Tales Of Restaurant Injuries And Explosions
Welcome back to Off The Menu, where we bring you the best and strangest food stories from my email inbox. We've got an unusual topic for regular readers: stories of injuries suffered in the line of duty. Also, at one point a deep fryer explodes. As always, these are real emails from real readers.
I worked in a grocery store deli the summer before college, which had a sandwich making station (and horrendous sanitation and safety policies). Normally, they had me just ladling up slop or slicing meat chubs, but occasionally they'd make me make sandwiches.
One of the store's more poorly thought out policies was that a customer could bring any bread over from the bakery section, and we were required to make a sandwich with it. Enter Focaccia Dude. He had found one of our square, cheese-encrusted, aluminum-pan-welded-on focaccia loaves, and presented it with the smarmiest grin I have ever seen.
"You can make a sandwich with this, right?" I said yes, and grabbed a knife to pry out the loaf.
These monstrosities were baked in the aluminum pans they were then sold in, with the cheese baked onto the top. Tin snips were almost heavy duty enough to get through. But I wasn't allowed to tell him to go fuck himself, so instead I got to watch his grin widen with each futile attempt I made at liberating this bread from the pan.
Finally, inevitably, the bread knife I was forced to use slipped, and about half of the serrated length ran across my this plastic glove -- and the thumb inside it. Focaccia Dude practically giggled and said, "Ooh, didja cut yourself?"
I looked at my thumb, and the glove was completely intact. So I shrugged and offered a relieved "nope!" His face fell.
I turned back to the demon bread, picked it up ... and in the three seconds it took to look away, the thumb of my glove had filled with blood. I grabbed a random coworker, pushed them into place behind the counter and bolted for the back room to take care of myself (slapping a band-aid on the cut and going back to work, because fuck health and safety codes, apparently).
As I turned my back, Focaccia Dude's grin had returned and I heard him shout after me, "You DID cut yourself, didn't you?!?"
For a number of years in my 20s, I worked as a breakfast cook at a hippie breakfast joint known for the hash browns. They were made from scratch, using parboiled yukons, grated in a giant machine and tossed into crazy hot oil in these giant cast iron pans. Greasy, crispy, salty -- this is where you go to soak up the night before. They were awesome. They still are awesome.
One point of pride amongst us cooks was being able to flip the entire pan over at one go, which meant that you understood how to shake the pan back and forth on the burner and see how the potatoes moved, which would indicate how cooked the browns were on the bottom. The pans were huge, bigger than what most people have in their kitchens, and super heavy, with probably two or three solid inches of potatoes in them. You really had to feel it out and not rush the process. I was good at this, which was made even more ego boosting by the fact that his was an open kitchen. Patrons would order at a counter, where you could also sit and eat, and they'd pick up the food right by where the hash browns are made, so there's usually lots of people milling around the pick up window. It was fun to hear people ooh & ahh over flipping the hash browns.
So, badass that I was, I arrived at a second breakfast shift on a busy weekend, and waltzed into the kitchen where there were already two big pans of browns on the go. Barely having even tied my apron, I grabbed a pan and gave it a shake. It felt and looked like it was the perfect time to flip, so I did so. As the thick, giant disk of potatoes flipped over in one piece, I saw that there was an ocean of oil in the pan, way more than I typically used. I saw also that there was a tidal wave effect happening with the oil from the potatoes landing in the pan -- and it was heading for my arm. Time slowed, and I watched what was probably 1/4 cup of hot, molten oil (doesn't sound like that much, but it is) leap onto my hand and splash me, coating my entire thumb, half of my wrist, and continue up part of my arm. Somehow, I didn't drop the pan. I rushed to the sink and stuck my arm under cold water. It was already blistering and unless I kept it under the water, I was in excruciating pain.
Assholes that my coworkers were, they immediately started pestering me to do stuff. I was about to pass out from the pain, I could not take my hand out of the water. After about a 1/2 hour of dealing with this pain, and my asshole coworkers not caring/believing I could be that injured, I managed to get a coworker to come in and take over my shift. She was a single mom, so I had to watch her kid while she worked for me -- four hours of following a spritely three year old around the restaurant and surrounding area with a bucket of ice water I had my arm jammed into.
I didn't have health insurance/was an anti-establishment hippie, so I went home and never saw a doctor. Luckily I was really into drugs at the time, so I did a bunch of those to deal with the pain. I had numbness in my thumb for about a year and I still have scars shaped like something splashed up my hand, 10 years later. But goddamn it, I could still flip those browns.
I'm working an overnight shift at a Shake Shack. It's only like half an hour in and the closing manager was still there. I'm waiting on a table of some college girls who all order shakes. I make them and bring them out, passing each shake to the girl it belonged to. I'm to the last of the four shakes and I pass it off to the last girl. I let the cup go and I don't think she realizes just how slick the cup is (they're glass that sit in a freezer so there's a nice layer of frost on the outside when you serve them) and it slips right through her hand and onto the table and it completely shatters. Glass and shake go flying and, as soon as it's settled, I ask my table if everyone is OK, if anyone is hurt. They're saying they're fine and apologizing, and I'm just about to go get stuff to clean up the table when one of them starts screaming. Another one's eyes grow to the size of dinner plates as she's staring at me, and the third one's hand flies up to her mouth.
It takes me a second to piece together what's happening when the fourth girl just points at my hand. In the shock of the breaking cup and my time trying to make sure everyone else is OK, I hadn't noticed that a piece of glass must have flown up and sliced the ever loving shit out of my hand. It looks like I’ve dunked my hand into a bucket of paint it's so covered in blood. It’s dripping onto the table and just gushing out of my hand like some horror movie prop. I stammer an apology, ask them to please move to any other open table of their choice (which is all of them -- thankfully, we’re totally dead) and I run to the back to find the manager. She goes for the first aid kit and … it's completely empty. It's literally an empty tin hanging off the wall. Not a single piece of gauze or a band-aid in sight. [Editor’s Note: This is actually WAY more common than you’d think. A lot of places have this problem.]
So the manager goes and gets a pack of unopened, disposable table clothes, the kind that usually sit in sani-buckets, and cuts them into strips. We wrap them around my wound, tape them there with scotch tape (no medical tape in that box either!), get a glove, and tape it on over the makeshift bandage. I’m still gushing blood and we barely have the glove in place before it starts filling with blood. We take it off, re-wrap it, and do even more layers before putting a new glove on. Ten minutes later, it’s still bleeding like a faucet. I beg the manager to find someone to fill in for me so I could go to the ER, but she refuses and goes home, leaving me to serve (and make food) for another almost seven hours with one hand while the other one is bleeding out to the point that I'm getting light headed, and have to change bandages every 20 minutes or else blood drips out of the glove.
The next day, I go to urgent care, where they say they would have given me stitches had I come in a few hours earlier, but healing was far enough along now that it wouldn't do much good.
That place was a fucking train wreck.
I'm 21, just out of college and need some income, so I take a job washing dishes at Friendly's. My third day on the job, the dining room is slammed and the dishwashing machine is broken. I'm washing dishes by hand and I am backed up like an old man who forgot his Metamucil. I start carrying out a huge stack of plates and trip over one of the non-slip mats. As I fall, I'm trying to decide if I should throw the plates and save myself, or try to save the plates somehow. Time and physics make the decision for me, and I crash the the floor with my chest on top of the stack of plates and my hands underneath.
I look at my hands and my right hand is oozing blood from several different cuts. Inside the worst of the cuts, right at the 3rd knuckle on my pinky finger, I see white and go into shock, thinking I'm looking at my bone. In retrospect, it was probably just a piece of white plate stuck in there. I grab some paper towels and hold them around my wrist so I don't drip blood on the floor (like I said, I was in shock). I go to the manager, who is ringing out a huge line of people. Once I get his attention and he looks up and sees my hand dripping blood in front of all the customers, he grabs me and we dash into the office.
It takes us a few minutes to figure out where I should go to get my hand looked at. While we're figuring that out, I'm able to compose myself a little better. We call the GM and find out there's a clinic nearby I should go to. I tell the manager on shift that since we're so slammed, I'll drive myself. With my right hand cut up and bleeding. In my car with a standard transmission. I wasn't in shock anymore, but I wasn't any less stupid, either.
I go get the cuts cleaned out, get a tetanus shot, and come away with four stitches in my pinky and three on the side of my middle finger. I go back to the restaurant to check in and find they called in one of the swing managers to fill in as dishwasher. She was a sweet old lady and there were dirty dishes piled in places I didn't even know existed. So I put on a rubber glove, secure it with a rubber band, and plunge my hands into dirty dishwater to finish my shift. I still wasn't any less stupid.
The shift manager that night never punched me out. He said he was going to do it at the end of the night if I didn't come back, so I would get paid for the whole shift. The next day, the general manager tells me that if I think I need any more medical attention, to take the time off and get myself checked out. And she says that if a bill does find its way to me somehow, to bring it to her and she'll take care of it.
That pinky finger still hurt like hell a few days later, so I did go to get an x-ray. It came back negative. I never saw a single bill from that incident and the management treated me great until I left on my own four months later, when I got a job in IT.
I was a college student in Williamsburg, VA, looking to make some quick money, so I applied to and was hired at the local Chili's as a server. The very first day I was through training, I dropped a stack of freshly-cleaned plates while ferrying them from the dishroom to the line. There was a big puddle of water on the floor with a fan trained on it, to help the anemic drains cope with the ever-present water -- but I took the turn around the corner to the line too hard, and though I was wearing non-slip clogs, I went down hard in the giant puddle. The stack of plates fell down on my outstretched arm as I hit the ground and shattered; a knife-like shard went directly into my right wrist and blood spurted out in a fountain. Blood actually left the kitchen and flew into the dining room by at least a foot.
One of the servers was a former Marine, and he sprinted across the kitchen to throw himself bodily across me and hold up my spurting wrist while yelling for towels; he applied the pressure that I, though I was a trained EMT, was too much in shock to apply. "Someone get duct tape," he yelled, while clamping his broad hands over my wrist. Another burly server helped me to my feet and the three of us hustled into the MOD office. I was pushed into a wobbly office chair, my wrist held up while different sweaty faces applied blue kitchen towels and silver duct tape and intermittent pressure.
"Is it OK if I cry?" I asked.
"Go ahead," said my manager, who was distracted by his phone, calling his higher manager. All the servers were crowded around the dingy office door, equal expressions of worry and impatience clouding their "get better" smiles.
They wound up getting a cook to take me to the hospital. Then I sat there for hours as the blood dripped down my elbow and pooled slowly below my seat as I meekly sat, realizing that also my thigh hurt REAL bad ... oh, because there had been a fork in my apron, and when I fell on my side, with the plates, and the shards, etc, I also fell thigh-first on the single fork in my apron, because that kind of random shit happens to end up in your apron as a server, and if you fall on it, it will leave an extremely precise four-dot bruise.
Finally, I was called into the room where a doctor would see me. First a nurse got my info and took my vitals, and then the fun started. She unwrapped the duct tape and removed the first of the towels and then went "OH MY GOD" at about the same time as a huge spurt of blood missed her by inches. Basically now was the time where everyone realized I had hit an artery, and without the towels, I was bleeding out. My triage was moved up to number one.
One day later, I was having "put you under" surgery on my wrist to repair both my flexor tendon and my radial artery, both of which were severed. I'll spare you the details.
When I woke up and was discharged, my parents took me to see I, Robot -- the one with Will Smith, which sucks. I thought it was the best movie EVER, which is a real positive review for the pain drugs I was on.
[Editor's Note: Michelle is now a professional chef. The fact that she came back to the industry after this speaks to either her toughness or her rampant insanity. Or both.]
If you drop a bic lighter into a 350 degree fryer, you have just about twenty seconds to evacuate the area before a massive explosion will rock the line. Ask me how I know this.
My coworker Reggie, while trying to light the range, fumbled his lighter and dropped it into the fryer next to him. He leaned over as it sank. Another cook, Mino, who had heard the clink and splash in the otherwise quiet prep space, asked what had just happened. "I dropped a lighter into the fryer." A pause as this sank in. "That's not good, is it?"
The other cook immediately sprinted off the line and into the back kitchen's safety, assuming Reggie would also follow. Reggie did not, but cast about for a solution to get the lighter out of the fryer. He started feeling around with a long pair of tongs, bending closer over the oil. A third cook, completely oblivious to the unfolding disaster, returned to the line and joined Reggie over the fryer, asking what was going on?
That's when the bic lighter melted enough to release an explosive geyser of superheated gas and 350F oil straight up from the constraints of the fryer to hit the ceiling, the two cooks (knocking the glasses of one right off his face and ten feet away), and everything within a five foot radius. Gravity being a bitch, the oil on the ceiling washed back down in a second hot wave, covering everything with yet more boiling oil.
Reggie and the third cook sprinted away, trying to get to the eyewash stations, pushing past me. I had been working an island station away from the main line, so while I saw everything, I was not close enough to fully understand what had happened. From my perspective, Reggie reached into the fryer with a pair of tongs and then as far as I could tell, a grenade went off in the fryer. It certainly felt like it, with a deep chest-pounding concussive thump and an incredible flat bang!
All of us immediately swung into frenzied action -- I ran to the fryers and turned them off, slipping on the oil which was absolutely everywhere. It was still pattering gently from the ceiling, the hoods, the countertops. Everywhere. And at this moment nobody knew why the fryer had exploded except Reggie and Mino, and Reggie had locked himself into the bathroom to deal with his burns and wasn't exactly talking; Mino was helping me clean the oil and take care of the line, but I didn't know he knew anything. So the next twenty minutes we spent triaging the burned cooks, finding the third cook's glasses (found them nearly ten feet away from the fryer), arranging a ride to the urgent care, and basically yelling "WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?"
Eventually we discovered that it had been a lighter in the fryer, and sure enough, when I drained the fryer, there it was. A standard green plastic lighter, sans the metal top.
Reggie was not allowed to touch hot things for nearly a month.
Send Moar Stories!
Do you have a restaurant, home-cooking, or any other food-adjacent story you’d like to see appear in Off the Menu (on ANY subject, not just this one)? Please e-mail WilyUbertrout@gmail.com with “Off the Menu” in the subject line (or you can find me on Twitter @EyePatchGuy). Submissions are always welcome!