You may have seen this little illustrated story wherein "thirteen chefs reveal the culinary battle scars they've received in the line of duty" in Sunday's New York Times. I saw it and loved it. Not on Sunday of course, because I usually work a 12-hour shift making dozens of labor-intensive, but delicious chicken pot pies. These stories from the Times are intense. Harold Dieterle's tale of cauterizing his wound on the flat top and finishing service before going to the hospital is the stuff of cooking legend. Something terrible was bound to happen to me in a professional kitchen. While cooking at home I've cut myself a few times, had a small burn here and there, discovered a major skin-allergy to butternut squash and even dropped an iron skillet on my foot. I'm accident prone. But now I work in a tiny, bustling kitchen where an error could mean you burn your co-worker or drop a pot on the dishwasher's head. So I am careful. Extremely careful.
Some days I have the luxury of a kitchen assistant or a prep cook to help cut vegetables, but for the most part, I like to do the steady, repetitive chopping myself. Aiming for hundreds and thousands of little pieces to come out the exact same size, repeating the same task daily, focusing completely on the task on my board. But then came those fucking apricots. High-quality dried and leathery ones. Instead of hydrating them first (like I had the previous four times I'd completed this project), I thought I would make less of a mess by chopping the apricots first, then hydrating them. By the fourth slice, I could tell that this was a stupid idea. With great effort my knife was barely getting through the flesh of the fruit and yet I soldiered on. On the fifth downward motion of my right hand, the apricot and knife slipped and sheared off most of my left pointer finger nail and the flesh beneath it.
I could tell as the knife was coming down that I had screwed up, because my mind was going in slow motion but just couldn't make my hands react quickly enough. I walked to the sink and washed my hands. I wrapped my gushing finger in paper towels, threw away the bloody apricots and the slice of my finger, and headed to the neighborhood drugstore. I asked the pharmacist for advice and showed him my finger. He shuddered and told me to go to the doctor. Instead I called my nurse friend who insisted I'd be fine since I hadn't cut through the nail bed. Liquid bandage and a finger cot for six weeks covered the mess, and it grew back. Now, I have an assistant cut the apricots.