Fires in the Kitchen: Saving Lives through Preparation

 

Anthony Bourdain calls it ‘management by fire’: his kitchens are run with extreme precision, teamwork, and strict standards.

Yet his kitchen are anything but orderly, at times described as “on the brink of chaos” and running on an “adrenaline-soaked culture”.

The famous chef, according to an interview published in Harvard Business Review, “uses an antiquated command-and-control management style with a rigid hierarchy and an inviolable code of conduct. The counterintuitive result…a tribal culture that demands—and nurtures—mutual respect, hard work, superior performance, and absolute loyalty.”

In part, Bourdain’s success, with his command and control structure, the need for respect, performance, and loyalty is also an acknowledgement of the need for teamwork and precision.

And that precision, and dedication to high standards, is important not only for celebrity chefs working with an entire team, but for private and personal chefs working in client’s homes. Because without that level of precision, hard work, and dedication to taking not shortcuts, chefs put themselves and their clients at risk of not only substandard food, but some very real safety concerns.

Fire: A Professional Hazard

Kitchen fires are something, it might seem, that happens to novices, inexperienced individuals or untrained families cooking at home.

But kitchen fires do not discern from everyday cooks to professional chefs, especially when the right environment comes into play. It’s something that Chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, directors of Jon & Vinny’s of Log Angelos, learned the hard way:

“Basically, the material in the wall that they chose for insulation…melted. It couldn’t handle the heat of a kitchen. It never caught fire as much as it smoldered, and it made this crazy thick smoke in the restaurant…Everyone was evacuated. We cut open the wall, removed everything..”

This harrowing account is unfortunately not an isolated event, and can happen to anyone cooking the kitchen. In a four year collection of data, home fires ‘involving cooking equipment’ cost the United States over one billion dollars and resulted in well over 5,000 injuries and nearly 500 deaths.

And the reasons are varied. Based on estimates by the National Fire Protection Association, from 2010-2014, cooking equipment is responsible for just under half of kitchen fires; two-thirds of home cooking fires were caused by igniting food or materials, and ranges caused over half (62 percent of fires). Unattended equipment, however, accounted for nearly a third of fires.

Kitchen fires are more common than electrical fires, heater fires, and fires caused by cigarettes, in part because they involve combinations of heat, electricity, grease and water.

An Ounce of Prevention

“The best way to avoid an accident is to be smart, stay calm, and think through a situation”, Terri Barrett, writer for the official Food Network website.

And while genuine advice, is also stops short of helping chefs really avoid the situation in the first place. Even careful planning and attention to detail cannot prevent all accidents. The best strategy is to be aware of any kitchen’s potential hazards, and for chefs to familiarize themselves before beginning to cook. This is especially important for personal chefs, who may have multiple clients and travel to multiple homes. Every kitchen is different.

The Red Cross recommends a handful of strategies to be aware of, and help prevent, potential kitchen fire hazards. Many fall under attention: setting timers, not leaving heating food unattended, checking food in regular intervals, and double checking to ensure all equipment is turned off.

If this sounds like common sense, it is, but so too is the importance of avoiding loose clothing, cleaning surface spaces, and putting aside anything away from heat sources. And of course, kitchens should always be equipped with both a fire extinguisher and regularly checked smoke alarms.

The Kinds of Fires you Need to Know About:

Kitchen fires fall under many categories, but these are some of the most common:

Grease Fires: Grease fires occur when cooking oil becomes too overheated. Tell tale signs of a preemptive fire are wisps of smoke, and an acrid aroma. If you see this, turn off the heat immediately, and cover the pot with a metal pan. If the fire has already started, do not attempt to extinguish with a regular fire extinguisher. Water will also only make it worse. Your only options are a chemical extinguisher (which likely may not be available), or, for very small fires, baking soda may taper it. In cases of bigger flames, 911 should be called and the kitchen evacuated immediately.

 

Oven and Microwave Fires: If fires occur inside an oven or microwave, closing the door first cuts off oxygen supply, and may help extinguish flames. Microwaves should be unplugged, if possible, and ovens immediately turned off. If the fire lasts longer than a minute or grows larger, 911 should be called and the house evacuated.

 

 

 

 

 

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