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Hell’s Kitchen

Some of the world’s best chefs open up about their cringe-worthy culinary disasters

By Rithika Ramesh  July 10th, 2014


Compiled by Rithika Ramesh

I killed the cod – twice
Fifteen years ago, when I was the head chef at Martín Berasategui, I had to make a classic dish: kokotxas al pil-pil with an olive oil emulsion – it’s basically a cod-throat confit in olive oil. The first step is to add salt to the cod throats, and then proceed to prepare the sauce. When the sauce was ready, I sampled the dish, and thought it was under-seasoned. I added more salt but it didn’t seem to help. At that point, I didn’t realise that all the salt I’d been adding was concentrated in the cod throats, and I was only tasting the sauce. And when I did try one of the kokotxas, it was inedible. Lesson learned. 
Andoni Luis Aduriz
Mugaritz, Guipúzcoa

We set the fish on fire
We had just opened our restaurant in Mumbai and, for a dinner buffet, we were prepping salt-crusted fish, which requires the fish to be baked in an envelope of salt. I went out to make sure the buffet looked presentable and asked a member of my staff to get some salt to dust on the dish. He began laying on the salt, and within seconds, the whole batch of fish was bubbling away like a science experiment gone wrong. It was caustic soda, we later learned. We didn’t serve fish that day.
Gresham Fernandes
Impresario entertainment and hospitality, Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru 

The weather cleaned us out
The weather often hampered our dinner service. elBulli had a fully electric kitchen, and one time, a thunderstorm disrupted power supply and we ran out of light in the kitchen. Another time, just one hour before service, we had to bring seating for 300 people indoors because of bad weather.
Ferran Adrià
elBulli foundation, Pakta, Tickets, 41° experience, Barcelona

My macarons were terrible
Some time ago, we had a spell of bad macarons. We just couldn’t figure what was going wrong. Every batch we tried to bake came out cracked on top. I’d personally weigh all my ingredients (down to the last milligram) and was following the recipe to the T. Exasperated, I tweaked the recipe – with no luck. The ugly cracks persisted. It was frustrating to keep turning down the orders we got. We were a pâtisserie that couldn’t make macarons! It was only 2,400 cracked macarons later that we realised that the problem lay in the eggs being supplied to us – they were old. As soon as we switched our source – to a farm that supplied fresh eggs – we had perfectly formed macarons. 
Sanjana Patel
La Folie Pâtisserie, Mumbai

I shamed myself with soufflé
I was 21 and fairly new at running my restaurant, when Karen Anand came over for dinner (back then she was a well-known food critic). She asked if I could make her a soufflé. There was no soufflé on my menu and I had never attempted one in my life, but I couldn’t say no. 
I quickly went through my French cookbooks to cobble something together. I didn’t even have the right dish to make it in. When I presented it to her finally, it was burnt on top and raw inside. She looked up at me and said, “You’ve never made a soufflé, have you?” It was the most embarrassing moment of my life.
Ritu Dalmia
Diva Restaurants, Delhi

I screwed up on omelette duty
I was a trainee at the Taj, when I was appointed to man the omelette trolley. It seemed easy enough, and smugly, I didn’t bother asking any questions. On my first morning manning the trolley, the very first order came from the hotel’s general manager, who asked for a mushroom omelette. Oozing confidence, I prepared a typical flat omelette with mushrooms and was pretty chuffed. Except when I arrived at the chefs’ meeting later that day, to see everyone looking at something at the centre of the room. It was my omelette, displayed as a stunning example of how not to make an omelette. Up until then, I hadn’t even known there were different styles of omelettes and that I was expected to make a French one. As a result of my disaster, all trainees were put on two weeks of omelette duty.
Gaggan Anand
Gaggan, Bangkok

My crabs ran away
We usually work with live crabs in the kitchen. One day, we left them on the kitchen counter to prep other ingredients. Before we knew it, they had escaped and were happily scrambling across the hotel lobby.
Manish Mehrotra
Indian Accent, Delhi

A family recipe failed me
One of my first guests at Jaleo was the late Jean-Louis Palladin, one of the most respected chefs in America. At the time, I had no idea who he was, but he stormed into my kitchen and asked me about my tortilla Española (Spanish omelette). I confidently told him it was a recipe from my childhood. 
I was so proud. Instead of the compliments I was expecting, Jean-Louis yelled that the consistency was all wrong. He then taught me how to make an omelette the French way. We ended up becoming friends and he was a big influence in my career.
José Andrés
Jaleo, Washington DC; The Bazaar, Los Angeles 

I fooled my diners
I was a chef de partie (a line cook), when I served pineapple ice cream to a table of 25 instead of cheese and passion fruit ice cream. Somehow, no one at the table noticed, maybe because they taste similar.
Manuel Oliveira
Arola, Mumbai