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My First F-Up: Turns Out Heat and Cleaning Chemicals Are a Dangerous Mix

Eater Young Gun Caitlin McMillan remembers the downside of moving too fast

Rebecca Flint Marx is the editor of Eater at Home. Her areas of expertise include home cooking and popular culture.

My First F-Up is a series in which we ask Eater Young Guns to recall their first — or most notable — on-the-job failure.

Described by her bosses as a “one-woman ‘special forces,’” Young Gun Caitlin McMillan (‘18) is the culinary director for CookNSolo, Michael Solomonov and Steve Cook’s Philadelphia-based restaurant group. McMillan, a native of Asheville, has worked in restaurant kitchens since she was 15. When she came to Zahav in 2014, she started in the kitchen’s cold and fry station. And that was where she learned a searing lesson in how (not) to clean certain kitchen appliances one night. “I make a ton of mistakes every day,” McMillan says. “But this one takes the cake.

“I’ve always been fairly cautious in the kitchen, and put a ton of pressure on myself to stay clean and organized. But closing time came around and the sous chef put a lot of pressure on us to break down [the kitchen] quickly and do a deep clean. I turned off the oven and broke down my station even faster. Then I grabbed the oven cleaner and went to spray the inside of the oven. We normally use Mr. Muscle — it’s this crazy, disgusting chemical cleaner that will wipe your skin off. But we were using an off-brand that day.

“Here’s where I should explain that you shouldn’t clean an oven when it’s still piping hot.

“I went to spray, and there must have been a pocket of gas somewhere because the oven totally filled up with flames and basically exploded in my face. I was up in there, too, really leaning in.

“I was definitely in shock. I couldn’t see my face so I was like, I don’t know if I still have one. I didn’t know what to do. My friend was next to me — she’s the manager of K’Far [CookNSolo’s Israeli bakery and cafe] now — she knew I was in trouble and she was just like, ‘Run.’ So I ran into the bathroom and locked myself in there. It took me a second to look in the mirror because I was way too scared to; I just didn’t want to know. I finally got the courage to look, and I had a layer of skin burnt off and my eyebrows were gone. The sous chef was banging on the door, asking, ‘Are you okay?’ I was like, I don’t know — my face felt hot, like a sunburn, but I wasn’t in immediate pain. I opened the door and she was like, ‘Yeah, you’re going to the hospital.’ I ended up in the hospital; I was lying in bed for a week, and had to rub a ton of cream into my face every day. I came back with no eyebrows.

“But I was surprised — the face heals really quickly, I think because of how much blood flows to it. When I came back to work, I only had a couple of little scabs. But it probably took two weeks for my eyebrows to grow back.”

Rebecca Flint Marx is a James Beard Award-winning food writer based in Brooklyn.