When I was young, people always used to say that if I were at a house party, the only way to find me would be to walk into the kitchen.
My love affair with food started when I was 15, when I'd cook pizzas to make a bit of money. Shortly thereafter, I found myself traveling the world cooking and working on yachts, and it became so much more than a job. Food is a part of me—I've never earned money any other way. There's just something so incredible about coming up with dishes, from hunting for meat to the intricate detail of garnishes. There's nothing that would keep me away from food.
I lost my hand in 2011. I was out hiking in the back country—real wilderness—and was investigating a dried-up bear carcass when I got hit by 2,400 volts of live current from a power source that was under the ground, hidden by all the fur. I'm an outdoorsman, a forager, and love being connected to everything organic, and am naturally curious when something intriguing is in my path. So when I saw this bear, I moved it around with my knife and was probably shocked by the same electricity that had killed it.
My hand was amputated but the injuries were a lot more extensive than that. I lost key muscles groups and nerve endings, and needed major surgery. I'm fortunate to still be alive and thankful to have clarity of thought. Of course there are repercussions and my life-span may have been reduced, but for the most part, I'm still a walking, talking guy. I can still cook. And eat.
Since the accident I've retaught myself abilities I realize I took for granted—basic principles of being in a kitchen. Stuff like chopping an onion became a challenge. For a while, simple jobs were suddenly mountains to climb and overcome. But we humans adapt. Soon I was frying steaks and whipping up salsas again.
Last year I was asked if I wanted to help with some research and development with a prosthetist out in Portland, Oregon, and jumped at the chance. I was so excited to try it: a Myoelectric, a bionic hand in which human muscles talk (yes, talk) to software to create movement.
All chefs love tools, and the Myoelectric is a $150,000 bit of kit that most people—myself included—wouldn't be able to afford because insurance doesn't cover it. It's like a computer game with loads of codes and precision. It's amazing. Apart from being a dazzling piece of technology, though, it's a way of functioning. However, standing at the stove, I soon discovered it's a different game—it lacks the strength, speed, and dexterity needed to cook. In the kitchen, I'm picking up boiling pans, prepping vegetables, tearing up chicken. I don't want to break $150,000 equipment. One drop of water and it's fried.
From the outside, this prosthetic looked great, but it didn't work for me. As a chef, I have to be realistic. Obviously, it led to me dreaming up a "perfect" wearable prosthetic—tech that's as strong as it is flexible. Food is so delicate and sensual that I got to thinking about sensors to really feel again, the capacity to touch.
Considering all the possibilities, why not have knife sharpeners built in? A screen that could display bacteria warnings? Forge a device with suction cups on the fingers, with a material coating that would never perish? I found myself imagining integrated memory; for example, a reader that measures acidity, and captures ingredients. I pondered something progressive, evolutionary.
This technology exists. If I had the money and time with prosthetics experts in a lab, it could happen. But there's not really a market, so for now I stick what's available: my 'hook'. It's durable, robust, and light-weight. I'm a chef, surrounded by hot oil and heat, so I need something that can keep up. I still have my right hand and can master my left as I did before, pinning down fish or gripping potatoes. I can still slice and dice.
Of course there are difficulties, though. My prosthetic is body-powered and it takes my whole upper torso just to lift a lid off a pan. As I wash salad, I'm flexing my back and it takes a lot out of me. But there are benefits, too—it's detachable and it's multi-functional, and I can plug in a whisk or a spoon if I need to. The hook hasn't let me down so far and is pretty durable. I plunge it into hot ovens, dive straight into steaming pans, and I don't cut my fingers. I no longer burn myself.
I'm the same chef as before my accident. My dishes aren't affected—I just get to them in a slightly different way. Also, who cares how I peel a carrot or boil pasta? Surely it's about how it all comes together in the end.
My craft and my situation are connected now, though. Being an amputee is something that gets you noticed in public. It turns heads, and who knows what goes through peoples' minds. I own it, though. This is me now.
As told to Josh Barrie