There were a few seconds, immediately after the blade sank deep into the tip of my left index finger and shortly before the blood began to spurt, that I simply watched. There always seems to be a moment like this after an injury in the kitchen; a stillness, before crisis management kicks in, when we get lost bewildered by our clumsiness or stupidity or just plain bad luck.
In this case, it was a mix of all three. My knife skills don’t deserve that name. I’m a home cook, not a trained chef, and I haven’t quite mastered the business of curling my fingertips down while resting my knuckles against the blade. I was crushing chives. He was distracted. Now he was injured.
The wound took a month to heal. I now have a crescent shaped scar at the tip. It comes to join all the other scars. There’s the long pale slug-shaped mark on my right wrist where it fried against the top edge of a very hot oven when I reached in with a spatula.
We assume these things fade over time, but now I’m made of old skin and bone; that one will be with me for a lifetime. There are polka dots from multiple small burns on the pad of my left hand, caused by reaching for the baking sheet. Now there’s this new one.
Anyone who cooks regularly has these marks. I’m not proud of them. I would be very happy if none of these minor accidents had happened; If I didn’t have scars No one should take possible disfigurement lightly.
Luckily though, they are young enough that I can now be curiously fond of them. They are my life in the kitchen, written on the body, the physical marks of someone who has chopped vegetables and minced onions, fussed over pots of broth and skewered roasts, tasted sauces, fried and charred and battered.
And it is that the kitchen is not without risks. It’s all about fire and knives. While the chance of injury may decrease with experience, the likelihood of it happening increases due to repetition.
Here are the professionals. My friend Jeremy Lee, revered chef at Quo Vadis, has been cooking around the clock, almost every business day, for over 30 years. “Brands really come out with the sun,” he says. “My forearms make me look like a zebra. And you look at them and say, oh, there you are.”
Great Manchester chef Mary-Ellen McTague says her attitude towards minor injuries has changed over the years. “Once, they were a badge of honor,” she says. “If your finger was dangling and you were still cooking, it was weirdly heroic. Now, I prefer to be safe. But I do feel affection for my scars.”
Accidents clearly happen. This is life. However, there is one risk in the kitchen that every cook I’ve discussed with cringes at the thought of: the mandolin. “Watching someone cutting up a mandolin makes me very nervous,” says McTague. “I don’t know a cook who hasn’t lost a fingertip to one of those.”
Lee understands why it happens. “Maybe you can’t find the guard,” he says. “So he goes for it. And then we kick ourselves for being silly and overzealous.”
Is that how it works. We plan to make something nice to eat. Then the hand slips. The blade does its worst. And we know for sure that the mark of our highly developed appetites will be with us for a long time to come.