There are essentially zero American cities that don’t mandate gloves for food-service employees in one form or another. Often, it’s for staffers who handle food that isn’t cooked (or cooked again) before it goes out to diners: raw vegetables, long-cooked meat served directly off a rotisserie, or even bartenders dropping citrus twists into cocktails. Of course it’s for public safety, but it can also be a drag on staffers (who don’t always wear them), many of whom think gloves are cumbersome, or sushi lovers, who recognize that gloves tend to ruin everything that’s great about Tsukiji-fresh fish prepped by skilled hands.
Usually the gloves are clear, or sometimes blue, similar to what NYPD officers and EMT workers use. But a few chefs — led by the world of barbecue — have found a better glove. You may have seen the black-rubber variety donned by workers who power through the wobbly brisket at Mighty Quinn’s and the black-pepper-barked stuff at Hometown Bar-B-Que in Red Hook.
“Honestly I got them because I think they look badass,” says Alex Stupak, who employs “FDA Medical Grade” Pro-NITEs in the kitchen at his just-opened Empellón al Pastor. But there are other advantages beyond the matte finish and relatively tighter fit that make for a stark image in photos: They’re made of nitrile, a heavier material than standard latex, so they’re less prone to puncturing. Stupak’s are latex-free, which is good for anyone who’s allergic. And they aren’t powder-coated.
Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor at Texas Monthly, says the black gloves are important to pitmasters mostly because they are compatible with the all-out messy business of barbecue. “I really think it’s purely about aesthetics,” he told Grub over the weekend, right before he judged the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational. Vaughn thinks the appeal boils down to the specific medium of meat cutting. “There are very few types of restaurants where you’re watching the people handling your food, right in front of you,” he says. Carving out behemoth beef ribs and setting down a flush of deckle on a sheet of butcher paper, after all, remains the opposite of tweezer food and $300 china plates with a golf-ball-size dip in the middle for a one-bite course.
What’s more is that it takes tremendous skill to cut meat well — anyone in a barbecue restaurant who holds this job title literally also holds that establishment’s food cost in his or her hands. Precision is important. Smoky fat tends to accrue on work surfaces whenever someone’s cutting ribs, chicken, turkey breast, brisket, and hot links, and the best cutters have to work with a flair not unlike a close-up magician. The black gloves, of course, help with all this. Vaughn says that Aaron Franklin occasionally uses them to great effect at his world-famous Franklin Barbecue. As Vaughn tells Grub, “It’s just cooler when they can get the black ones.”