Hello, and welcome back to Off The Menu, where we explore the craziest stories about food from my email inbox. This week, we’ve got stories of epic restaurant injuries. As always, these are real stories from real readers.
I was working in a restaurant in a college town in Western Massachusetts, Sunday brunch. I think it was either Mother’s Day or Graduation Weekend — maybe Easter. We had buttered baby red potatoes on the buffet, little red potatoes that had a band peeled out of them. Steamed off in advance, we’d reheat them in a 20-gallon jacketed steam kettle half full of a 50-50 mix of water and melted butter. Once hot, we pulled them out into a pan, threw on a handful of chopped parsley, and out to the buffet they went.
Things were going smoothly. Eventually, the buffet slowed down, so we shut off the steam kettle. After a while, we needed more reds. Cranked up the steam kettle and wait for it to boil. Usually those things boil in a hurry but this was taking forever. The sous chef went over and stirred the kettle. It basically erupted into a steam geyser and blew up to the hoods. The sous chef burned the shit out of his arms. He screamed, not sure if it was pain or shock or some combination. He went down into the locker room and grabbed the bag of weed some of us line cooks kept hidden in the drop ceiling (we didn’t know he knew where we kept it), then got a bucket of ice water and said “if anyone needs me, I’ll be out back.”
So WTF happened to blow up the kettle? Best I can figure, when we stopped the kettle, the butterfat separated from the water and formed a cap. The water underneath superheated but the butter prevented it from boiling. Once the sous chef stirred the kettle, he broke the cap and the water turned to steam.
It was the late 1980s, and I was working for Domino’s in Chapel Hill, NC, which served the UNC campus and surrounding areas.
One night, my manager gave me two deliveries right before closing, one to a UNC frat house, and one to a motel near the edge of our delivery area. I drove to the frat house first and ran up to the door. This was an old house converted into a frat long ago, and was one of the more notable party frats on campus. The door was surrounded by small, square glass panes (about 5-6 inches across), and I knocked on one of these.
It immediately shattered, which shocked me quite a bit, as I’d delivered to that frat, and knocked on that same pane several times. The frat boy who ordered the pizza was close by, and answered almost immediately. Still in shock, I apologized for the broken glass, explaining what happened. He brushed it off, as frat boys typically don’t care about anything that doesn’t directly affect their ability to drink, eat, or have sex, and told me not to worry about it.
I left the frat and drove to the motel. As I was making change for the guy there, he told me “hey, you’re bleeding.” I looked and saw some blood on my left forearm. I was surprised, but it seemed like nothing, so I gave him his change, took my 25-cent tip, and ran back to the car.
I drove back through Chapel Hill and stopped at a red light, where I decided to finish up my bookkeeping, and enter my final tips of the night. I turned on the dome light in my car, and when I did, the front of my car was absolutely COVERED in blood. There was blood on the seats, the stick shift, the steering wheel, on the dashboard. on the pizza bag (which was red, so it was hard to see) … the interior of my car looked like a set for a slasher movie. I looked at my arm again and saw that there was a 1/2 inch long cut across my wrist, across a vein, and that I was still bleeding pretty badly.
I panicked and immediately ran through the red light and onto the main road, looking for help. The closest thing open was our store, so I raced down the road, and pulled into the parking lot … with a Chapel Hill cop in tow, who had seen me race down the road. I jumped out of the car and ran into the store, pausing only a moment to show the cop the blood all over my arm as I ran away from him (a bad, bad idea).
I ran into the store and probably scared the hell out of my manager as I came running up to him covered in blood, clutching my wrist. He looked at me, eyes wide and mouth gaping open, and immediately GRABBED MY WRIST, essentially pulling the cut open wider, which caused blood to gush out even more. He then pulled open the first aid kit, which was, of course, empty. [Editor’s Note: Told you this shit happens all the time.] His solution was to run my wrist under water, to clean off the blood. No band-aid, nothing. Now get back to work.
I went out to see the cop, with my wrist wrapped in a towel, where he proceeded to give me a ticket for speeding (which he knocked down 15mph, seeing as how I was covered in blood), and I finished my shift, closing out with mopping the floor, even though I felt faint and lightheaded, probably from blood loss. I didn’t have any health insurance, and the cut didn’t look that bad … so I ended up going home, putting a bandage on my wrist, and falling asleep. Given how much blood I had lost, this was probably (another) really bad idea
I was still expected to work the next day by the same boss who had seen me and my car, covered in blood the night before. I ended up calling in ‘sick’, as I still didn’t feel very strong, and was still light-headed and had a headache. It almost got me fired, though.
In my senior year of high school in Northwest Louisiana, I worked at a local Dairy Queen with a 15-year-old we’ll call “Chris,” whose father was making him get a part-time job that he really didn’t want.
Chris asked to help me during cleanup one night after closing. My only remaining task was to take some older liquid shortening to the grease trap out back. Being only 17 myself, I said, “Sure.” To stage this, the fryer hadn’t been turned off long, and the temp was still at least 325 degrees. The trap was in the back of the parking lot, and it was gently raining.
Chris tried to hustle across the parking lot while rain was popping in the grease and splattering onto his arms like frying bacon. I ran ahead of him to open the lid to the trap and told him he needed to pour the still-hot shortening out of the corner of the oil container (the lid to the trap was narrower than the edge of the container).
He didn’t. Some oil went in the trap, and some poured onto the top of it. The rainwater flash-boiled, splattering Chris and causing him to scream and drop the whole container. It hit the curb, made a very satisfying *boooong* sound, and the still-hot oil went at least ten feet into the sky. It rained down all over his arms, causing instant second-degree burns. His panicked reaction was to sprint back inside and plunge both arms into the ice machine up to his shoulders. He went to the hospital and didn’t come back to work for a month.
This was a couple weeks after he touched a screwdriver to a live wire under the workstation, blowing him backward off of a plastic milk crate and arc welding a notch into the stainless steel table and the screwdriver.
I started working at my first restaurant at 14-and-a-half. Started bussing, then to dishwasher, prep cook 6 months latfull-timetime line cook by 16. A year later, Friday night fish fry, 6:30, there’s an hour wait, the steamer door pops open and burns my arm from my wrist to my elbow.
I tell the other two cooks “I burned myself.”
They ask “You ok?”
“I don’t know. ” I say.
I go back to work. 10 minutes later, I look at my arm and it’s red. 10 minutes after that, I watched it tighten. 5 minutes later, I have baseball sized blisters on my arm. I show them and say “I BURNED MYSELF!”
The response: “Get off the line!”
The kitchen manager (I use that title loosely) pulled me aside, put salve on my arm, wrapped it up and told me to get back to work.
At 11:15 PM, I said “I can’t feel my arm anymore, can I go to the hospital now?”
Went to the ER, saw way too deep into my arm. ER doc called my boss, got me 12 weeks of worker’s comp because I was underage working on the line.
Working in a resort hotel also in Western Massachusetts, we fired the chef for embezzlement. I ended up taking over. I think I was 22 or 23 years old. It was my first time running a kitchen.
One of the day prep cooks was a 45-year-old career prep cook. Disgruntled and not happy I was his new boss, he constantly challenged me and made my life as difficult as possible. I can’t remember his name, so I’ll just call him Dumbass.
One day, I walked into the kitchen and he was standing and staring at a cast iron pan sitting on a full blast burner. The thumb of his left hand was held in his right hand wrapped in a towel. Curious about what’s going on, I asked “Hey Dumbass, what’s going on?” He responded “I cut the pad off my thumb.” He unwrapped his thumb and showed me: sure enough, he had basically removed his fingerprint with the deli slicer.
“Oh shit, man, let’s get you to the hospital,” I told him. He replied that there was nothing they could do because it couldn’t be stitched. I told him maybe not, but they could clean it up and bandage it. We should still go to the hospital. But of course since I was just a kid who had no idea what he was talking about, he grunted.
“So what are you planning to do?” I asked him. Dumbass gestured at the pan on the stove and replied “I’m going to cauterize it.” I’d seen Outlaw Josey Wales — I knew what cauterize meant and I had a feeling this was among those things that should be classified as Really Bad Ideas. But I also didn’t much like Dumbass and was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to talk him out of it. So I hopped up on the cold line to watch.
This was the 90s, when EVERYTHING was blackened. We had a pile of small cast iron pans we used for blackening. They were kept in the oven so they’d heat up faster, then sent through the dish pit for cleaning. They were very far from seasoned and generally had a faint rust patina to them. This was the implement Dumbass had chosen for his medical procedure. I think Dumbass was imagining that he was going to blacken his thumb.
Eventually the pan started to glow a faint cherry red. Dumbass screwed up his courage and pressed that thumb into the pan.
Dumbass almost immediately howled in pain and yanked his hand away. Not sure if you’ve ever dropped a raw hamburger into a really hot dry pan, but that’s basically what Dumbass did. And just like the burger, his thumb stuck to the bottom of the pan. When he ripped his hand away, the pan went flying under the cold line and took a fresh layer of thumb meat along with it. I was somewhere between horrified and laughing.
After that, he let me take him to the hospital, though.
Do you have any food-related stories you’d like to see included in Off The Menu? Feel free to submit them to WilyUbertrout@gmail.com. New submissions are always welcome! (Seriously, you don’t need to ask if I want you to send them in, the answer is always yes). If you’d like to stay up to date with OTM news, my Twitter handle is @EyePatchGuy.