If you're in search of a good scare this Halloween weekend, here's a pro tip: Save money on that haunted hayride; no need to purchase overpriced movie tickets to fright night at the local cineplex. Just head over to your favorite restaurant and strike up a conversation with your friendly neighborhood chef. Ask him or her to share a story — or four. It takes constant vigilance to ward off the catastrophic danger inherent to each whirling blade. It turns out, in a frenetic work environment complete with blowtorches, razor-sharp edges and industrial meat slicers, you're forever one absent-minded moment away from a Quentin Tarantino scene. Who knew? Well, the following L.A. chefs did. Enjoy their cautionary tales, if you dare. Happy Halloween.
Pastry chef Alan Zumel, the Abbey
“Once I was making a big batch of chocolate chip cookies using a big industrial stand mixer. I flip on the switch just as a co-worker decides to stick his hand in to grab some raw dough to eat. He breaks two fingers … bent back and everything. I almost barfed in the bowl.
“Also, it never fails … Every time I'm around someone who breaks in a new Japanese mandoline, they always slice off a major portion of their fingernail. This is why I can't eat coleslaw.”
Corporate executive chef Marc Johnson, Red O Restaurants
“When I was in culinary school at the Cordon Bleu in Pasadena, I took an introductory pastry class. One day the professor taught us how to make whip cream quenelles using a propane torch. The teacher explained, 'It is easiest to leave the torch on and stand the tank upright so both your hands are free to work.' Fifteen minutes later a girl starts screaming and running around the class in a complete panic because her ponytail caught fire from the class propane torch that was left on behind her. Needless to say, class was cut short that day, the entire kitchen smelled of burnt hair, and the girl came in the next day with a completely new hairdo.”
Executive chef Paddy Aubrey, Hyperion Public
“When I was working in catering, there was a French guy who walked the walk and talked the talk. My friends and I were always a little bit in awe of him. We were in the prep kitchen one day, where he was trying to find the Robot Coupe (an industrial Cuisinart). He was looking all over the kitchen and still could not find it. Meanwhile, the vegetables he was cooking were almost done. He finally spied it on the top of a metro rack, where someone had thoughtlessly put it. He climbed up and grabbed the bowl of the Robot Coupe and gave it a tug, as it was lodged between bowls and Cambros. He tugs again, it flies loose. Out pops the bat wing blade. He instinctively grabbed it in midair. One blade went through the palm of his hand, severing a tendon. The other blade cut his ring finger off at the knuckle. So much blood. Someone grabbed his finger and wrapped it in a dish rag, and threw him in the car to take him to the hospital. They managed to save his hand, although he lost a lot of feeling in it. He wore a cast for a month. Moral of the story: If a blade is flying through the air, let it.”
Adam Weisblatt, owner, Brack Shop Tavern, Same Same
“Back in the day, I was working Back East on Martha’s Vineyard. This is a huge churn-and-burn restaurant. They do 1,500 lunches and 2,000 dinners on the weekends in the summer. Turnover was super high because people got burned out. No one wanted to work in the kitchen. The law was that when you got hired for a new job, you have to bring two forms of ID. We hired this guy whose name was Smiley. He had just gotten out of prison, so he had a prison ID card and Social Security card. We hire him and on the first day, he’s learning how to cook lobster and steaks. He’s working with a cook who has been there for years. As soon as he starts his first day, he goes over to where the wine is and starts drinking. He’s told not to drink, but he’s like, “come on, we’re cooks, we can do this.” The chef comes back and sees it, but it’s the middle of the shifts so he doesn’t fire him, he just asks Smiley to stop. But Smiley keeps drinking the cooking wine. He’s getting drunker and drunker, using a knife to do prep work, and cuts two fingers off. Chef is trained in emergency response, so they bandage it up and put his fingers in plastic bags on ice. He’s not even upset, he’s just chilling (must have been on pills). Sous chef is changing to bring him to the hospital, and Smiley is so fucked up he isn’t bothered and decides to hit on waitresses on the floor. Carrying his bag of fingers, he starts hitting on the waitresses, and starts explaining his huge insurance payment and that they should all go out and party because he’ll be able to buy everyone drinks. He’s so fucked up, he needs to be restrained. They have to hold him and strap him into the car. That’s the last we ever heard of Smiley.”
Bar manager Eric Tecosky, Jones Hollywood
“Everyone love Jones' pizza. Everyone, that is, except a certain table in the restaurant. On multiple occasions and for no apparent reason, pizzas have jumped off their trays and traveled pretty far onto the floor. Much further than if it just slid off the tray or was bumped. One could write that off as a clever customer knocking over a half-eaten pie in hopes of scoring a fresh new one, but there have been witnesses. Lots of them. A few of them have been a bit pale when retelling the tale. I wish I could remember the topping combo of the pie so we could warn people to avoid the 'Ghost Lovers Pizza.'
“This I saw with my own eyes. The entire staff and some of our friends saw it too, because it was caught on our security cameras. A server was grabbing something from our storage room. On the top shelf was a box of ketchup bottles. It was not on the edge teetering but safely placed on the middle of the shelf. Right before our eyes, the box flew off the shelf like someone had pushed it from the other side. It missed the server, but it’s pretty safe to say I didn’t need anything from the storage room for quite some time.”
Executive chef Tim Guiltinan, The Raymond 1886
“In 2007 I was working at a restaurant in the O.C. where I had one cook who was always very argumentative. She did not take direction very well and always acted as if she already knew everything there was to know in the kitchen. I used to always make all of the fresh pastas for the restaurant, and we had a very nice and very strongly powered pasta machine in the kitchen. The kind with the two rollers that incrementally get closer together in order to roll out the pasta very thin. This cook got very upset one day about never being able to roll out the pasta, so I let her while telling her to be very, very careful, as it could be a dangerous machine if not handled properly. She responded, 'I know how to do it. I know what I am doing.'
“Within one minute she put her finger in the roller, and this roller doesn't stop for a finger, so I hear the screaming and I immediately turn around to see blood everywhere, along with the tip of her finger on the counter. After covering her finger with a towel, I sent her to the ER right away and I never saw her again after that.”
Chef D. Brandon Walker, Bread & Roses Cafe
“Many years ago, I had a yearly ritual of pulling an all-nighter. This was long before we built our new commercial kitchen on Hampton Drive in Venice. All holiday cooking took place after hours at the Bread & Roses Cafe during those early years. I could cook four turkeys at a time, and I typically had 14 turkeys to prepare. This process of roasting turkeys in the old ovens took a whopping 12 hours. I would start around 4 p.m. and would finish around 4 in the morning. Every year during those long nights, alone in the cafe, I would utilize my time by working on my computer in the office, catching up on all sorts of administrative work, while those birdies cooked.
“Alone in the cafe, where so many tormented souls have passed, the feeling of a presence was palpable. While sitting at my desk, I would hear the ovens open and slam shut! As if someone else was checking on the turkeys' progress. I would slowly walk through the dark dining room, to peer in the kitchen, but of course no one was there. I would return to my work in the office, and sure enough I would hear the ovens again! This happened every year without fail. I have never been able to explain these occurrences.”