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Incident at the CIA

Did you know that if you cut your finger at the CIA, it’s an incident?

I don't mean the Central Intelligence Agency. Obviously if you cut your finger there it would be an incident. I mean the Culinary Institute of America, where practically everyone is wielding knives, and a lot of them don’t have much experience doing it.

I figured I’d just grab a band-aid, apply it to my left index finger and get back to work.

But no. I had to sit there with a paper towel wrapped around my finger while a security officer named James came and applied first aid.

“Apply pressure and hold the finger over your head to control the bleeding,” an administrator told me. She seemed concerned that I would bleed out.

All I had done was bring the knife down hard enough on my left index’s fingernail to break it and draw a little blood. I hadn't severed anything. I’d cut myself worse when I was in culinary school. Since that was in France in the 1980s, my chef-instructor wondered why I had stopped chopping apples.

“Because I’m getting blood in them,” I said.

Chef Pétrof agreed that I could wash my finger and apply a bandage to it if I wanted to. Which I did and then finished chopping my apples.

I think I was making a charlotte aux pommes, but I don’t really remember. It was 1986.

Last weekend I was at the CIA's Greystone campus in St. Helena, Calif., for the inaugural Pork Summit.

That event replaces the Taste of Elegance, a the finals of a national competition among chefs to make delicious pork dishes.

In the past, winners of regional competitions would be flown to the semi-finals for a second round of competition, and then the top eight performers in that contest would have to get back into the kitchen to do it again.

Members of the trade press like me were invited to hang out, meet the chefs and learn more about pork.

I guess the National Pork Board decided that it was the hanging out, meeting and learning that was valuable, because they got rid of the national competition. Instead they flew all the regional winners to the Napa Valley for a demonstration on how to butcher half a pig, followed by cooking demonstrations by celebrity chefs.

The next day we were all split into teams to butcher and cook half a pig.

I’m not sure why they decided to have the journalists cook, too, but hey, I'm a team player. I’m no chef, but I do cook, and I'm good at fetching spices and whatnot. I was happy to be a helper.

Our team leader was Philadelphia chef and restaurateur José Garces, who, as you probably know, is also a star of Iron Chef America. He seemed like a good choice for team captain.

“Are you comfortable in a kitchen?” he asked everyone on the team, which included several chefs who won regional competitions, but also me and Plate editor Chandra Ram, both of whom had been to culinary school.

Michigan-based chef Steven Grostick, who was a butcher before he became a chef, volunteered to handle breaking down the pig half.

“I’m a food writer,” I said, and volunteered to fetch things and be a prep cook and slave as they saw fit.

So the next day, José handed me lists of spices and ingredients to fetch. He had me put eggs in the immersion circulator and track down a terrine mold for him to put his scrapple in.

Then he asked: “How are your knife skills?”

Compared to what? I thought. Because, you know, they’re better than my 11-year-old nephew’s but I would presume considerably worse than an Iron Chef’s.

I shrugged and tried to indicate as much trepidation as I could when I said they were okay.

That was good enough for him, and he had me chop mushrooms and julienne onions.

It was interesting to watch José manage everyone. He seemed aware of the need to respect the skills of the other chefs, with whom he spoke with great diplomacy but generally left alone, and he also gave me increasingly challenging tasks, as though he were automatically training me.

I mean, they didn't get too challenging, but I did graduate from chopping mushrooms and onions to finely chopping parsley and chives. I think that’s a little bit harder.

At any rate, it was while I was chopping chives that I managed to smash the fingernail on my right index finger and cause an incident.

Seriously, I thought I just needed to wrap the thing up and keep chopping, but James the security guy rubbed it with an antiseptic ointment and applied one of those fingertip band-aids to my finger — really expertly, I might add; it covered everything perfectly. Then he gave me what he called a “finger cot,” a sort of (non-lubricated) condom for my finger, to keep me from bleeding into the chives. I give him a business card so he could spell my name right in the incident report that he’d have to file.

I apologized to José for the delay in finishing my chive chopping, grabbed some parsley from the walk-in, washed it off and chopped it up.

He had no interest in the fact that I'd chopped up my finger, and I appreciated that.

It made me feel like a grown-up.

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