Chefs on Their Biggest Disasters
Turns out even great cooks have those "how-could-I-be-so-stupid?!" moments. Here's how five pros learned some culinary lessons the hard way.
Carla Hall and the Dangerously Rare Chicken
Carla Hall, a Washington, D.C., chef who co-hosts The Chew, still gets hot flashes when she recalls one of her biggest gaffes. She was catering an event and had roasted chicken breasts and thighs. The meat appeared to be cooked, so out it went to the guests' tables. Moments later, back it came, with comments from the waitstaff that the chicken was raw. It was true: especially near the bone. Had Hall tested the meat, she'd have seen that it wasn't at the finished temperature of 165 degrees. "I don't care if you're a home cook or a pro—a thermometer is your best friend," she says now.
Bobby Deen and the Breakfast That Blindsided Him
When Southern cook Bobby Deen, whose new book is From Mama's Table to Mine
, opened a restaurant with his brother and mother some 20 years ago in Savannah, breakfast was always their slowest meal. One morning, though, a men's softball team stormed the place—and Deen was the only one on duty. He was cooking as fast as he could, but it wasn't long before his hungry customers got impatient and angry. Deen says he "folded like a cheap umbrella." By the time his mother and brother arrived, the customers had all left, and Deen was in tears. Now, he knows unpredictability is the one thing you can count on—whether in a restaurant or at home.
Fabio Viviani and the Dessert He Had to Ditch
Fabio Viviani, chef of the California spots Café Firenze
and Firenze Osteria
and author of the new book Fabio's Italian Kitchen
, knows baking isn't his forte, but a few years ago, he shrugged off advice from an experienced pastry chef, who told him that the sugar on the outside walls of the 60-pound wedding cake he'd made needed to be deeply caramelized in order to support everything above it. About 45 minutes before the cutting ceremony, the cake caved in. Take it from Viviani: "Listen to people who know what they're doing."
Clark Frasier and the Great Cheese Explosion
As anyone who's attended a state fair can tell you, few things can't be deep-fried. There are caveats, though—just ask Clark Frasier, the co-chef and co-owner of Maine restaurants Arrows
and MC Perkins Cove
. He once attempted to make a Latin-inspired cheese fritter, whipping up a farmer's-cheese filling, encasing portions of it in dough and placing the little packets of deliciousness in the deep fryer. When they'd turned a beautiful deep gold color, he removed them—and then the explosions started. One fritter blew up and hit the ceiling, another went off in Frasier's face and burned his lips. When the gooey blobs had settled, Frasier figured out that the dough he'd used was too tough, so the moisture in the cheese couldn't release into the oil (and, therefore, shot out with a vengeance all over the kitchen). With a little research, Frasier might have known that it would've been better either to use a softer dough or just to fry the cheese on its own. Lesson: If you're trying something brand new (and it involves hot oil or another potentially dangerous cooking element), do a quick Google search to make sure you aren't setting yourself up for disaster.
Photo: Seasonal Restaurant & Weinbar
Wolfgang Ban and the (Unintentionally) Flaming Souffles
You might think that if you were catering a huge event with the likes of Kofi Annan in attendance, your kitchen would benefit from having two smart people in charge—but Wolfgang Ban, chef at New York restaurants Seasonal
, Edi & the Wolf
and The Third Man
, knows better. He and another chef were both at the helm for such a dinner party. The first three courses went off without a hitch, but when it came time for dessert (a notoriously fickle soufflé), having two bosses turned out to be a catastrophe. Both men were giving directions to the waitstaff, each probably thinking the other one had his eye on the soufflés. Ban took a casual glance at the oven—his partner had this one covered, right?—and saw flames. The chefs came up with a plan-B dessert (a pancake-type confection, as Ban recalls), but looking back, Ban says, "It's always good to have one chef instead of two, no matter how big the event."
Next: 7 ways to rebound from any cooking disaster—fast