Monday, July 12, 2010

Kitchen casualty

"Yup, it's a nice one."

Anthony Bourdain, in his famous memoir Kitchen Confidential, frequently describes kitchen work using warfare analogies. He refers to line cooks as being "in the trenches," and calls fly-by-night kitchen staff "mercenaries." He even says that to be a chef "You are, for all intents and purposes, entering the military."

These are apt metaphors. Each night is battle. The line is a battle front and the cooks that man it are grunts dug in deep and ready for the worst. Sous chefs bark orders over the chaos like sergeants, while the chef observes the action from afar (usually a prep kitchen), strategizing and ensuring his troops are equipped and ready to do battle.

As with any battle, there will be casualties. And though every soldier is aware of these grim facts of life, most never expect to become casualties themselves. At least I personally never expected to fall in the line of duty.

Friday night, I manned my usual battle station and soldiered through the shift with my usual zeal and vigor. Perhaps I was being a little too vigorous, a little over-zealous, relishing the rush of combat a little too much, because at about 11pm, I caught a bullet with my guard down.

I was chiffonading lettuce to garnish a plate. This technique--which I've performed hundreds of times by now--requires tightly rolling a lettuce leaf and finely dicing it to produce long thin strips. I can do this very quickly and am comfortable operating a razor-sharp chef's knife in close proximity to my fingers. But comfort breeds complacency, and in the process of chiffonading the lettuce, I chiffonaded the tip of my thumb as well.

I felt the knife shear the flesh from my thumb and, without having to look at the wound, knew it was bad. Very bad. I nonchalantly cupped my thumb in my other hand and rushed to the nearest sink. Blood began to spout from the wound, making my thumb look like the top of a Maker's Mark bottle: flat on top with red pouring down the sides.

I ran water over it and, not knowing any better, squeezed the base of my thumb to restrict circulation. Blood squirted and sprayed. I could see the porous, spongy-looking flesh beneath my skin. Another cook instructed me to wrap it in a paper towel and hold it above my head. Blood ran down my arm. A food-runner rifled through a first aid kit and found nothing that seemed capable of halting this gushing torrent of blood.

The most painful part was simply having no idea how to stop the bleeding. Do I have to go to the emergency room? It was obvious they couldn't administer stitches to a wound of this nature. Should I cauterize it on a hot saute pan? A rash move surely, but definitely a way of halting the blood flow.

Eventually, a sous chef was called back to the restaurant. Being the battle-hardened veteran he is, he knew exactly what to do, having dealt with similar injuries many times over. He instructed me to apply pressure to the wound directly, rather than squeezing my entire thumb, which he explained was only increasing blood flow. It hurt, pressing on what minutes ago had been the tip of my thumb. It hurt a lot.

But that was nothing compared to the searing, jaw-clenching pain of disinfecting it with peroxide. By now, the situation had attracted the attention of most of the floor staff as well as the Mexican dish washers. I stood bent over a sink, surrounded by gawkers, as the sous chef ran water over my thumb and proclaimed:

"Yup, it's a nice one."

After being expertly bandaged, I finished my shift, closed the kitchen and got stinking drunk. Co-workers lined up for me an endless procession of sympathy shots and I left work in good spirits. Despite the intoxication, however, my thumb throbbed incessantly with a dull pain throughout the night, allowing sleep to come only in short intervals.

I returned to work the next day an object of morbid curiosity and a target for a lot of playful shit-giving. ("Careful with that knife there stumpy…” “Watch out! I’m going to chiffonade lettuce…" and so on) I showed off the grizzly picture of my disfigured thumb as though it was show-and-tell day in third grade.

With each face I watched twist in revulsion, a perverse pride grew within me. Like a Purple Heart, this battle scar is a testament to my commitment to service, a token of the hazards faced in the line of duty. It’s a symbol of skills hard-earned, a physical representation of the time I put in to get to where I will be. Damn straight I'm proud of it.

Plus, chicks dig scars man.

1 comment:

  1. that's awful man. there are old chefs and there are bold chefs, but there are no old bold chefs.

    if you don't already, you should try listening to the grascals. and hot rize