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‘There was an explosion, and I thought I was going to die,’ Miami chef recalls

Chef Ralph Pagano released from burn unit

Chef Ralph Pagano, who was badly burned in a kitchen accident in June, was released from the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Ryder Trauma Center Aug. 10 after more than 50 days in the burn unit.
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Chef Ralph Pagano, who was badly burned in a kitchen accident in June, was released from the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Ryder Trauma Center Aug. 10 after more than 50 days in the burn unit.

Ralph Pagano brought laughter to the burn unit.

The popular chef from the Miami Beach Naked Taco and Naked Lunch restaurants and “Hell’s Kitchen” contestant joked the hospital food had been just fine during his 50-day stay at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Ryder Trauma Center for severe burns he sustained during a kitchen explosion at a Bahamas resort in June.

“The food was good: I had it delivered from Naked Lunch and Naked Taco every day,” he said. “Tuesday is officially Taco Tuesday here at the hospital now.”

He seemed in remarkably good spirits, he was told, as he said goodbye to doctors and staff who had cared for him as he endured four surgeries to graft skin onto his arms, legs and torso.

“You can thank the painkillers. It’s Florida. They’re easy to get,” he said to another round of laughs. Then, when he was asked about how far his recovery had come, he looked down at his feet.

“At first I was looking at my legs and thinking, well, take a look...”

He got up with the help of a cane, raised his pant leg and showed the room red and scaly scars pockmarked with scabs where his skin has yet to heal.

There were gasps. “Wow,” someone else said. Everyone stopped laughing.

“And the doctors will tell you that’s good,” he said, as he hobbled back to his seat.

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Chef Ralph Pagano, well known chef who developed the Naked Taco restaurant on the beach, shows the scars on his leg after being treated for third-degree burns at Ryder Trauma Center prior to being released on Thursday, August 10, 2017. CARL JUSTE cjuste@miamiherald.com

Pagano has a long road to recovery ahead of him after sustaining second- and third-degree burns over about 40 percent of his body, his doctors said at Thursday’s press conference. But his spirit, good humor and willingness to work past intense pain helped his healing and rehabilitation for the last two months.

Pagano had been planning to expand his Naked Taco to Resorts World in Bimini, Bahamas. He was prepping food in the resort’s kitchen on June 22 when the last thing he remembers was a flash. The exact cause of the explosion has not been determined.

“There was an explosion, and I thought I was going to die,” he said. “I blacked out, opened up my eyes and I was outside of the building.”

He was airlifted to Miami, where he was treated at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Burn Center. Skin from his own thighs was used in grafts, and a physical therapist worked with him daily to help him regain movement. The new skin is tight, and making a fist and standing are painful experience.

“His wounds were very, very deep. It’s going to be a long road before we know what the final outcome is going to be,” said Dr. Louis Pizano, a trauma surgeon and medical director at the burn center.

He returns to his home in Boca Raton to be reunited with his wife and twin toddler sons. But he must visit the burn unit two-to-three times a week for wound checks and physical therapy. Pagano said he does not know when, or if, he will be able to return to the kitchen.

“I can tell you standing up just then, that took a lot,” he said. “It’s going to be a minute before I can do a kitchen shift.”

“Having said that, I’m expecting dinner Saturday night,” his other surgeon, Carl Schulman, said. Laughter returned to the room.

“All the Naked restaurants are open, so you can still be fed pretty well,” Pagano said.

Pagano, ever the chef, businessman and bon vivant, plugged his restaurant one more time before he said goodbye, noting one was “just a hop, skip and a jump away from here,” he joked. “Full bar.”

Carlos Frías: 305-376-4624, @Carlos_Frias

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