Just Flesh: A Cook's Ode to Burns and Cuts



Like a hot iron pressing into damp linen or the first pours of pancake batter onto a smoking griddle, a soft inner arm hisses when it brushes the lip of a 700-degree oven. A burn is audible first. You hear a tiny "tssssss" of quivering flesh, your own flesh, before your brain registers the coming pain. Instinctually you jump back, hoping to reverse the inevitable; but there is it—a raised mark, shades lighter than skin tone, a white light before an angry, consuming red.

Speak to any professional cook and he or she will tell you that kitchen burns are some of the most excruciating injuries that can occur in the workplace. There are obvious dangers in any kitchen, but in professional restaurant kitchens—where there is higher volume, hotter heat, and a more harried pace—the risks are amplified. The burns, cuts, and bruises are as quotidian as sore feet and stress. Like the post-service boozing and ugly footwear, kitchen wounds are just another occupational hazard.

It seems that the in-the-trenches camaraderie of
kitchen culture does inspire most cooks to tough it out.

Exploding interiors of frying soft-shell crabs are impossible to sidestep, as are splattering duck legs rendering in sauté pans. Burns tend to hurt more than other common scrapes because the pain is a lengthy, elongated trip. From the initial sear, the burn continues to ignite neurons, building into an almost unbearable rattling, where the body can only focus on the alarm of pain. Oil and boiling sugar burns are some of the worst because they attach to the skin, coating and sticking the burn deeper and deeper. But the pain slowly fades away, like the crosshatched burn scars on every line cook's forearms, melting back into the body.

The gore stories are endless. A cook friend vigorously swirled a pan of smoking oil only to have it cascade over his hand, turning it into a swollen blister of a lobster claw. One chef stabbed an order ticket onto the sharp metal prong that held completed tickets only to have the fleshy pad of his finger slide over the point, completely puncturing the digit. Another co-worker with a Stalin-worthy mustache accidentally stabbed the tip of his knife into his abdomen, prompting a mid-service trip to the emergency room. He was fine. The chef de cuisine filled out the police report.

Cuts are less frequent, and really bad ones are rare. Slivering off one's fingernail with a freshly sharpened chef's knife when julienning herbs is a common slice that demands a pressing on the circumcised fingertip to stop blood flow while searching through the pile of green for the sequestered bit. This cut is also frequent on a mandolin, which can flick off shards of finger along with the radishes. Bruises come from slamming one's shin into a crate of parsnips in an overstuffed walk-in refrigerator and from energetic brotherly punches from riled-up cooks.

Most of these dings and scratches are worn like badges of honor. There is a spectrum for the abrasions of one's occupation, from the paper cuts and carpel tunnel of office jobs to the gritty asphalt grazes and pulled muscles of construction. It seems that the in-the-trenches camaraderie of kitchen culture does inspire most cooks to tough it out. The reality of working on the line during a busy dinner service is that it's easier to grit your teeth and deal with the crush of orders—then suss out the damage later—than to excuse yourself from the line to dab on some Neosporin and pop a Tylenol.

Severe injuries and illness should be taken seriously, and I have never worked in a kitchen that has not dealt with them as such. There's nothing respectable in a callous chef with a skewed view of severity and little sympathy. Cuts hurt. Burns ache. And Band-Aids and time will mend a palm sliced open by a thorny lobster carapace. However, at the end of your shift, a cold beer and a buttery lobster roll is a more perfect balm.