Ageneration ago, few chefs even wore mustaches, but today, full-on facial forestry is increasingly common in the kitchen. It wasn’t allowed at all when John Castro went to culinary school in the ’80s. “They would hand you a safety razor and expect you to use it if you hadn’t shaved,” says Castro. Now, the executive chef-instructor at Sullivan University in Louisville, Ky., sports a bushy Van Dyke and his students even get some leeway “if it’s grown before the quarter begins, and it’s well groomed.”
Duck Dynasty-style beards probably won’t ever be de rigueur among chefs, “since health inspectors consider facial hair in food a physical hazard,” Castro says. Despite common health-department rules mandating “hair restraints” for beards, most chefs say the rules aren’t tightly enforced. Brad Corbin, owner of Sloopy’s Sports Café in Lakeside, Ohio, says one local health inspector never remarked about his full beard. But as it approached its current 6-inch length, and a new inspector was hired, Corbin started wearing a beard guard in the kitchen. “I wondered how much longer I could go before he said something,” Corbin says. Rather than shave his beard (his fiancée threatened to leave him if he did), Corbin kept his facial hair, but reined it in. “The new inspector said he would have written me up if I wasn’t wearing the net.”
Corbin believes a growing acceptance of hipster style has paved the way for beards at every position in restaurants. Tenney Flynn, executive chef and co-owner at GW Fins in New Orleans, who himself has a beard, adds that the ebbing insistence on uniform-looking staffs also has contributed. Several of his staffers at Fins have “big bushy beards that are just more popular now,” he says. Asked whether Big Easy health inspectors frown upon facial hair, Flynn says no. “It’s New Orleans, nobody cares here,” he says. “Beard guards are for processing plants.”
When Lyon, France native Nico Romo trained as a chef, beards were nearly nonexistent in French kitchens. After coming to America, the culinary executive director at Fish Innovative Cuisine in Charleston, S.C., grew a short boxed beard. “I hate to say it, but health departments in most states don’t pay attention to them,” he says. Even when cooks’ beards are neatly trimmed, Romo says, “hair dropping on the plate can happen because you’re going so fast.”
The verdict’s still out on how guests feel. Nobody’s said anything on Yelp yet, so that’s good,” Corbin says.