There was a Sunday morning last October, when I was driving down to Poughkeepsie, Bakewell tarts in tow, to meet some family for lunch when I heard “Breadman” by J. Robert Lennon, or, as I like to think of it: the all-time greatest focaccia story ever written or told, as it was, by Kyle MacLachlan on Selected Shorts. It’s one of those stories that even after you get where you’re going, you just sit in your car in the driveway because you cannot tear yourself away before the ending and you’re enjoying it so much you don’t want it to be interrupted.
I loved it so much that after listening to it and finally greeting my awaiting family members I immediately started gushing about it when instead I should probably have asked them how they were. Then, when we were all buckled up in one car and headed across the river I found the story on my phone and asked if they’d like to hear it. Fortunately—for all, I dare wager—everyone was into it, and as we rode together in the car, headed to a lunch spot we’ve been making trips to for decades, the car was filled over and over again with bright, bubbling laughter, the kind of gleeful laughter brought on by a wickedly clever joke or a delightful twist that just sticks with you; the kind of laughter that feels best when it’s a shared experience; the kind of laughter you get when you combine great writing and storytelling. I highly recommend giving it a listen. There’s nothing like the rapture of a good story.
That said, my focaccia story is its own tale of woe, and, if for some reason you've been searching for more long-form focaccia-themed tragedies in your life, well, I guess you're in the right place? I’ve hesitated to share this story on here because I’m not sure anyone wants to read about knife accidents while looking at recipes and pictures on a food blog, but here we are! Anyways, that's why you’ll find the recipe first and the story to follow this time around.
Yield: dough for two loaves
Of the two times I cut myself while in culinary school, the second (and worst of the two) happened on a Friday in June. I was always a bit more anxious than usual on Mondays and Fridays because I would either be leaving the comfort of home to drive down to Poughkeepsie for the week or eager to leave Poughkeepsie and head back home upstate for the weekend. The beginnings of each week were like this: The one upside of having an anxiety disorder would kick in and I’d overplan, over-prepare, and spend a lot of time crafting detailed lists and researching and going over and over in my mind what I needed to do all in an attempt to keep my fears of failure at bay and beat down the sense of dread I felt at the uncertainty of how the week was going to play out. On the other side, having made it through another week to Friday brought such excitement that I had (presumably) not failed miserably at things, and I would still be anxious but in this case it would be to get through the day so I could get on the highway and hurry home to see the boyfriend and my dog. This inauspicious Friday was no exception.
It was the third day of High Volume Production in K16. This class was split into two portions: the first half was lunch service and the second half was breakfast. Breakfast would start the following week, meaning I’d be getting up at 1:30 in the morning to be in K16 by 2:45 a.m. and trying to get to sleep by 8:00 p.m. in the summer when it's light out 'til at least 9:00 p.m. and I'd normally be up until at least 11:00 p.m.! Take that, sleep schedule!
High Volume Production in K16 was a rite of passage for students. It was the last class students took before leaving campus for their externships, and it was also, as you may have guessed from the name, one of the busier kitchens on campus, cranking out a high volume of breakfasts and lunches for students and faculty. One of the stations even had a big wide viewing window that opened onto the main hallway where tourists liked to stand, just on the other side of the glass *very close* and point at you while speaking words you couldn’t hear, and stare, and take pictures of you while you were trapped there working at your prep table, teaching you what it feels like to be an animal in a zoo.
It was one of the first places glaringly green new students learned about, and herds of them would travel together to go get food there, still wearing their student IDs attached to lanyards around their necks as directed to do during orientation for who knows what reason—I mean, sure, you wanted it handy for swiping here and there, but having to wear it around your neck at all times? We weren’t in some kind of highly secure government facility, and besides, everyone has their first and last names embroidered on their chef coats—everyone was already a walking form of ID.
I always wondered if it was a joke played on incoming students, like maybe the orientation faculty were placing wagers to see how long a new batch of students would continue to wear them before realizing it wasn’t a thing anyone else did. Every upperclassman—including the ones who were probably doing the same thing three weeks ago when they were the newest class—was judging these freshman and looking down on them, these culinary noobs who had no idea the world of pain they’d entered, and they were easily identifiable by basically walking around with the equivalent of a ‘kick me’ sign on. But, as usual, I digress.
High Volume Production in K16 doesn’t exist anymore. My class was the last to go through it there, and I’m glad to have been part of its epoch. It makes me feel like part of an older guard. Like one of the cool kids. I don't often have that feeling so I take it where I can get it. I know it's a weird flex, but please let me have this one, okay?
And so, on this particular Friday morning there were five stations and day three’s menu broke down like this:
In addition to everything needed for service that day, each station had a fair amount of prep to get done for the following day. We prepped for our station, our classmates’ stations, and for our sister class—as our sister class and other stations did for us. Being on the receiving end of prep, presuming it was executed properly, was a boon. Our class had recently dwindled down to a group of eight, though we had started out at double that, and there were some rumblings about the unfairness of doing the same amount of work as sixteen people.
Honestly, it was more than doable, so long as everyone came prepared and determined to get shit done. I had been assigned to the vegetarian entreé station, along with a partner. We'd started out in the same group together in fundies, and when I asked him for his phone number in case I needed to text him, he told me I could find him on Snapchat, and that he didn't text. I've never felt so old.
My partner was a fresh-out-of-high-school classmate I’d long suspected of partaking in a bit of the Devil’s lettuce before showing up to class, often tardy, under-prepared, and in a wrinkly uniform. This is one of the frustrating realities of culinary school and restaurant work: not everyone takes it seriously and not everyone cares, but you still gotta work with ‘em 'til they quit or get fired. I, however, was sure I was serious enough for the both of us, and was determined to kick this Friday’s ass: prep, make, serve, clean, and hit the road in time to listen to Food Friday on WAMC. That was my plan. That was my imperative.
And so I showed up early in my freshly ironed chef coat and checkered pants with the day’s recipes scheduled out by time on my gameplan along with a backup of each recipe meticulously hand-written on index cards tucked into the chest pocket of my chef coat for easy referencing. I was ready to get after it.
To my surprise we had a substitute chef that day, and he wanted to begin class with a lecture. Up in one of Roth hall’s cozy little classrooms I sat up front, pen in hand and ready to take notes. However, the topic of discussion was kitchen accidents, and it quickly became unbearable for me to listen to the horror stories let alone write them down. I could feel myself getting lightheaded. I had to start bouncing my legs up and down in my chair so they wouldn't go numb. I was trying not to faint. The kitchen can be a dangerous place, I know this, and I was beginning to feel a sense of foreboding as each tale of accidental injury was being burned into my brain.
Truth be told, I’ve experienced enough grief and loss that I basically go through life waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for the next disaster to strike—I’m one bad day away from turning into a season one Joyce Byers—the last thing I need to listen to is a deluge of worst-case-scenarios. I really can’t listen to it.
When our grim pep talk was finally over I hurried back downstairs to the kitchen trying to convince myself that everything was okay: I was armed with preparation and if I was vigilant, if I worked with care, this feeling of doom would drop away. I was also aware that I was about to be too busy to worry about anything at all except for getting shit done, and that was the thought that comforted me.
For our lunch entreé my teammate and I were making the grilled vegetable sandwich on focaccia along with polenta fries and tomato sauce. When I saw we were to make focaccia I was all over it and claimed it as my responsibility. I knew I could nail it. It’s something I make frequently and I wanted to do it justice. My teammate didn’t want anything to do with baking, and I couldn’t have been happier about that. I was a little bummed to find out someone in our sister class would be making the dough the night before because a) I’m a control freak and b) I don’t trust other people to do things properly, which I guess is tangential to point a, really. Alas, here’s an abbreviated list of what all needed to happen:
We broke it down so that I would handle the focaccia, polenta fries and pesto. My teammate and I would both prep the vegetables which he would then cook in addition to making the tomato sauce, and then we’d both come together on whatever was left, like shredding the cheese and assembling the sandwiches. I hit the ground running according to the plan I’d gone over (and over) in my head: I had no time to waste and every minute was precious. Before you know it, it’s go time, and I like to be ready for service with a clean, wiped-down station with mise en place all set and the floor having had a quick sweep. A clutter-free station equals a clutter-free mind equals a smooth service. That’s how I hoped it would go down, anyway.
There was a point while we were prepping when my partner grabbed one of my knives that I had placed, blade away from me at the top of the cutting board I was using, before asking in a way that wasn’t really asking as he'd already taken it, “Can I use your knife?” And this got me #triggered. I could feel my eyes narrowing into a scowl.
“Why?” I asked him bluntly, which stopped him in his tracks. I could see his knife kit was sitting next to mine on the shelf below our station.
“Mine’s in my knife kit,” he said. “And your knives are always so nice and sharp,” he said with a smile that seemed an attempt at charm. I wasn't having it.
“That’s because I sharpen them. We have the same knife kit, you can sharpen your knives, too.” I scolded him. Sure, these were my standard issue culinary school knives—nothing fancy like some of my other classmates, who, six months into culinary school and with little outside experience had purchased pricey Japanese knives—but they were my knives, and I cared for them enough to keep them clean and sharp and honed and within arms reach. Surely, everyone else was capable of doing the same? He looked at me like I was crazy and when he realized I was serious, he begrudgingly bent down to get his knife kit and take one of his own knives out. I was definitely harshing his mellow.
We forged on, and things were going well. We were actually ahead on our prep. I had dimpled and stretched and oiled and seasoned and let the focaccia rise before baking to an ideal golden-brown. They were something to behold. All the sandwich components were tasting juuust right on their own, all seasoned just so, having been tasted and adjusted with salt until they had reached their highest potential. The polenta fries were crispy, light, and fried to perfection: not too dark, not too light, uniform in shape and size and given a final sprinkle of salt post-fry. My teammate and I were putting together our demo plate for the chef to taste, and we were feeling confident as we walked it up to him, hoping for his approval. Looks-wise, he seemed pleased, giving a few head nods as he held the plate out at arm’s length, turning it around and inspecting. He set the plate down and picked half of the sandwich and took a bite. He gave a few more nods and then held the sandwich back out at arm’s length, perhaps in admiration, or perhaps appreciating each well-seasoned and properly prepared layer of vegetables and pesto before saying:
“That’s the best focaccia I’ve ever had here from a non-baker,” (meaning from a culinary arts student as opposed to a baking and pastry student) and needless to say, I was chuffed. He went in for another bite of sandwich before trying a polenta fry dunked in tomato sauce, both of which he also approved of with some more head nods. He declared his intent to finish the rest of the plate for his lunch, which was about as good a compliment as it gets. There were also some measured words of praise, which I reacted to with a couple head nods of my own and some curt ‘thank you, Chefs,’ while on the inside I was thinking “fuck yeah!” My partner and I smiled and possibly giggled a bit to each other as we made our way back to our station, and perhaps even exchanged a subtle pound. We had done good.
Next up was family meal, where my class would scurry across the way to Farquharson Hall, which was still very much reminiscent of its former chapel days with stained glass windows, painted ceilings, and gold detailing on the walls in between archway lined alcoves all of which no doubt helped contribute to the school also being dubbed Hogwarts by some students. With about twenty minutes alotted for family meal I made the decision to stay in the kitchen and work through it instead, because first of all I’m a slow eater, second of all I typically don’t eat when I’m anxious, and third of all—and most importantly to me in that moment—I wanted to have a great service. I wanted to continue riding this wave of good fortune I had found myself on, and felt that staying behind and assembling sandwiches was the best way to go. That way, service would be smooth because we’d be ready for it, and it wouldn’t kick our ass. My teammate did not protest. “Okay, but I’m not skipping it.” he said. I hadn’t expected him to stay and was, in fact, looking forward to some time spent working in a little peace and quiet. Everyone would be back before I knew it, and so I set to work.
I gave the station a tidying up and a wipe down before setting it up for service with our mise en place lined up in the order we’d be reaching for and layering everything in. I stacked plates, readied ramekins for tomato sauce, rolled plate wipes and removed anything we no longer needed before I set to work on sandwich assembly. This was the first occasion thus far in school that called for my serrated knife and it made quick work of slicing through the focaccia as I broke it down in half and then quarters and so on to make rectangular portions for each individual sandwich. There were two full sheet pans of focaccia, and with half of the first one ready to go I started to put together sandwiches: spreading on pesto, stacking on mushrooms and roasted red peppers and broccoli rabe and cheese and then slicing the rectangles in half into triangles and then returning them to the sheet tray so they could be grabbed and plated quickly as needed. It felt good to be almost ready.
My classmates began trickling back in, moving more slowly now having eaten, and their return coincided with anxiety’s demand for attention. My teammate took his time jumping back in, casually tying on his apron and placing his toque back atop his head before coming over to check in with me, and that’s when it happened.
I had my head down still working as I filled him in on where we were at. I was making vertical slices through the other half of focaccia: halves, quarters, individual rectangles, then each piece in half at their center where the filling would go, my left hand flat on top of the piece of bread as my right hand slid the knife through horizontally. He asked me a question and in answering I picked up my head to look at him while I kept slicing and in that moment I felt my mistake. “Fuck.”
I dropped my knife onto the table and grabbed a piece of paper towel from the roll on our station and squeezed it tightly around the ring finger of my left hand. I am squeamish when it comes to blood, and in situations like this would normally freak out internally for a few minutes before washing up, putting on a bandage so tight it practically cuts off circulation and then covering up with a glove or finger cot before cleaning, sanitizing, and tossing anything that needed to go at my station and then keep moving. I had been wearing a food glove because I was handling ready-to-eat food and I needed to take it off, wash my hands, and patch myself up. This is always the hardest moment for me, seeing how bad a wound is, though usually it’s never as bad as I think.
Well, not this time! “Oh god.” I whimpered to myself, feeling like I might pass out at what I’d just seen. I clamped the paper towel back down and gathered myself together. I walked over to my teammate and told him that I cut myself and was going to run to the nurse but would be back ASAP for service.
“Okay.” he said, seemingly unconcerned. I knew this was going to cost us precious time, that the head start I had gained by skipping lunch could be lost here. I hustled downstairs and into the nurses office where I signed in and told them why I was there.
“It’s always Fridays,” the woman at the reception desk told me as I forced a wincing smile and tiny laugh, “We see a lot of cuts on Fridays. Students are excited for the weekend and then accidents happen.” Uncomforted at being a part of this statistic I waited to be seen, still squeezing onto my finger with a paper towel so tightly I could barely feel it at all. Once brought in I was asked what happened and asked if I was squeamish, to which I replied “Yup” emphatically. I was told to put my finger in a cup of some solution and that it might hurt, but not to look. She was right. It fucking hurt! I, of course, looked immediately and said “Oh god.” as I slumped in the chair before turning to stare up at the ceiling. It was like a scene from Jaws in miniature.
“I told you not to look!” she said.
“Yeah, I wish I hadn’t.” I didn’t look again as she did some glueing and wrapping and covering and told me to come back after class to have the bandages changed, and to come before and after class each day until they said it was healed. “Okay, thank you,” I said, extremely grateful for her care and expertise in treating me before jetting back upstairs with a few minutes to spare before service.
I hated that I cut myself. I was embarrassed at my mistake. Embarrassed about feeling like I needed to go to the nurse. And embarrassed at having shown weakness. I walked back in wounded, physically and emotionally, but still determined to bounce back when, as I walked towards the station I saw my teammate had been joined by our class’s group leader (an elected position though in this case our leader had actually usurped this position. It’s a story for another time, just know this individual was in no way capable of a leadership role and this power grab caused several classmates to jump ship and switch into our sister group which is part of the reason our class was now so small). They appeared to be dutifully at work on sandwich assembly, having completed almost the rest of the loaf of focaccia.
As I got closer, I saw my knife in my teammate’s hand, clearly identifiable by the galaxy-pattern Duck Tape I had wrapped around the handle an inch below the bolster to indicate that it was my knife. It occurred to me now that in my haste to get to the nurse I hadn’t stopped to clean and sanitize where I had been working, nor had I specifically asked my partner to do so, and for this I felt like an asshole. To be fair, I had reacted quickly enough to apply pressure and get away from the station that it didn’t look like a crime scene, but even though I hadn’t bled on anything, I should have known better than to trust anyone else to know to do the right thing.
“Hey, Katherine, we’re almost done.” he said proudly.
“Did you wash that?” I asked him, nodding towards my knife.
“Hmm?” he muttered, seemingly in his own world.
“That’s the knife I cut myself with,” I said. He stopped working and stared at me, as did our group leader.
“Did you get blood on it?” he asked, stopping to look the blade over.
“It was inside my finger,” I said plainly while holding up my copiously bandaged hand for him to see, somewhat confused at the logic behind his question.
“Well I’ll go wash it.” he said.
“We can’t use any of the sandwiches you made using that knife and cutting board.” I said. “We can’t use anything that knife touched.” I said.
He looked at the group leader as if for help. They were buddies. She looked at him, then at me, and then down at the sandwich she continued to put together despite the conversation taking place. “You can go wash it but we need to get rid of all of these sandwiches and wash the cutting boards and clean the station and sanitize and start over,” I said. The group leader stared at me for a brief moment before absconding without saying a word. She could sense turmoil and didn't want to be around when it showed up. My teammate seemed pissed, and he defiantly kept working. I said his name sternly, trying to alert him that what he was doing was not okay, but he continued to ignore me.
Now I was pissed. Mad at myself and mad at him. I’m not proud of what I did next, but it’s what happened. I walked over to our substitute chef and told him that I had cut myself and gone to the nurse and just came back. I only had the chef’s partial attention at this point, as he was inputting grades or some other such information into the classroom computer with his back turned to me, the great non-baker focaccia baker, so I tried to get to the point quick: 'I had come back just now to find my partner using the knife I cut myself with. I had told him we needed to get rid of what he had made using the knife, clean up and start over, but that he just kept working,' at which point the chef spun around and interjected with an “Are you fucking kidding me?”
“No, Chef.” I said, absorbing the blow.
Chef bellowed my teammate’s name and everyone in the kitchen momentarily stopped what they were doing and looked at him as he sheepishly made his way up to us. I was mortified at having tattled, like a child, but not as mortified as my teammate quickly became at his dressing down courtesy of the chef.
“Did you know she cut herself?”
“Yes,” he said quietly.
“Did you know that she left to go to the nurse?”
“And you’re telling me you made all of those sandwiches using the knife she cut herself with?!?”
“Yes,” came the quietest of all yeses.
“So that sandwich, that perfect sandwich on that perfect focaccia that I tasted, that was so good that I saved it and ate it for my lunch, there are none of those perfect sandwiches that we can serve today because you thought you could use a knife someone cut themselves with to prepare food?”
“Yes, Chef, sorry Chef.”
I took a risk at interrupting my partner’s punishment assay here, and said “Actually, Chef, there’s another whole sheet pan of untouched focaccia on the cooling rack, and backups of all the fixings, we can make more.”
He turned his gaze on me. “Good.” he said. “Get to work, we open in two minutes.”
My teammate and I returned to our station. His face was red, and mine probably was too, as now we were certainly both irritated. I just knew this day had been cursed as I sat through the liturgy of kitchen mishaps that morning. My partner tossed the food from our station into the compost bin as I washed and wiped and sanitized and dried with one hand before setting our station back up like a woman possessed. I was back at slicing the focaccia that I had mercifully left for backup on the cooling rack. My teammate layered the ingredients and topped the sandwiches and got them up to the pass. We bounced back and were able to work with each other to get through the day, though it may have, at times, been through grit teeth. What we had left to work with ended up being more than enough for service that day. Would you believe everyone wanted burgers instead? Well, we'd been forewarned. Fortunately it was Friday, and the weekend would act as a buffer for each of us to allow our wounded pride to heal a bit, and to learn how to do better next time.
I have a scar on my finger tip to remind me of that day. I forget about it most of the time until I bang it against something too hard and it hurts like a motherfucker and then the whole day comes right back. Ryan loves this story. I don't know why, exactly. He's always asking me to tell it to people. I actually have a hard time telling it, because I tend to get caught up on the things I did wrong, the mistakes I made, the things I can’t do anything about. The things I wish I could change. And I guess for me, that had always been a silver lining of restaurant work. No matter how badly you got weeded or beaten up during service, chances were you'd have to be back there again tomorrow, which meant you had a chance to do it all over again, but better. I guess not all stories get a happy ending. Some stories don't get a neat bow. Some stories just leave you feeling a little bruised, no matter how much time has passed.
Hello! I'm Kat.
Cooker, baker, amateur pottery maker.
I'm a CIA graduate (culinary arts & applied food studies) who previously studied anthropology.
Food obsessed. Anxiety disorder. Grief bearer.
Here you'll find recipes for what I'm currently feeling and sometimes even why!