Tales from the Culinary Dark Side: Aspen’s kitchen nightmares
There will be blood, As I set off in search of scary restaurant stories in the spirit of Halloween, I braced myself for gruesome imagery. An erstwhile Kenichi apprentice butterflied his palm open while trying to wipe clean a sushi blade. Elsewhere a cooks’ quarrel ended abruptly when a knife was thrown and ambulance summoned. At least two unlucky souls have slipped down the stone stairs and cracked a skull at L’Hostaria. One hapless local found a human tooth stuck in a slice of focaccia purchased at a now-defunct bakery. Eeek!
Here are a few more cringe-worthy memories made in an effort to put food on the table.
I was working grill at High Cotton in Charleston, and there was this girl working fry. Came time for us to start cleaning; she had just cut the fryers off and put a sheet tray over top. She stood up there to clean the hoods above…the sheet tray buckled with the heat and her leg went into the fryer. She’s screaming, and you could hear her leg cracking and popping. You could see the skin bubbling and peeling off. You smell it. She was out for six months.” — Chef Kyle Wilkins, Home Team BBQ Aspen
One pasta cook who used to work here tried to poke a hole into a can of clam juice with his knife. At that moment, someone called over to him. He turned his head, and missed connection with the can. The knife hit his arm, cut two tendons (and the plastic band of his watch). You know when you kill a pig? He was screaming like (high-pitched frantic squealing) ‘Muoio, muoio! I’m dying, I’m dying!’ Poor guy. Luckily he didn’t die.” — Tiziano Gortan, owner of L’Hostaria
It was the end of August, many years ago, working for a wealthy family in Starwood. The client planned and planned for this outdoor garden party. Of course, the weather changed, so we ended up moving the party inside. She instructed her gardener to cut down all of these flowers to make gigantic centerpieces for a long table. When everybody showed up, they gathered in the living room. The husband was pouring martinis, making the best of it. Eventually, they all sit down at this beautiful, decorated table. I bring out the first course. Suddenly, one lady screams, OH MY GOD! and pops up. Everybody else starts screaming, OH MY GOD! The bugs in the flowers had warmed up enough that they came alive: an attack of 200 earwigs, scrambling over the table! It gets worse.
Everyone returns to the living room. I pull all of the flowers off the table. I need more chilled plates for another salad course on the fly, so I grab another stack of grandma’s bone china out of the cabinet and stick ’em in the freezer in a hurry. I make a new batch of salad. We reset the table. When I open the freezer door, I realize the warm plates have shifted. They come flying out, like they’re being shot out, bouncing off the floor, crashing. I’m trying to catch them, and I’m wearing shorts. Both of my shins are bleeding, my fingers are bleeding. The homeowner comes into the kitchen, looks at me and the broken plates, and says, ‘Kip, I don’t need good insurance, I just need one bullet!’ It was one of those Murphy’s Law catering nightmares—all because of those damn earwigs.” — Chef Kip Feight, owner of Conundrum Catering
A long time ago I worked as a production chef on a cruise ship from Hawaii to Japan, total capacity about 1,900 people. We had a gas-powered rotary oven with four trays, like a rotisserie, with 250 prime ribs cooking for dinner. Two storeroom stewards were horse-playing in the kitchen—they had nothing to do the whole day except cause pranks—and they kicked the fire alarm. Suddenly it was really cloudy in the kitchen: the fire extinguisher discharged all over the prime ribs, a half-hour before service.” — Chef Andreas Fischbacher, owner of Allegria Restaurant in Carbondale
In college back in New York, I worked for a caterer. Normally I bartended, but she was short on servers at a wedding. I remember being behind the bride, leaning in, and the glass of red wine went right over her shoulder down her cleavage. She was very kind about it, though I did have to pay to get the dress cleaned. Joan, the caterer, did not have me serve again. — Dr. Scott Tesoro, owner of Sopris Chiropractic
On one of our 50-percent-off nights at Rustique we were crazy busy. You slam tickets really quickly—pull, pull, slam—and sometimes you don’t even look. I had my head turned and I slammed down on the ticket spindle. I lifted my hand up, and it was heavy. The spindle had gone up underneath the fingernail of my middle finger, to the first knuckle, and was hanging from my hand. I looked down the line: one of my prep guys saw it, gasped and passed out! I pulled the metal out of my finger, shouted ‘Somebody get some water for this guy!’ washed it, and kept working. You have to.” — Chef Robert “Tico” Starr, formerly of Rustique Bistro (RIP)
An earlier version of this column ran on Oct. 31, 2019.