Thursday, June 16, 2011

Wednesdays are for Self-Mutilation, or How Overconfidence Made Me Lose My Fingertip

I should've figured that coming off Tuesday's catered dinner on such a high note would leave me vulnerable in the kitchen. I was coasting on a sense of hard-won confidence and invincibility, and my first few hours of prep today were smooth-sailing. Annie puts me to work rolling out biscuits for cobbler, and I'm doing everything right--using the right measuring cups, folding the dough properly, cutting out rounds without any weird residue or flakiness.
 I know to get right in line when Geddes passes out slivers of his almost-ready house-made coppa, more original meat made from the Mangalitsas.
And I know to fill up my plate fast when family meal goes out and includes more of those delicious duck skin chicharones. 
(And for those of you debating the composition of our family meals, it isn't nearly as starch-heavy as you might expect...dinner's a little more so, since we go through the leftover potatoes and risotto from the night's service, but lunch is fairly light on the carbs and fats. Chris tells me Geddes almost never includes heavy-duty cheese use in the restaurant's menu, since it's high cost and often low-flavor. I'm grateful for this, since it cuts down on the unhealthiness of the staff meals, and because it leaves me to flavor my lunchtime taco with fresh salsa and avocado instead of sour cream and grated cheese.)

I know plenty of things by now—to know that we need to run off a new batch of rhubarb for cobbler, that we need fresh tarragon and borage and mint for dessert garnish, So given all the things I think I know, you’d think I’d know to pay attention when Wally asks me to run off a few golden beets on the mandoline for our special salad.
For those of you haven’t worked with a mandoline before, it’s an incredibly useful tool: it lets you shave ingredients into very thin slices, which often makes for a very thin wide cooking surface and for a beautiful appearance. With beets and raw vegetables like fennel and onion, they’re especially ideal, because it gives you a thin slice of flavor rather than a huge chunk of it. However, their blades—steel, porcelain, or otherwise—can be extremely sharp, and as you’re running your vegetable against the blade, it’s easy to slip and cut yourself. And before I know it, that’s exactly what I’ve done—sliced off a good one-square centimeter of my right index finger and fingernail.

I’m gushing blood and run to the first-aid station to wrap my hand in paper towels. It feel like a deep cut, my finger stinging and throbbing as I hold it tight to staunch the bleeding. I take one look at the cut and immediately have to look away—it’s like I’ve revealed a cross-section of a tree, as I can see the rings of meat under the tip of my finger. Wally follows behind me, and tells me to sit down and rest my hands on top of my head (to minimize blood flow through my body, and to keep the injury above heart level.) Angela and Chris soon wander over, as I’m sitting on a bucket of flour holding my hand in the air. “You know, if you want to stop the bleeding right away, put your finger in some lemon juice. Or bleach. Or vinegar.”

I give Chris a look. In his 42 years of cooking, he’s cut himself numerous times, and never once needed stitches. But that doesn’t mean I’ll take his word on first aid.

“I mean, it’ll hurt like hell, but it’ll stop the bleeding.”

I decide to continue holding my hand in the air. One of our servers for the night, Nate, stops by and takes a look. “Oh, that’s a good one!” he said. “Nice clean cut. You won’t need stitches, that’ll heal pretty nicely on its own. The dull cuts are the worst.” He turns to go back inside, then looks back. “Did you find the fingertip?”

It’s be funny if it wasn’t so embarrassing. It doesn’t hurt enough for me to cry, but it’s more than a little embarrassing to be holding my hand like a mortal wound when I’m surrounded by people who’ve done this to themselves countless times over their careers. Geddes tells me about the time he cut himself as he was preparing to plate a dinner for 300 people. “A diner drove me to the clinic, where I told them to stitch me up fast so I could go back to work. And I went back and did the dinner.” Another time he simply strapped on some Band-Aids and tied a rubber glove up at the wrist—only once he had a free moment could he open it up and pour out the accumulating blood. Such is life in a kitchen—you can’t take much time to recover when the tickets keep coming in. I sit down in the kitchen garden to rest, cursing not out of pain, but out of remorse that I’ve put myself out of commission.

As a sweet gesture to distract me, Luke has me walk out with him to the edge of the dining room lawn, where the land drops off to a cliff overlooking the ocean. He’s carrying a big plastic bucket of fish scraps—long strips of sturgeon skin, hunks of unusable halibut and salmon, full handfuls of bone and scales. He scoops some up in his hands, and flings it over the edge of the cliff. Before I can see where it’s disembarking from, an enormous bald eagle swoops down and snatches up the meat, carrying it back to its nest.
Turkey vultures and hawks start to circle in the air, watching as Luke throws each hunk of fish out to them. It’s an amazing sight, and a great show for the early-evening diners out on the patio. I almost forget about the throbbing of my finger.

Eventually the bleeding slows, and I come back inside where Wally helps me bandage it up properly (lots of Neosporin, two Band-Aids, and a bit of masking tape to hold it all together.) It makes sense that Wally would be the one to help me out—not only did he cut himself last week, but he’s also the one constantly showing me how to properly wrap up our station for clean-up. Good with plastic wrap, good with kitchen first-aid. And he shows me something Nate has written up in my absence.
And yes, that note at the bottom is for what to do with the “special” leftovers: “rolling into little piggy toe mousse; char-cut-erie plate.” For the first time in the night, I tear up. It’s such a hilarious, sweet gesture from my coworkers, who’ve all been here before, and I get weepy knowing at this sort-of rite of passage. Luke takes a look at the write-up. “$75.00? That’s far too cheap. I mean, you’ve got a limited supply.” “Yeah,” I say. “But who knows who else might be able to contribute ingredients?”

 I slip a rubber glove over my hand and go right back to the cold station, helping Wally assemble salads and desserts and keep up with the fairly busy night. Later in the night Geddes helps me swap out the bandage, and cuts the fingertips off a glove so I can have more use of my non-injured fingers. (When he first suggests it, I think he’s recommending I cut off the rest of my fingertips to make things easier. I blame this on the blood loss.)
As the night wraps up, I start to feel that big drop-off of energy, and one sip of Chris’s special wine for the night, an excellent 2006 Sauvignon Blanc, starts to leave me woozy. Thankfully I can load up on iron and carbohydrates at family dinner—a big pot of rice and beans, and a salad heavy with nuts and leftover crab. Wally wraps up my finger once more, and I stumble home, holding my hand aloft like a trophy. I down a few ibuprofen and collapse into bed.


  1. At the risk of your being drummed out of the Benevolent Order of Prep Chefs for lèse machismo, might I suggest a pair of mesh butcher's gloves when using a mandoline? I never use that infernal machine without them after having had the singularly grotesque experience of shaving a thin strip of skin off the length of my index finger. BTW-- your colleagues were right about lemon juice or vinegar. Yes, it stings like hell for a bit, but it does do the trick. So does alum (the active ingredient in a styptic pencil), if there happens to be any around the kitchen. Then apply some ice to help with the throbbing.

    Give yourself a Purple Heart with Borage Cluster & hang in there.

  2. I had to read this one in installments, because I kept wincing away from the screen once I got to the description of the sliced fingertip. RINGS IN THE WOOD, I can't even!