On a dark and rainy night two days before Halloween, I entered a small, square waiting room in the basement of a nondescript commercial building in Long Island City, Queens, alongside three professional chefs. We were stripped of our phones and personal belongings. The door was locked behind us, leaving no choice but to continue onward, eventually finding ourselves trapped in what looked like the apocalyptic remains of a restaurant kitchen — complete with sticky surfaces and carefully arranged disarray that would make a rookie dishwasher faint.
The culinary-themed venue, dubbed “Esscape Room: The Real Kitchen Nightmare” and unveiled on Friday, September 13, by owners and operators Melanie Lemieux and Kyle Radzyminski of Ess Hospitality Group, seemed an appropriate challenge for the three actual chef-restaurateurs I had invited along: Trigg Brown of Win Son, Richard Ho of Ho Foods, and Eric Sze of Eight Eight Six, all of whom have seen their own fair share of real-life kitchen nightmares. So how did they feel about tackling a fictional one?
“I will probably freak the fuck out,” Sze promised in response to the invitation. “But sure.”
Escape rooms typically have a backstory, some mythology to prop up the oddly popular recreational activity that is paying to trap yourself in a room of puzzles and horrors for an hour. In Esscape Room’s narrative, concocted by Lemieux and Radzymnski, you are a group of sous chefs reporting for an open call at Le Countess, a previously closed “speakeasy bistro” owned by chef Francois “Le Boucher” (that’s “The Butcher,” for those of you who don’t speak French or use Google Translate) Hellerstein. The chef, notorious for his temper and a checkered past, was under investigation after several of his staff members had simply “vanished” — or so the story goes.
At first glance, Le Countess’s den of terror looks like a real restaurant kitchen, from the fryer bubbling with ominously greasy liquid, to the order tickets lining the rail above the cluttered, grimy grill. The set and props are sourced largely from Lemieux’s and Radzymnski’s storage unit; the couple, who own the Baroness and the Huntress bars in Long Island City, have accumulated heaps of broken kitchen equipment in their decade-plus of restaurant experience.
But despite the relative familiarity of a back-of-house setting, this horror puzzle of a kitchen nightmare was not made easier in the slightest by the presence of three working chefs. “I thought we were going to have to expedite tickets,” Brown later said jokingly. “I was looking forward to hopping on the pass.”
Instead, the chefs gamely flipped through stained recipe pages, shone flashlights into dark crannies, and stuck their hands into unknown receptacles — decoding ciphers in search of the chef’s knives that would hopefully lead to salvation (or at least an exit sign). All the while, increasingly heavy fog filled the hot room with a suffocating haze. From somewhere beyond the room, the sporadic buzz of what sounded like chainsaws revving was frankly terrifying, and intermittent bursts of pounding on the locked door were sudden and frantic enough that my lifespan was certainly shortened by several years.
As the minutes wore down, the continuously looping background track of Tom Jones’s “What’s New Pussycat” (used often to wreak havoc) dropped in both speed and octaves until it was nearly unrecognizable, sounding more like a sinister carnival tune than a jaunty 1960s pop song. Clues from the tattooed bartender in the previous room (later revealed to be Radzyminski) arrived with greater frequency via an intercom, as we scrambled to unlock the next door before the clock ran out.
With less than 10 minutes remaining, the final padlock came off — but the nightmare wasn’t over yet. We passed through a walk-in freezer with sterile white walls to another room, this one decidedly more gory than the last. Electric drills hanging from the ceiling came to life with random fits of whirring, what looked like a body bag dripping with blood dangled in a corner. The door was sealed shut with several padlocks; there were about as many minutes left in the game. Still, Brown, Ho, and Sze (with little of my help, as I continued doing what I was best at: standing uselessly to the side and flinching at every scary sound) went to work, immediately searching for clues despite the clear fruitlessness of the task ahead of them.
As the deadline drew nearer, the light began to flicker; another chainsaw noise, this one decidedly more menacing-sounding than the suspended drills, began revving up in the distance. Time ran out, the room went black, and … I won’t spoil the final jump scare, but I will share that all three chefs screamed. We had failed the mission and surrendered our fates, presumably to an unhinged boucher.
Radzyminski, no longer in character, was there to congratulate us on making it this far. As he’d tell me later, “The success rate is pretty low.” He says about 60 percent of groups advance to the second-to-last room; 30 percent don’t even make it out of the kitchen. The number of groups who successfully escape the set of rooms entirely: just two.
Too bad. The next part, according to Radzyminski, would’ve been where things really got weird, but he refused to disclose any additional spoilers about what lay ahead. Instead, he offered a consolation prize: “You guys definitely screamed the loudest at the end.” Fine, we’ll take it.
Following the escape room, the chefs and I gathered at the Ess Hospitality-owned Huntress, located around the corner, to debrief over beer, wings, and poutine.
“I was stressed,” Sze admitted.
“I screamed really loudly, but everyone else did, too!” Ho shrugged.
From there, the conversation moved into the swapping of real-life kitchen nightmares, the chefs more than happy to unload their back-of-house horror stories. “Friday night, middle of service, gas goes down … becomes super minimal,” Sze described. “We couldn’t boil water for noodles or dumplings, couldn’t really stir fry. We stopped kitchen production.” The gas came back, eventually, but Sze said his restaurant lost a lot of business that night because tables weren’t turning. “That was a kitchen nightmare.”
For Ho, the worst he had ever experienced involved an overflowing grease trap that flooded a thousand-square-foot hotel restaurant with “six inches of shit water”: the baby wipes, tampons, condoms, paper towels, food waste, and literal shit that make up the nauseating contents of a shared, septic tank-like grease trap, which (when functioning) traps all the oils and solids in a building’s waste from entering the sewage system.
Now that, Ho pointed out, would’ve been a real challenge in Esscape Room. “It would be really gross if they had a grease trap, and if you didn’t solve it, it would just slowly rise up,” he said, laughing.
“I think the scariest thing is feeling like people are unhappy,” said Brown. Even worse, he said, are the factors outside his control: an Ansul inspection of the kitchen hood fire suppression system that knocks the restaurant out of business for three days; losing electricity or gas; a busy fast-food chain moving in next door, causing the rent to skyrocket. Those are the things Brown worries about, not some grimy, worn-down kitchen like the one we had just spent an hour trying to escape.
“My kitchen will never look like that — there’s no worries because it would never be like that. It’s not a nightmare,” he said.
“Outside of the restaurant, I’m scared of a lot of things,” added Ho. “But at least within these four walls…” He trailed off. In between overflowing grease traps, gas shutdowns, and jacked-up rents, a murderous, ill-tempered chef almost seemed preferable. The real kitchen nightmare, it turns out, is just the realities of working in a restaurant.