Kitchen Horror Stories 2012: Eleven Ghastly Tales of Restaurant Mayhem

Get ready for more grisly stories.
Get ready for more grisly stories. Photo: Drew Luster

Each Halloween, Grub Street runs a series of Kitchen Horror Stories — gruesome tales from behind the pass. (Here’s last year’s!) But last week, with so many chefs and owners living out actual (flooded, powerless, ingredient-spoiling) nightmare scenarios after Sandy, the mood hardly seemed right for a new set. Today, the Northeast is a long way from a full recovery, and it’s tough to overstate how important it is to get out and support restaurants as they work to get running again. Even so, let this year’s set of stories serve as a reminder of just how incredibly hard chefs and restaurant workers are. We can think of no other job where things like severed digits and horrible burns occur with at least some frequency — yet kitchen staffs work through them as if they were nothing, even when just reading about them would make most people squirm. See what we mean, straight ahead.

11. Adam Dulye, Monk’s Kettle and Abbot’s Cellar
Instrument of Injury: Slippery snow and a sliding glass door
Horror Story: “A few years ago, I was working at a restaurant at the base of Vail Mountain, just a few feet away from the ski lifts. There was an outdoor patio that backed up into the ski mountain, and there was a small stone wall, about three feet high, that was the border between the restaurant and the ski area. One night around 2 a.m., after a lot of the snow had iced over, a few cooks and bartenders decided to take some sheet trays up the hill to go sledding, à la Chevy Chase in Christmas Vacation. This was all fun and games until one tray carrying a server came up and over the stone wall so fast that he shot straight into the sliding glass doors along the front of the restaurant, shattering the windows. He had a concussion and multiple bloody cuts over his body. Not a pretty sight.”
10. Lydia Shire, Towne Stove & Spirits
Instrument of (Mental) Injury: A surprise fish!
Horror Story: “I remember once when I was the chef at Harvest in Cambridge, the owner had brought in a very large, 30-pound striped bass she had just caught. My job was to gut it, scale it, and all the rest. I laid the huge fish on the table, took a very sharp, thin-bladed boning knife, and slit into the belly on the underside. I started to pull out the bloody guts, and lo and behold, I screamed when my hand pulled out another whole fish at least sixteen inches long. I realized that the large striper had swallowed and was eating the other whole fish. And there was my hand and whole arm, shoved all the way down his gut.”
9. Michael Scelfo, Russell House Tavern
Instrument of Injury: Chef’s knife
Horror Story: “I got 22 stitches in my fingers when I pulled a knife through my fist to clean it, blade facing out. What was crazy is that I didn’t realize what happened until I opened my hand — I had a fist clenched and I could see blood forcing its way through. When I opened my hand, pop. My fingertips folded open and hung there. I passed out.”
8. Chris Coombs, Deuxave
Instrument of Injury: A broken beer bottle
Horror Story: “When I was a student at the CIA, I wanted to make a beer-based barbecue sauce and thought, Well, I can just open this beer with my chef’s knife! I gripped the neck of the bottle and used the chef’s knife with my right hand. The neck of the beer bottle shattered, then the ten-inch knife slid through my knuckle. I severed a tendon in my left hand and left a two-inch, gaping hole. Then it slid from my middle knuckle all the way down my hand. It didn’t hurt at all when I did it. I proceeded to walk around the class and show everyone that it wasn’t even bleeding — but then I discovered that I couldn’t move my fingers. A repaired tendon and 28 stitches later, my hand is good as new, but I have a giant scar.”
7. Todd Winer, MET Restaurant Group
Instrument of Injury: A broken air conditioner
Horror Story: “I was working for Charlie Palmer at Alva in New York. It was the middle of summer, which everyone knows can be brutal in NYC, and our air conditioning went down. Two AC guys came in to fix the system, which was above the ceiling panels situated over my garde manger station. One of the AC guys stuck his hands into the ceiling, and all of a sudden blood splattered everywhere — including my mise en place. It looked like a scene from a horror film. I had to go out to the oyster bar and get crushed ice to put the guy’s dismembered fingers on. Then I had to completely clean and reset my whole station just before dinner service.”
6. Josef Centeno, Baco Mercat
Instrument of Injury: Soft mozzarella and a too-strong knife
Horror Story: “It was a busy Saturday during my first job as dishwasher at this cheesesteak restaurant in Austin. The lead sandwich guy was opening mozzarella wrapped in plastic with his knife. He raised his knife to cut the wrap, but because of the sheer madness of that busy night, he pushed through the cheese harder than other times and went all the way through the cheese and most of his whole thumb. It was hanging on only by a thread of skin. They were able to luckily reattach it and he returned nine months later. I got promoted to prep that week.”
5. Ricardo Zarate, Picca and Mo-Chica
Instrument of Injury: Shattered glass
Horror Story: “About ten years ago, I was working in London and I saw a server almost drop several wine glasses. He tried to catch them as they were falling from his hands, so he pressed them against himself, crushing them into his arms. The skin along the inside of his left forearm was cut off and hanging down, almost to his wrist, and shards of glass were sticking out of his arm. The guy was actually very calm, despite the fact that he was bleeding like crazy.”
4. Emma Hearst, Sorella
Instrument of Injury: A slippery towel and a sharp knife
Horror Story: “When I was 18, I went to go cut into a huge wheel of Gruyère cheese. I had a side towel on the blade end of my knife and was shimmying it back and forth to get through the wheel when all of a sudden the towel slipped off and the blade went right into the base joint of my left thumb. Fortunately my knife was sharp, so it didn’t hurt while slicing my finger, but when I looked down I could see my bone. I threw some duct tape on it, put away the cheese, and eventually went to the hospital, where I got six stitches. I still have a scar — it’s my most favorite of my messed-up phalanges.”
3. Matthew Gaudet, West Bridge
Instrument of Injury: Hot oil
Horror Story: “When I was working at Aquavit in NYC, an extern was getting ready to move a huge pot of hot oil from the stove. Instead of picking it up the proper way, he slid it off the stove toward him and a wave of hot oil splashed up onto his arm. He was so shocked by it, he shook his arm down really hard and his first couple of layers of skin just fell to the floor.”
2. Doug Psaltis, RPM Italian
Instrument of Injury: Cimeter knife
Horror Story: “While working at Alain Ducasse in New York one early morning with very little sleep, I began preparing the sauces for the day. I grabbed my twelve-inch cimeter knife and started slicing a veal breast into smaller pieces. The knife was going through the meat, cartilage, and fat so easily that when the tip of finger got in the way, it sliced right through that as well. Luckily the tip was not completely severed but hanging on by a thread; I immediately wrapped it. When I arrived in the ER, it was already purple and ice cold. Since the docs didn’t have much confidence that it could survive, they simply tacked it back on with a few stitches. To this day, I still do not have feeling in it.”
1. Anthony Bourdain
Instrument of Injury: Glass-laden bread crumbs
Horror Story: “At a popular spot in Cape Cod, bus-tubs filled with bread crumbs were kept on the bottom shelves of the aluminum and stainless work tables. They were open to the air, just a few inches up from the floor. Such were the standards of the times. What no one had noticed this day in the rush to be ready for yet another busy night was that when the bus boy dropped a rack full of glasses earlier, a fair amount of shattered glass had ended up in the bread crumbs. The severity of this lapse only increased when an overstressed cook obliviously proceeded to bread a number of veal cutlets in glass-shard-infested breading. Mid-service, middle of the rush, packed dining room, a customer stands up with a look on his face of discomfort and confusion. He dabs his mouth with a napkin. There’s blood. Alarmed, he tries to call out. There’s more blood. It’s flowing freely from his mouth now, his tongue cut badly in numerous places. Terrified, he starts to scream, which aggravates the bleeding even more. The blood is now running down his chin and spilling onto his shirt front. The whole dining room goes silent, people start heading for the exits. The man keeps screaming. It was awkward.”