This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
Being a chef is a hard job. You start painfully early and finish equally late, all while working under stressful conditions, around dangerous tools in hot kitchens, surrounded by people shouting at you. In that environment, it’s no surprise you end up getting hurt from time to time.
I’m fascinated with what happens behind the scenes in fancy restaurants, so I asked some young chefs about the kitchen horror stories that almost made them quit.
Sarah Cicolini at Santo Palato. Photo courtesy of Santo Palato.
Sarah Cicolini is the chef and owner of SantoPalato, a great trattoria in Rome. Sarah is short, tattooed and tough, and before becoming a chef she studied medicine, which has probably come in handful along the way, given some of the injuries she’s had.
“There’s a wound I’m particularly fond of – it left a big scar on my left ring finger,” she says. On the eve of the opening of Santo Palato, she was de-boning a sheep’s leg in preparation for her first service. “I was so excited that I went past the leg and plunged the boning knife into my finger. I saw stars.”
Sometimes your nerves get the better of you, but injuries also happen during routine kitchen tasks. "I was cutting parsley, the easiest thing in the world,” Sarah recalls, “and I replied to someone [in the kitchen] and cut off my fingertip. The kitchen was really hot, so I fainted. I woke up soaking wet – they’d thrown water on me because we were in the middle of service.”
Stefano Di Giosia, chef at the award-winning Borgo Spoltino restaurant in central Italy, said that, after a while, you stop feeling the cuts and burns. He accidentally cuts himself almost daily – but as with love, the first cut is the deepest. “On my first day of cooking school, we were covering the basics, like cutting vegetables,” says Stefano. He started chopping a potato, but ended up cutting through the centre of one of his fingernails. “That was the end of the first class.”
According to Stefano, lots of kitchens don’t follow proper security protocols. Meat mincers with exposed cables, slicers without protections and other sharp tools are traps for inattentive cooks. "And if you’re on duty, you have to finish that service, no matter what, even if that means bleeding to death," he says, perhaps over-egging it a bit.
Christian Costardi runs a restaurant with his brother Manuel in the town of Vercelli, between Milan and Turin in northwestern Italy.
“I was working in Venice 15 years ago. It was late and I had to catch a train, but I still had to make ravioli,” says Christian. His colleague had made the ravioli dough too tough, but Christian decided to roll it out anyway, using the restaurant’s “pasta machine”, which was actually just an attachment mounted on a meat grinder. “I put the pasta in, started turning [the crank] and two of my fingers went in with the dough,” he says. “I almost fainted, but at least I took the ambulance in Venice, which is on a boat.”
He got off with 30 stitches and all fingers miraculously intact.
Another kitchen accident happened when his brother Manuel, just 18 at the time, was using liquid nitrogen to freeze berries for a dessert. “He popped a frozen raspberry in his mouth to taste, and… it got stuck to his tongue,” says Christian. After panicking for a bit, they stuck his tongue under running water and the fruit came off, leaving a painful cold burn. The brothers have now learned to test the temperature of nitrogen-frozen food against their teeth before putting it in their mouths.
Ciro Scamardella. Photo courtesy of the interviewee.
Ciro Scamardella is a young chef who took over the bougie Pipero restaurant in Rome a few years ago. One day, he went to work distracted because his car had just been impounded by the police.
“I started sharpening some knives on a honing steel [knife sharpener],” he says. “I was sharpening and sharpening until, you know, I also sharpened my fingertip."
On another occasion, one of his interns had made a fabulous loaf of bread in a Dutch oven, and was being congratulated by everyone. “I told him to put the pot in the wash,” says Ciro. “I don’t know what he was thinking, but he grabbed it with both hands and not by the handle. It was a pretty deep burn.”
In short, working in a kitchen is not for the faint of heart. I now have a new appreciation for the literal blood, sweat and tears chefs put into the food we all enjoy.