Restaurant kitchens and their recipe for danger

Chef Joe Cicala at Le Virtu restaurant on May 16. Two fingers on his left hand were mangled in a pasta machine.

Knives, ovens, food processors.

A restaurant kitchen can be a warren of sharp edges, hot surfaces, and heavy objects. Every chef has scars from burns, cuts, and other pains.

It's the extreme stories that become the stuff of local lore -- such as the afternoon two decades ago when Georges Perrier was ferried to Pennsylvania Hospital in a Philadelphia police car with his hand wrapped in a bloody linen napkin.

Sunday night brought a similarly cringe-worthy incident. Chef Joe Cicala, 34, a James Beard Award-nominated chef at the South Philadelphia restaurants Le Virtu and Brigantessa, is nursing two mangled fingers on his left hand, which was caught in a pasta machine.

As first recounted on the website Billy Penn, Cicala was making pasta in the basement kitchen of Le Virtu while a full house of Mother's Day patrons dined upstairs. Trying to speed the process and feed the dough, his hand was trapped in the thin space between the rollers. He was alone, one floor below the busy restaurant, and his screams went unheard.

With his foot, he slid his iPhone close enough to activate the Siri virtual-assistant feature, and called 911. After giving him oxygen and painkiller, firefighters freed his hand by gingerly running the pasta machine in reverse. He was taken to Thomas Jefferson University, where doctors set the bones.

The ring and middle fingers were "destroyed," Cicala said Tuesday from his South Philadelphia home, recounting the chilling, popcorn-like sensation of the injury to his nondominant hand. "Crushed parts were hanging off, and the other fingers were slightly bruised." He said he was expected to have surgery.

"Say what you want about being a chef," said Cicala, who once needed eight stitches after cutting himself on an unguarded slicer. "It's still a blue-collar job. We work with machinery."

Cicala will handle managerial duties at the restaurants during his recovery. Ned Maddock will cook at Brigantessa, and Paulie Sanchez will cook at Le Virtu.

Cicala's injury calls to mind the freak accident that befell Perrier in September 1995 at Le Bec-Fin, then the premier restaurant in Philadelphia. Perrier, 51 at the time, inserted his right hand into a spinning Robot Coupe food processor while making fish mousse. Three fingers were cut, almost to the bone. He had surgery and recovered use of his dominant hand.

Dimitrios Papanagnou, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, said his department sees about one serious restaurant-kitchen hand injury a week -- typically the loss of a fingertip or part of a finger pad.

Home accidents are more common, said Papanagnou, who for the record said he does not cook because he is risk-averse.

He encourages people -- chefs and civilians alike -- to wear cut-resistant gloves, which he said he learned about after a family member cut a finger. First-time users of mandolines -- the plane-type slicers used mostly on vegetables -- also sometimes end up in the emergency room after skinning their fingers.

Other common accidents involve slipping on foods or liquids, sometimes leading to ankle sprains. Heavy lifting can lead to all sorts of injuries. Chad Rosenthal thought he was having a heart attack as he hoisted briskets at the Lucky Well, his barbecue restaurant in Ambler. It was a broken rib.

Children have no place near danger. Papanagnou recalled a mother who was cooking while her child was sitting on the counter. The mother stepped away for a moment, and the child's hand was caught in a blender, he said.

Pets find their way into the kitchen -- generally not in a restaurant kitchen -- and can trip a cook, he said.

Steam leads to burns, which aren't limited to the upper body. "The Crocs that some chefs wear are no protection," Papanagnou said. "You drop some boiling water, and there's definitely an ability for hot contents to spill inside the shoe."

Chef Peter Woolsey of La Peg said he accidentally poured boiling water on his feet while wearing mesh-top sneakers. "Because of the blisters, I couldn't wear a shoe on my right foot for a week," he said.

Shoes also protect the foot against falling utensils.

Most times, the injuries are superficial.

Barbie Marshall, a private chef and consultant, was carrying a pot filled with short-rib stock two years ago while preparing a private dinner. It slipped from her hands and landed on her foot.

"The pain was excruciating, but I finished the dinner and then got myself to the ER," Marshall said. She was placed in a wheelchair and sent into the lobby, where she waited.

"My daughter was with me and went to the charge nurse," Marshall said. She explained that I had an unusually high tolerance for pain and suggested she look at my foot. When she did, I was immediately rushed to the back and seen by the ER doctors and then sent to the Lehigh Valley Burn Unit. Two years later, I still have pigmentation discoloring."