“Oh, @%#^”: Our Most Embarrassing Kitchen Fails

“Oh, @%#^”: Our Most Embarrassing Kitchen Fails


Using baking soda to put out a grease fire

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik, except where noted]

The more time you spend in a kitchen, the more opportunities you have to screw something up in a royal way.

You hope, of course, that your successes will far outweigh your catastrophes over time, but you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, and you can’t get to the point of being able to develop a detailed recipe for a Classic French Omelette without overcooking a few versions, serving one that contains an errant bit of eggshell, and almost setting your kitchen on fire. (Not that Daniel came close to setting any kitchens on fire while working on that recipe, but we know for a fact he’s nearly burned himself up at least once.)

Every one of us, pro and amateur cook alike, knows the pit-of-the-stomach horror that comes with talking up an elaborate meal only to have it blacken to a crisp under an unattended broiler, or dropping a lovingly constructed birthday cake all over the floor. Depending on the stakes and your state of mind, even a relatively small mishap can be enough to reduce you to tears (and maybe encourage you to be a little more vigilant in the future). Here are a few episodes from our individual cooking histories that we’d rather forget, if only our friends and family (and coworkers) would let us.

Paul Cline, VP of Product

I’ve been pretty fortunate in the kitchen, mostly avoiding major gaffes in the few not-so-high-pressure meals that I’ve cooked for friends and family over the years. Sure, a couple of weeks ago, I overcooked some caramel sauce and wound up with a rock-hard layer of caramel candy in the middle of a quart of ice cream. (Don’t tell Stella; it was still delicious after I’d chiseled my way through.)

The worst incident that comes to mind is dropping a saucier of pizza sauce in a little galley kitchen. If I recall correctly, I was making Kenji’s pan pizza, so I had the oven cranked up as high as it would go—always fun in a tiny, windowless kitchen. After making the sauce, I moved the saucier to the back of the stove to rest while the oven preheated and I prepped the rest of the toppings. When assembly time rolled around, I grabbed the handle of the pan of sauce, which, yep, had been dramatically warmed by the oven exhaust.

I had managed to move the pan a couple of feet before realizing that something was burning (and that that something was me), so when I let go, the pan fell straight to the floor and ejected a giant mess of sauce across every possible surface. It did land right side up, so I was able to salvage enough sauce to adequately top my pizzas, and my hand was fine (thanks), but I found random splatters of pizza sauce in that kitchen for months.

Grace Chen, Office Manager and Associate Podcast Producer

A paper towel that's too close to a kitchen burner flame: dangerous

I once nervously invited a boy over for a home-cooked meal, a rare occasion for me. Time and embarrassment have blacked out my memory of which recipe I was trying to make, but I do remember that it involved roasting some kind of meat on a baking sheet. Soon after the meat went into the oven, the smell of burning plastic began to permeate my tiny Brooklyn apartment. I frantically opened the oven. A cloud of smoke poured out, and I saw bits of melted plastic on the oven floor. WTF? How could this be?

After taking out the tray and looking underneath, I found the residue of a small plastic bag, the kind you would use to store sesame seeds or seasoning. It turned out that in all of my anxious preparation for this meal, I hadn’t noticed the plastic bag on the counter that got stuck underneath the tray before it went into the oven.

We ended up throwing everything out, opening all the windows, corking the bottle of wine, and going out for ramen instead. It was a long time before I invited another boy over for dinner.

Sasha Marx, Senior Culinary Editor

Constant failure in the kitchen is an important part of my job, which doesn’t make it any easier to take when you have a bit of a perfectionist streak. I was taught early on in my cooking career that if you’re too afraid of failure, then you’ll never come up with anything new and different, and that you learn the most by f***ing things up.That said, I’ve had plenty of disaster moments in the kitchen that I don’t love revisiting in my mind, because they’re just painful.

I vividly remember, and still cringe thinking about, a stage—an on-the-job working interview—I had at a restaurant when I first started out. The chef gave me a sizable list of standard menial tasks to knock out, like picking herbs, juicing citrus, and so on. One of the jobs on my prep list was making aioli. I’d made mayonnaise a bunch of times at the first restaurant I had ever worked at, so I wasn’t too worried, but this chef’s recipe used a much higher ratio of oil in relation to egg yolks. That made the emulsion more finicky, and required the person preparing it to have a better feel for when they needed to add a few drops of water to keep it from breaking during the blending process.

Needless to say, I broke the emulsion on the first try. Which was embarrassing, and jacked my anxiety levels way up. When you’re first starting out in restaurants, it’s like being a high school freshman all over again—placed in this situation, you feel the side-eye from the experienced cooks boring into you, see the head-shaking and hear the wry snorts as you empty the broken mess of egg yolks and oil into the trash.

One cook stops by and says, “Well, that didn’t work out so great, huh?” And another asks you why you didn’t rescue the broken emulsion by reincorporating it into a new one. And you tell them that the chef told you to start over. And you do—but you’re so nervous at this point that you break the emulsion the second time as well. And now you want to crawl into the bin with your failed aioli.

You can’t show it, though, even though everyone can see it. You separate another batch of yolks, and a pastry cook makes a crack, thanking you for taking care of their meringue mise en place with all the egg whites you’ve accumulated. Just as you kick on the food processor, the chef comes over, taking pity on you, and walks you through his process for making aioli. And maybe this was the plan all along—knowing that I would fail, and that I would learn from it—because I can’t remember breaking a mayonnaise since then.

Vicky Wasik, Visual Director

Most of my cooking disasters are just stories of me dropping things or making a mess—as Daniel loves to point out, I’m not exactly the picture of grace in most situations. My minor cooking screw-ups don’t exactly make thrilling tales, to be honest. But, having been a food photographer for the last 10 years, I have plenty of cooking-adjacent disasters to relate.

There’s the time I confused a quart container of coffee beans with a container of dog food sitting around in my photo studio (we love our pups here!), and just barely realized my mistake before making Stella a chicken-and-liver-flavored latte in our office espresso machine. (She refuses to drink anything made in that machine to this day, despite the deep cleaning I gave it.)

Or the time I was trying to roll one of the trash cans out of the way to get a shot, and pushed it too hard—directly into one of the stove’s knobs, which actually caused a flame to light on the burner where Stella had casually left a dishrag. Luckily, our reflexes are cat-like, and we avoided burning the kitchen down.

Or—and this is my favorite—the time I bumped into a small glass-topped table in the lounge area of a very prestigious NYC restaurant (hint: near Madison Square Park) while on a photo shoot, causing it to shatter into a million pieces. Take your pick!

Ariel Kanter, Director of Commerce

Cream cheese frosting dripping over the edge of freshly baked cinnamon rolls

In college, I had a food blog with my best friend (RIP Nosh&Tell). Normally, my friend baked, and I cooked. But one day, I really wanted to try out my baking skills, so I decided to make cinnamon buns. I don’t remember what the recipe was now, but I can say for sure that it was not BraveTart-caliber. The recipe also didn’t warn me that butter spilling over onto the oven floor will certainly start a fire.

As I sat waiting for my cinnamon buns to bake, I started to smell smoke. I ran to open the oven and saw a small fire burning beneath my beloved buns. Somehow, I had the presence of mind to grab a kettle of water and chuck it into the oven (is that safe? [editor’s note: NO!]), though, for some dumb reason, I let the buns continue baking afterward. They turned out okay—but definitely not worth the anxiety over almost setting my crappy dorm room on fire.

I have made many cinnamon buns since then, but am always sure to guard against butter spills. I’ve learned my lesson the hard way.

Miranda Kaplan, Senior Editor

One morning in my quarter-life years in NYC, between jobs and apparently stupid, I was throwing together a quick smoothie before heading to an interview at a temp agency, and attempted to slice the peel off a frozen banana rather than wait for it to defrost. Yeah. Stupid!

The resulting cut on my left index finger was tiny, so I hastily wrapped it in a paper towel and applied pressure while I ran around the apartment looking for my high heels. But it must have been an unexpectedly deep cut despite its size, because it refused to stop bleeding, soaking through every Band-Aid I put over it. With zero time to find a better solution, I just wound a quarter-spool of gauze around and around my finger, hoping to choke off the blood flow, until it was completely surrounded with a bulbous, turban-like cushion.

That did the trick, although there was an unexpected consequence: When I got to my appointment, I realized that my finger was so fatly padded, I couldn’t hope to execute the required typing test. The woman interviewing me was nice enough to trust me when I said I was pretty fast on the keyboard, and, since that temp gig eventually became a full-time job I held for four years, I owe a lot to her willingness to overlook my idiocy.

Kristina Bornholtz, Social Media Editor

I’m blessed to not have had any major cooking disasters, at least none that I can think of off the top of my head. This means one of two things: I’m incredibly coordinated, or I don’t take many big risks in the kitchen. As my coworkers can attest, it must be the latter, given that I spill coffee on myself at least once a week.

One small fiasco does come to mind: During a stressful week in my senior year of college, I was roasting a large pan of Brussels sprouts, which I tried to pull out of the oven using an old mitt that was wearing thin. The surprise heat caused me to drop the entire pan. I watched the sprouts slide into the dirty underbelly of my college-apartment oven and couldn’t help but burst into tears. Stress! Sprouts denied! I think I went to the co-op, bought a monster container of cookie dough, and ate the entire thing for dinner instead.

Daniel Gritzer, Managing Culinary Director

20140908-cold-korean-noodle-soup-daniel-gritzer-10.jpg

[Photograph: Daniel Gritzer]

One might expect that, as the culinary director of a major food website, I strive to serve my guests polished and impressive meals that reflect my skill and experience. One would be wrong. To some degree, I find the perfectionism on display in magazines and online food publications stifling; too often, people like me are responsible for making home cooks see entertaining as a stressful, high-pressure endeavor, when it should be relaxed and fun. I fight against this in my personal life by routinely serving poorly conceived experiments to friends who—hahaha!—almost definitely arrive at my door excited to get a restaurant-quality meal out of me.

One of my all-time worst bombs, which cracks me up every time I think of it, was when I tried making a totally improvised Korean mul naengmyun from scratch. It’s a summer soup, meant to be served so cold the broth ends up full of slushy ice. But I’d thoughtlessly reverted to my training in French technique by simmering connective tissue–rich beef bones instead of a chunk of meat.

When it came time to carry the bowls to the table, I found myself with not an icy soup cradling slippery noodles, but slippery noodles piled on top of quivering blobs of beef jelly. We winced our way through the dinner, me apologizing and laughing, half embarrassed, half high on the freedom failure tends to grant us all.

Elazar Sontag, Assistant Editor

My most recent cooking fail—and one of my dumbest to date—happened while I was developing a recipe for a Cambodian lemongrass chicken stir-fry. I’d been testing and adjusting the recipe for two weeks, and this time around, I was pretty sure I had all the measurements right. I sliced my chicken into strips, scraped it into a metal bowl, and prepped the rest of my ingredients. Once everything was ready to go, I cooked the stir-fry in a searing-hot wok, noticing that every element of the dish smelled and looked perfect this time around.

I slid the stir-fry into a bowl and sat down to devour it with rice on the side. Halfway through my meal, I looked down at the food, petrified…having just realized I’d dumped my cooked meal back into the bowl that had contained the raw chicken only moments earlier. I immediately tossed what was left of my (delicious!) lunch into the trash, and waited for the food poisoning to strike. Luck, apparently, was on my side, but my appetite was gone. Since then, I’ve given all my bowls a double rinse before I sit down to eat.

Stella Parks, Pastry Wizard

In my line of work, kitchen “disasters” generally take the form of controlled experiments that fail more dramatically than anticipated, like the trial runs of my strawberry cake made with unbleached cake flour, which turned out as rubbery and dense as Silly Putty. I knew from experience that it wasn’t a swap that would work (see my write-up on the differences between bleached and unbleached cake flour to learn why!), but I needed to see for myself whether it would qualify as “subpar, but good enough in a pinch” or “outright abysmal.” Obviously, it was the latter.

That’s not to say true fails don’t happen from time to time, like when I made Sohla’s spanakopita for Vicky one day. Having grown comfy with the recipe, I took the substitutions a few steps too far, resulting in a sodden, weedy riot of sunflower greens, alfalfa, and purslane with chunks of (what turned out to be) barrel-aged feta dotted throughout. While I’ll take full blame for the ill-advised medley of leafy vegetables, I’ll also note in my defense that I had grabbed the wrong feta by mistake. Regardless, it proved to be a nasty mess that none of us could stomach.

Maggie Lee, UX Designer

thin pancakes, drenched in syrup

I ran around with an international-student crowd in college. We had regular potlucks and had a lot of fun sharing foods from different cultures. So, for a potluck brunch one day, providing stacks of classic American pancakes seemed like a no-brainer for me.

I was familiar with making pancakes and paid little attention to the butter I was heating up on the stove. As I whisked the extra-hot melted butter into the cold batter, globules of solid fat formed at the top. Though I was only five minutes into cooking, and there were plenty of extra ingredients, I was too proud to admit that something had gone wrong at such an early stage. I whisked harder, hoping to emulsify away the giant red flags. I even used a ladle to make sure each scoop in the pan had a nice ratio of over-mixed batter to butter blobs.

But instead of being absorbed, the butter pooled in greasy yellow puddles on the cratered surfaces of the pancakes as they cooked. When the pancakes were flipped, the grease poured out and fried the pancake bottoms to a crisp. At that point, I was still trying to convince everyone that they would taste great—just as I’d convinced myself that these international kids wouldn’t know any better.

My friends politely tasted them before we all agreed they belonged in the trash. I don’t remember much else about the brunch, because my brain has blocked out the rest of that embarrassing day.

Sho Spaeth, Features Editor

Overhead shot of bowl of pho with meat, noodles, herbs, and a pair of chopsticks resting on the side of the bowl

[Photograph: Vivian Kong]

Since I’ve already related the story of my filleted finger, which was truly horrifying, I suppose I’ll go with the time I made Hanoi-style pho for the office a couple months ago. Hanoi-style pho is similar to the pho recipe we have on the site, but there’s no coriander, no clove; it’s just beef bones, charred ginger, charred onion, a pod of black cardamom, a few pods of star anise, a hunk of cinnamon, a few fennel seeds, and some kind of dried seafood to give the broth its savory punch. We’d recently run a piece on sa sung, and I was still unsure of the degree to which people in the office believed in the (incredible) power of these dried worms. So I thought I’d prove it by making everyone some pho for lunch.

I made myself a bowl first, as is my custom, and it was quite good, so I confidently ladled out bowls for all of my colleagues, fully expecting them to wax ecstatic about the broth, even as I also prepared for some (really, quite) inappropriate jokes about bugs in their soup or nema-todally awesome noodles (they’ve got awful puns, my colleagues).

Sure enough, when I asked how it was, everyone was in raptures, throwing their empty bowls at the walls to underline their enthusiasm, tearing out their hair because of all the bad, dried worm–less bowls of pho they’d had to endure up to that point. Everyone, that is, except for Sasha and Daniel, who were in the middle of a meeting. I knocked on the conference room door, poked my head in, and said, “Pretty good, right?” And I should have known, from the thousand-yard stare Sasha gave me, or from the impish grin on Daniel’s face, that something was terribly, terribly wrong.

Daniel said, “There’s a bug in my soup.” To which I responded, “Whatever!” To which he responded, “No, really! There’s a bug in my soup!” And he fished around in the bowl with his chopsticks and held a dead roach aloft.

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