x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Dangers in kitchens

The perils of over-zealous food enthusiasm extend well beyond the confines of the kitchen.

Unlike some people, I like the nose I was born with. I've pined for it since last week, when it was the casualty in an accident involving a glass door that shattered both my nose and my pride in a ridiculous collision of hedonism and negligence. Because I'm accident-prone and also active (apologies to the general public), ibuprofen and a good concealer to camouflage bruises and scars are the top guns in my arsenal of toiletries.

A future in nose modelling isn't on the cards for me, and neither is a career in hand modelling. Memories of my daily mishaps fade as quickly as nicks and scratches, but occasionally, poor judgement - or just poor co-ordination - leaves indelible marks. Right now, these include an amoeba-shaped blemish across my knuckles where I reached into the convection oven to flip some spinach pies that were browning too quickly, a steam burn, tiny violet welts where a few defiant droplets of duck fat spattered, the gristly ancient autograph of a mandolin slicer's blade, a 20-year-old shadow where napalm-hot macaroni and cheese met my skin instead of a dinner plate, and most acutely, a reattached but desensitised thumb tip for which I vowed to never again slice crusty bread while under duress. The obvious lesson here is that when dealing with sharp objects, keep your reflexes sharper. If a knife starts to slip, let it go; better a damaged knife than a damaged artery.

As my nose has proved, the perils of over-zealous food enthusiasm extend well beyond the confines of the kitchen. Accidents happen in restaurants too. When a restaurant patron is accidentally hurt on a restaurant's premises, it ushers in a host of questions about legal action, liability and eligibility for compensation for everything from medical expenses to emotional trauma. The success of several highly publicised suits against eating establishments has spawned a legacy of weird claims, including urban legends about objects found in soup.

When serving food, it's more important for waiting staff to warn diners of hot plates than it is for the kitchen to warn the waiting staff; work-related burns are a leading cause of occupational injury and, cruelly, are part and parcel of restaurant work. Besides burns, commonly reported restaurant injuries include lacerations from broken glass, slip-and-fall accidents, and falling objects.

Danger lurks at every possible level of ambition. Last year, a 24-year-old experimental German cook accidentally blew off both his hands with liquid nitrogen in a home kitchen while attempting to create an inspired meal for his girlfriend. If all you can be bothered to warm up for your loved one is canned peas, you're not out of the woods: a can's jagged edges are one of the most common causes of kitchen injuries. I could give up both liquid nitrogen and canned foods forever and never miss either, but I might also be the only person alive who's capable of injuring myself on a lemon or a piece of chewing gum, so that's not saying much.

Common sense and short-term memory are the best friends of the home cook. Not all potential injuries can be psychically pre-empted, which is why it's important for us all to know our limits; too tired to drive? Please don't. Can't move the heavy pot of hot stock without help? Wait for it. Deep-fat fryer's alive and well when the phone won't stop ringing? Address one and switch off the other. Make sure the underside of your range's hood isn't accumulating grease that can start a grease fire, and change the filter regularly. Be extra judicious with the use of extension cords and power strips so as not to overload circuits. Don't leave the gas on, store a fire extinguisher in the kitchen, keep the floor dry and your eyes open, and spare yourselves of as many embarrassing stories as I've collected.

When people ask where I broke my nose, I won't name the restaurant where it happened. When a cousin jokingly asked if I had run into the door intentionally in order to earn one of Beirut's famed holiday touch-ups, I laughed. After filing an accident report with insurance and realising how lucky I was to get a clean break, I didn't need an opportunistic nudge into a courtroom to feel blessed, especially when I don't believe the accident was the restaurant's fault. The truth is, I was walking and texting simultaneously.

I'm often amazed by my propensity for making the same idiotic mistakes twice and surviving them. Most of my worst kitchen and restaurant injuries were anything but fearless, and could have been so easily avoided. Fortunately, I only had to witness cross-contamination from hot peppers potent enough to cause chemical burns once before I was convinced, and since then, I've kept surgical gloves in the kitchen just for handling them. Very few of us are lucky enough to have learnt to do things properly the first time, and some bad habits are harder to break than others. For the home cook, one of the hardest habits to cultivate and reinforce without example is proper knife technique, which can be studied from a book or an online video, but is ultimately about practice.

Keeping one's fingers tucked in on the stationary hand while chopping eventually becomes second nature. But even for the experienced home cook, a particularly easy mistake to make is one guaranteed to end in bandages: holding something in one hand while slicing toward it with the other. Never place your hand before the blade of a knife, no matter what stands between it and the blade. Avocados and bagels are frequent culprits here, and there are safe ways to slice both. With bagels, place them flat side down on a clean surface and place one hand flat on its top. Then, saw carefully across its middle with the knife-wielding hand. As for avocados, cut lengthwise, then twist the two halves to separate them. Place the half with the pit on a cutting board, pit side up, and bring a sharp, hefty knife down on it, hard. The knife will lodge into the pit and, with a gentle twist, will remove it. Remove flesh from pitted halves with a large spoon and slice.

At home, I hone knives on a sharpening steel and then bring them in protective knife sheaths (inexpensive and handy) to a knife sharpener to be properly sharpened. It's not a myth that dull knives are more dangerous than sharp ones; they are, and knife handles need to be maintained as well. When finished with a knife, wash it, dry it, and store it immediately (on a wall rack or in a storage block); never leave knives in a crowded sink or soaking in water. Good knives that are the right size for you are an investment that may have you balking at the price tag, but if you're good to them, they'll be good back, and they'll last a lifetime.