One of the many complications of working in kitchens is being able to do it hurt -- to suck it up and soldier on even when head trauma, blistered skin and catastrophic blood loss might suggest that, rather than plating up that rush ten-top in the dining room, a trip to the emergency room is in order.
As in professional football, playing hurt is part of the game. And again as in football, the later it gets in the season, the more the injury report begins to have a bearing on who’s going to be doing what once that first rush starts to roll in.
In Hell’s Kitchen, the TV show, there were a couple of injuries -- pan burns, headaches, hurt feelings. Kid’s stuff, mostly. But still, because this was TV, first aid was rendered, ambulances were called and cooks were treated like human beings -- rather than (as happens in real kitchens all over the world) the cooks themselves treating their bodies like machines and wounds like the mere failure of parts, critical or not. In Hell’s Kitchen: The Game, there is no simulation for injury, for damage by blade, burn or dumb-ass misadventure. Everything that happens inside the game does so within a vacuum of perfect health, available stock and climate control. A dream world, in other words. One that does not and has never existed in the cook’s cosmos.
I remember working at an enormous bar and restaurant in Buffalo called the Shannon. It was Irish, attached to a hotel way out on the outskirts of the city, and I’d been brought on as a prep cook—an extra set of hands hired to help out the standing staff while they readied themselves for St. Patrick’s Day.
St. Patty’s in Buffalo? That’s some serious business. It’s not just a day there, it’s a week. There are parades and festivals, parties and concerts and dance-offs between the neighborhood Micks’ daughters who all do step class five afternoons a week when they are released from Catholic school. As an example, at the Shannon, we took in a ton—a literal ton—of corned beef briskets for making corned beef and cabbage. Have you ever seen a ton of brisket? It takes up one entire refrigerated tractor trailer filled almost to the roof. And that was what I was hired to prep—to trim, clean, steam and slice by hand. Awesome.
Anyway, I got through that, managed to ride a wave of sudden, panicked fuck-you resignations into a spot on the line and, on the third night of St. Patty’s week, laid a 450-degree sheet pan across the insides of both my forearms. It was a dumb accident that happened in the scrum --—me pulling trays up top, lifting them over someone else trying to get at something low. I knew the burns were bad because of the way the skin turned all white and shiny in the middle, black around the edges, and because they didn’t hurt at all. I wrapped my forearms in gauze, wrapped the gauze in plastic wrap and spent the rest of the night sunk to the elbows in bloody fish water doing fry-ups for the neighbors.
This same night also saw the kitchen manager get his elbow broke by an ill-timed door—going down like a cow hit with a brick and making these little sucking noises with his lips. We tied a sling for him, poured whiskey and aspirin down his neck, and he was back on the floor within twenty minutes, working the night one-armed, pale and sweaty from the pain.
On another night, in another kitchen, I slipped while hacking at a frozen iceberg of prawns my prep guy had forgotten to thaw and put an eight-inch Wusthof cleanly through my left hand, between the second and third knuckles, feeling the cold blade tick against bone as it went. I still have the scar. It’s one of my favorites. In full view of half my crew, I coolly drew it out, wrapped the hand in a side towel secured with a boxer’s wrap of duct tape, and worked a full Friday night on the sauté station one-handed.
I didn’t work well, mind you, but I worked. “One hand is better than no hands,” I kept saying. “And I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let you motherfuckers have all this fun without me.”
Two weeks after that, my grillman and butcher beveled the tip of a finger—taking it off at an angle about halfway down the nail and leaving it hanging there on the cutting board, connected only by a little tag of skin. He took three shots of cooking vodka, had a busboy drive him to the emergency room to get the thing sewn back on, and was back—totally bent on painkillers and chalky from loss of blood—for the second dinner seating.
“Nine fingers is better than none,” he said when I tried to send him home, and though he was as useless on the grill that night as I’d been on sauté two weeks ago, that wasn’t the point. He was there. He was on his feet and still swinging when the last table cleared out.
And anyway, it wasn’t like I had a whole well of guys I could call on to stand in for the poor fucker. We didn’t have any backup, any reinforcements. Had he bailed on us, we would’ve had to work the night with no grillman—covering as best we could, flipping steaks between trips to the ovens and salamander. It would’ve been a disaster. And he knew that—knew he’d be dooming us and fucking us and leaving us to swing in the breeze if he didn’t get that damn finger re-attached fast and get back on his station. No one would’ve held it against him had he stayed at the hospital and gotten proper care, taken the night off, babied his mauled digit.
But that wasn’t the point. The point was, by coming back—by standing up strong and doing his job as best he could even when there was no way in hell he belonged there—he didn’t let down the team, didn’t make his friends suffer without him, didn’t fail even when he had every right to.
I thought about different ways to recreate this kind of situation during the Hell's Kitchen game. I thought about Harrison Ford during the filming of Blade Runner and the rumor that he’d had his fingers broken by a doctor for a climactic scene in the old apartment building when he’s being chased by Roy just so that, when he was trying to climb up the outside of the building in the rain, he would be acting like a guy trying to climb up the side of a building with three broken fingers. That was hardcore (if true), but I decided that I didn’t need to go quite that far.
I thought about having Laura whang me in the head with a rock in memory of the guy I had to work next to one night at this roadhouse diner in the middle of nowhere, who spent the whole night standing in front of the flat grill holding a side towel to his scalp to cover the bleeding head wound he’d shown up with. But then I decided that she’d probably enjoy that too much and might try the same thing again the next night, and the next—claiming it was scientific.
Finally, I settled on doing a week’s worth of game time with my right hand wrapped in a galley bandage like the one I’d worn when I perforated myself, like the kind everyone wears when, inevitably, they reach out one night and grab the handle of a sauté pan that’s been toasting over an open-flame burner for the last ten minutes (something I did myself a couple of times, once wearing the All-Clad logo burned into the palm of my hand for a month like that Nazi guy in Raiders of the Lost Arc who grabbed the headpiece of the Staff of Ra out of the fire).
This worked surprisingly well. Even clear-headed and not all fucked up on kitchen liquor or pain killers, I was hopeless. The virtual Gordon Ramsay was not pleased with my performance and let me know as much, loudly and with great frequency. The first night of the pretend week was a cooking test -- no worrying about the dining room, no spacing of orders, just cooking checks as fast as I could. I failed it three times in a row while getting used to working like a gimp, then finally passed it with one star on my fourth attempt.
The rest of the week did not go much better. Also, the difficulty was ramping up. There was another ingredient to deal with, larger tables, slightly more picky customers who got pissed over any wait longer than about ten seconds (kinda like diners in Cherry Creek or Highland). And always, there was Ramsay -- barking at me, yelling, calling me donkey. Even when I did manage to get an order together and send it across the digital pass, he told me it wasn’t good enough, that I needed to do better, work faster, focus more. I even tried playing left-handed on Wednesday night to see if it would be any better, but I actually did worse.
Swear to god, there were moments when it felt just like being home again—sweating my balls off on some nightmare hot-line while a drunk Algerian shaped like a tank stands over my shoulder, shrieking at me in French and sweating gin down my neck.
On my first, unaltered and un-wounded run-through of week two, I scored 29 stars out of a possible 35—a decent showing. Bandaged up like a galley casualty, I squeaked through with 14 stars and was lucky to have managed that. And when I stepped out onto the patio for a smoke and to unwrap my hand at the end of the week, it was funny but I felt, for just an instant, that same familiar buzzing in my fingers that a knife cut will make when the knife is very sharp; that same stunning throb of pain that will come from a bad burn on the palm of a hand when the hand is flexed for the first time. Like old friends, they’d come back to visit me and, to tell you the truth? I’d kinda missed them a little. -- Jason Sheehan
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.