"Pretty much any kitchen has superglue in it," Joshua Martinez, owner of Goro & Gun, told me recently. "If you cut part of your finger off, you just clean it and superglue it back on."
I've always known that a kitchen can be a dangerous place. My aunt is a chef, and I remember numerous dinners where she'd regale the table with the story of chopping off the tip of her thumb with a dull knife early in her career.
"Typically, what I do when I hurt myself is, I get very quiet, walk away and assess it," she would explain. "I could tell this was bad, but I worked for another three hours before the general manager said, 'Is your finger still bleeding? We're going to the hospital.' And there they had to drill a hole in my nail to loop the stitch through to get my skin to stay on."
It was at approximately that part of the anecdote where I'd lose my appetite.
(Before we proceed, an important note: All the chefs I interviewed follow stringent hygiene procedures in their kitchens, and make cleanliness a priority. There's no need to fear that there's blood in your gazpacho.)
I phoned my aunt and asked if she remembered any other horrific kitchen catastrophes. Thankfully/unfortunately, she did.
"One of my cooks was walking behind the line to try to clean the stainless steel walls behind the cooking line, and as he was sidestepping back behind the grill he stepped into the fire. And his Converse melted to his foot. They had to surgically remove his tennis shoe. Oh, and someone was telling me today that they knew someone who had dropped a three-quart can of tomato paste into the fryer and then forgot about it. So the person turns on the fryer, and at some point the fryer blew up in her face. It was just trying to keep her face together at that point. And people get their hands stuck in a pasta dough machine. You know, you're feeding the pasta in and your hand goes, too. It's kind of like a sausage blowout."
Boy, was I sorry I asked. Those mental images! But I couldn't stop there. I interviewed several local chefs and restaurateurs about their own kitchen nightmares, and now I don't think I'll ever set foot in one again.
Note: If you're eating, I suggest you finish your meal before you continue reading.
When I first mentioned kitchen injuries to Watt, he informed me that the wood-burning grill at Prego is often the source of injuries.
"Knife accidents don't happen much with me," Watt explained. "I've never really cut myself."
Then I mentioned Chris Shepherd's awful injury (see page 5), and Watt suddenly remembered one of his own.
"When I was a lot younger, I was George Mitchell's corporate chef in Galveston, but I came from a different restaurant group, and I was helping on a buffet. I cut my hand open with a slicing knife. It was a really bad cut, but you have to wrap your hand up, and you have to tough it through. It was a big flap of skin, though."
And then he was on a roll.
"A guy had a meat slicer a long time ago when I was working at a big hotel, and I told the guy to leave that alone, that we weren't going to use that here. I said, 'I don't want to use that, and I don't think anyone here is qualified to use that.' It was like a big band saw that you would use to slice through bone, and I've seen people hurt by it. So this guy was upstairs in a separate place, and he sliced his thumb ... not off, but at the knuckle halfway though. He was off work for months afterward."
"Oh, and at Mardi Gras in Galveston one year, I was at the Tremont House, and someone dropped the loading dock on my foot. I kept working all night because there were 100,000 people there. I had to go to the ER later, and they had to give me cortisone just to take my shoe off."
"Did you go back to work the next day?" I asked.
"Uh, yeah," Watt said. "It was Mardi Gras."
I approached Martinez about discussing kitchen injuries, and he quickly texted me thusly: "Got a graphic photo of said event," followed by, "Want to see?"
I responded that I did, but I asked him to keep in mind when deciding whether or not to send it that I was out at dinner.
Then a photo popped up on my phone, followed immediately by, "Oops." "Don't open don't look." "Look away." "So so sorry."
I looked. I was sorry, too. You can see the photo on the next page (Caution: nasty). Below is what Martinez had to say about the incident:
"This is really bad. I can't believe it. A week into working, we caught one employee trying to clean the shelf area of the fryer with the hot oil still in there. We told him not to use a towel and tongs to clean, and to make sure the whole thing's dumped before doing that. I think he was trying to make it look like it was really clean, but it wasn't. Sure enough, I had left early that day and I get a call that his hand went into the fryer. I was like, 'What?!' The towel he was using to clean had a whole lot of water in it, and he dropped it in the fryer. And once water hits hot oil, it boils over quickly."
"I asked where he was, and the other employees were like, 'He had a beer, and he's going home,' and I was like, 'Why isn't he in the hospital?'"
"He called me the next day and sent a photo and I told him to go to the doctor. The following day he sent me another photo [which you can see on the next page], and I was like 'GET TO THE HOSPITAL NOW. If you don't go there, I'm coming to your house and taking you there!'"
"It was super-infected, but he's OK. He was gone about two and a half weeks. He's a barback now. He's not allowed to touch anything hot."
After hearing the story and seeing the accompanying photo, I'd heard enough. But Martinez wasn't done.
"This wasn't me personally, but about 10 years ago I gave all my sushi chefs in Austin Thai Red Bull, which comes in little medicine bottles. It was the stupidest thing I ever did. Next thing you know, they're shaking and their hands are trembling and one guy cut himself to the bone while filleting fish. And that was the end of energy drinks in the restaurant."
"Then, on the first day of The Modular, Mikey Nguyen was slicing something with the mandoline, and I said, 'Hey man be careful with that.' And then he went and sliced the tip of his thumb right off. I remember having to get superglue, glue his thumb back on, wrap it in paper towels and put a glove on him cause he couldn't leave. It was our first day. He seriously couldn't leave."
And now for the photo. Skip straight to page 5 if you're squeamish.
Sorry about that. To read Chris Shepherd's horror story, click to the next page...
Chris Shepherd, owner and executive chef of Underbelly:
Shepherd immediately told me that he had a gruesome kitchen injury story. He didn't need to go into anecdotes of other things he's seen. His own mishap was scary enough.
"I was breaking down a pig almost four years ago. It was the middle of service, and we had a full restaurant because we were doing a wine dinner. We put out the fish course, and I'd just gotten a pig in from Revival. I was cutting it, and I went into a feather bone (more like cartilage than actual bone), and the knife just went right through it and into my wrist. It split my artery right in half. There was a lot of blood. I just kind of tied it up and looked at my GM and said, 'You need to take me to a hospital.' It was really dark blood, so I knew it was arterial blood. He just looked at me cause he was so busy, and I was like, 'Just call me an ambulance, man.'
"I sat down for a few minutes and had the presence of mind to tell my servers to tell the ambulance to come around back, rather than busting through the restaurant. So I went to the hospital, and they put three or four stitches across the cut. And I was like, 'That's it?' And the guy was like, 'You have two artieries in your wrist, and you only need one.' That night, I went back to work, but within a couple of days, my arm started to swell. It was basically filling up with blood.
"I'm friends with the head doctor for the Texans, so I called him on a Friday night, and he called his hand specialist. Then I got a call at 9 p.m. on Friday during service. The specialist told me to meet him at his office on Saturday morning. I asked if he had Saturday hours, and he said for me he did. He was able to get me into the OR for surgery on Monday morning, and it took five hours of surgery to put the artery back together.
"I got out of the hospital at nine that night, and my sous chef was going to Spain the next day, so I went right back to work.
Shepherd still has a fairly dark scar on his wrist from the injury, and these days, he's sure to protect his wrists when he breaks down large cuts of meat. He wears a guard on his wrist, and he has a leather sheath in the works.
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When you walk into Underbelly's dining area, you pass a wall of woodcuts. Two of the pieces -- of a hand and a knife -- are a nod to the incident, which Shepherd says he wants to remember.
"They're in remembrance and respect for what happened," Shepherd says. "That could have been really bad, but I was lucky."