Sometimes whatever can go wrong in the kitchen does go wrong.
And that goes for the kitchens of professional chefs as well as home cooks.
In Don’t Try This at Home: Culinary Catastrophes from the World’s Greatest Chefs there are some pretty wild stories of kitchen melt downs, chef crack-ups and food gone wild. The chapter by bad boy Anthony Bourdain about a New Year’s Eve service from hell complete with drunken guests, fist fights, coked-up cooks and spoiled food is hilarious. It’s worth the book price alone and yet another reason I don’t ever want to own or run a restaurant.
"Disasters like that are what make you a seasoned professional. They don’t teach stuff like that in culinary school.”
And while I don’t think any local stories can top that, Houston restaurant kitchens have seen their fair share of kitchen catastrophes. I bet Bourdain never had a steel beam crash into his kitchen.
“It just slammed into our kitchen and there was daylight where the wall had been and it knocked the coffee maker over,” says Sprinkles cupcake founder Charles Nelson.
It happened during the Apple store construction in Highland Village. Sprinkles, next door, had been plagued with poor visibility and parking during construction, but the beam crashing into the kitchen was the worst of it. Luckily, no one was hurt, not even the cupcakes.
“Then about three days later it happened again and destroyed our patio,” Nelson says.
Oh, and then the pipes burst and Sprinkles was flooded. Talk about a nightmare.
“We were always cleaning up and patching it up,” Nelson says, “but we stayed open.”
After all of that, the sweet result is that Sprinkles sales have increased significantly since the Apple store opened.
Over at another sweet kitchen, Vanessa O’Donnell’s Ooh La La, the problem wasn’t a steel beam but missing kitchen utensils.
“A couple of months ago we had a couple of drains not draining,” O’Donnell says. “We called a plumber to flush the lines and found a set of measuring spoons and an offset spatula stuck in the line.”
So that’s where they went!
“And, once a week the bakers will be mixing cakes, and it never fails, the mixer will be set on speed three and when they turn it on flour flies everywhere!”
But sometimes when kitchen accidents happen, cooks get hurt. Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar’s chef James Cole knows that.
It was his very first day at an Austin Italian restaurant and the first day back for a cook who had recently cut his hand open grating Parmesan.
Sprinkles, next door, had been plagued with poor visibility and parking during Apple store construction, but the beam crashing into the kitchen was the worst of it.
“And this guy was making pesto in a gallon jug with this big Burr mixer,” Cole explains. “And another cook came over and told him Chef wanted it done differently now so he takes the jug and sticks a finger in to wipe the rim and the mixer completely turns his finger around. Turned that finger completely around.”
But sometimes kitchen accidents have happy endings.
Ever wonder how chef Robert Del Grande came up with the popular tenderloin of beef with roasted adobado that reigned on his Cafe Annie menu?
As the chef once told me, he was at home one Christmas morning prepping some steaks for the family dinner when his daughter running around opening presents, accidently knocked the coffee onto the steaks. Viola, a classic is born.
Food Trucks Aren't Immune
And some kitchens have unique sets of problems. Like those on wheels.
“We’ve never had anything go seriously wrong in the kitchen,” says Ryan Soroka of the Eatsie Boys gourmet food truck. “With us it’s always engine failure. The battery won’t start. It’s always something mechanical.”
And sometimes a kitchen just runs out of gas. Even a brick and mortar kitchen.
“I was an executive chef at a resort in the Hill Country,” recalls Michael Pellegrino now of Max’s Wine Dive.
“And they had to bring these big propane tanks in to fuel the kitchen. So we were in the middle of this big lunch rush one day and I see the grill start to flicker. They had forgot to fill the propane tanks that day! Suddenly here we were with all these dishes going and no heat. And the general manager is looking at me like what am I going to do and I’m looking at him.”
So what did he do?
“I yelled ‘grab all the sauté pans and run!’”
Luckily, the barbecue pit out back had been fired up to smoke some meat and all the cooks huddled around the fire with their pans. A dishwasher ran back and forth carrying cooked dishes into the kitchen and bringing fresh ingredients back to the pit.
“We made it through lunch,” Pellegrino says, “because everyone stepped up to the plate. Disasters like that are what make you a seasoned professional. They don’t teach stuff like that in culinary school.”
But what if that pit hadn’t been fired up in the morning?
“It would have been a ham and cheese sandwich lunch or I would have said ‘Listen up! It’s an all raw menu today!”