Updated: Feb 26
To be confronted by a roaring demon of heat and flames in the work place is an unwelcome jolt. Radiant heat and weird shadows fill the air. The enclosed space you know so well feels like a death trap. Time stands still and you marvel at how quickly things can melt.
There are levels of seriousness to kitchen fires, and the major factor in upping the danger ante is grease. It's the residue from frying, roasting and grilling that drips from cooking equipment or invisibly coats surfaces as an aerosol mist. It collects in and around ovens and burners. Ceiling fans grow greasy gray fur. Stacks of little used crockery congeal in honeyed rings of pure yellow Grease is an incendiary, fire's best friend, and if left unchecked it's like painted on petrol – low volatile, but ready to blow.
Grease residue is combustible at around 370°C, becoming perilous the closer it is to naked flames – places like oven trays, around grill plates and under the burners on oven tops. On an agency job I saw the foil lined, but grease filled, tray under the ring burners ignite mid-service. The whole stove top burned like a fire ship and did it bugger up the service! The cook on pans, his hair dangerously close to the conflagration, had to repeatedly reach through flames to rescue meals. Crucial minutes went by as a fire blanket was deployed and the now bubbling hot grease build-up removed with wads of paper towels. The head chef was stupid enough to get mad with the cook but not smart enough to make sure his kitchen was clean.
These sort of kitchen flare-ups easily generate temperatures above 370°C, even getting up over 1000°C if left to burn long enough. This kind of heat won't just burn the tatts off you - it will also start the fireball rolling in a grease covered kitchen. From stove top to walls, burning grease can flare up into the extractor fan hoods that every kitchen has. These hoods have removable, and cleanable, mesh screens that trap the grease in the air. If left full of yellow kitchen snot, the traps and the hoods become highly dangerous. A hood-fire is a monster that no-one wants to have to slay.
The bigger the place, the larger the system of hoods and ducting, and if left filthy then there is a risk of spreading fire throughout the whole building. This happened at Heathrow Airport in the late nineties. Two hundred metres of ducting caught fire and it took a hundred firemen to put it out. Three terminals closed down, three hundred flights were canceled or diverted and hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue lost. Think of the arse kicking the Executive Chef got there!
Fortunately, by law, kitchens have fire extinguishers loaded for oil fires and fire-blankets handy. With a swift and concentrated effort the crew can close the sucker down. Now they just have to deal with the dripping foam on the four tables of mains on the bench.
Even a clean kitchen can be set on fire – all you need is carelessness and ignorance. At one a-la-carte restaurant I was prepping with the crew after lunch. An apprentice chef emptied the deep fryers next to me. In this unglamorous process, which you never see on cooking shows, the metal 20 litre vats are first drained. The apprentice then reaches into the greasy depths to scrape out all the burnt gristly bits at the bottom, before flushing and scrubbing the fryers clean with cascades of steaming hot soapy water. After being carefully dried they can be refilled with fresh or strained oil.
Well, this young fella neglected to turn the flame off on one fryer as it emptied. I heard a rising bubbling sound, smelt hot metal, and turned to see the fryer burst into flames. It was attention grabbing to say the least, eagerly roaring metres upwards; bouncing bright light off all the stainless steel. The apprentice and I goggled at it for a moment, and it was fascinating to see two big white plastic salt shakers on the rack above the fryer slump and ooze.
The heat coming off the fire was burning my face. I dashed to the back of the kitchen and went for the fire blanket hanging on a wall. Unbeknownst to me the apprentice bolted into the wet area and filled a tub with water. He had been taught that water makes an oil fire explode but shock had robbed him of common sense.
This sudden pyro-kinetic visitation to our cosy prep session had alerted the Head Chef and two other chefs at the cold room, and they ran over with a fire extinguisher. I scurried back with the fire blanket, popping it open. Then the apprentice barged in with his tub of water, raising it as he came. Disaster loomed. I cringed in fear. Burning fat would be sprayed all over the kitchen and crew - sticking to us like kitchen napalm. The Head Chef stepped in front of the panicked lad and knocked him and the water backwards with a solid elbow to the chest. I flung the fire-blanket over the fryer and the flames vanished. The Head Chef made as if to kick the wide eyed apprentice on the ground but reached down and pulled him up instead. He said some things to the kid; angry mean things, but he saved us all from being deep fried.
So how about a combination of exploding deep fryer and hood-fire? A chef mate told me of the terror he experienced at a major hotel. Some fool made the same error of not turning off an emptying fryer and the resulting fire rushed up into the hood and went into the ducting system which linked the two kitchens in the hotel. In the next kitchen, my mate, working on the grill, nearly wet himself as a great dragon's breathe of flame blew out the grease traps overhead and shot down into the kitchen. Shouts of terror and incredibly loud cusswords rang out and the line of cooks fell back in disarray. Cracks ran through the roof scattering plaster dust onto plates of food and service was halted. There was so much structural damage caused that both kitchens had to close for many days, costing the hotel a bomb. A think the Head Chef was executed behind the back alley bins.
Some kitchen fires start through faulty electrics but the usual culprit is that dirty, lazy or careless chef. A kitchen catches fire approximately once a week in Australia and millions of dollars worth of damage are caused each year. Half of these fires are caused by . . . grease build up and the resulting hood fires. The chefs responsible for this mayhem all deserve a Molotov Cocktail as their knock-off drink.