a relative or close friend who works in a restaurant? Have you ever looked closely at their hands and forearms?

First of all, their hands are likely quite strong. That happens when you’ve spent years chopping vegetables on a daily basis, flipping sauté pans and carrying crates of product to and from the walk-in. The muscles in their forearms are ropy. The veins pop up like earthworms, or baby snakes, under the skin.

Many cooks develop carpal tunnel syndrome from repetitive motion. Doctors can treat this, either with surgery (no thanks — we don’t have time or insurance for that) or with pain meds and those big forearm braces that Velcro onto your arms and have a hole for your thumb to stick through. Have you ever tried to mix meatloaf or coleslaw wearing those? Even if you rubber-band plastic bags over the arm sheath and put gloves on over the hands and thumbs, it’s a mess. You’re always going to get mayonnaise or ketchup or lemongrass all over that fabric appliance. And that’s gross. You’ll smell it the rest of the day and feel like you’re not clean while you’re making everything else. So, you take them off while you work, if you’re a dedicated cook.

Then, there’s the arthritis one inevitably develops in the joints below the thumbs. They swell, and they send shooting pains into the wrists at exactly the wrong moments. You can take meds for this as well, but you have to be careful, because pain meds can make you muzzy and clumsy and forgetful. So you skip those meds when working.

I hope this doesn’t come off as a humblebrag, but people often tell me I look 10 or 12 years younger than my actual age. But were I to put my hands through a slot underneath a barrier where you couldn’t see my face or the rest of me, you’d probably guess my age at 20 years older than I actually am, just from the state of my hands. The knuckles are swollen. Those muscles below my thumb joints are enlarged. The skin is dry as can be, sometimes cracked, because we have to wash our hands in hot, hot water up to, oh — I’d say I wash my hands at least 25 times a day, just in the kitchen, not even counting bathroom trips. Especially in the winter, skin gets dry and cracks, and it’s a constant battle to keep them from bleeding (more gloves, sometimes double gloves).

I can’t just slather lotion all over my hands all day. I can put some on but have to immediately wash it off before I chop or cook anything.

Then, there are the burns.

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We wear them as badges of honor, but, when we get a new one, we can rarely indulge in colloidal silver compounds, for the reasons mentioned above. You know what we put on burns in the kitchen? Vinegar. Or my favorite: Dijon mustard. Takes away the sting and almost always yields no blisters. And it’s food-safe.

I am not the only cook I know who has a big white scar between the thumb and forefinger of their dominant hand from flipping hot oil from a sauté pan onto their hand by accident.

But we soldier on.

Manicures and pedicures are nice gifts for cooks because, of course, our fingernails need to be neat, short and clean (and free of nail polish, even the clear kind.) I prefer to have my toes done fancy, because I’m not going to be stomping any grapes, but having fingernails all clean and emery boarded and moisturized is the greatest feeling.

And if the first thing that happens when a cook walks in the door is a warm bin of water with baby oil in it to soak his or her hands in, and then you gently massage their thumbs and wrists and knuckles, you will hear a lot of grateful noises from them. That’s the stuff, right there.

We soldier on, and we appreciate you taking care of us when we get home. But leave our feet alone please, though, until later tonight. When we first take our clogs off, it’s agony to have you massage those tootsies. Wait until after dinner and a bath, and then we’ll thank you so much. •

Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, Café Lou Lou, Marketplace @ Theater Square, Fontleroy’s and Harvest.

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