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Chef Ralph Pagano faces 'long and rough road' after kitchen explosion

A week after he was severely injured in a kitchen gas explosion in Bimini, popular South Florida chef Ralph Pagano is out of intensive care but remains in the burn unit at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. Pagano is scheduled to have multiple surgeries in coming days for burns to his face, hands, arms and legs, according to the lawyer his family hired this week.

“He has a long and rough road ahead of him,” attorney Trey Lytal III said in a phone interview Thursday. “At this point, our concern is for his overall health.”

Pagano, 48, was airlifted from the Bahamas to Miami after the June 22 incident at the Naked Taco restaurant he was preparing to open at Resorts World Bimini. Lytal said Pagano was holding a training session for kitchen staff when the explosion occurred. The cause is being investigated by Bahamian police and fire marshals, Lytal said.

Pagano said, “I thought I was going to die” and that he was grateful to be alive in an interview with WPLG-Ch.10 from his hospital bed the day after the incident. Pagano, who has a dynamic personality and sharp wit, has appeared on many TV and radio shows over his career, including as host of “All Mixed Up” on Lifetime cable network and as a contestant on Gordon Ramsay’s “Hell’s Kitchen” on Fox and “Iron Chef America” on Food Network. He runs Naked Taco in Miami Beach, Naked Lunch in Miami and Naked Crab at the B Ocean Resort in Fort Lauderdale.

“He’s in a lot of pain — he’s on morphine,” Lytal said. “But he’s a fighter. He’s in good spirits.”

Lytal said there is no timetable for Pagano’s release and the chef will undergo weeks of “daily wound dressing changes, surgical debridement and skin grafting.” Lytal said burn recovery is complicated by the risk of infection. After 3 ½ hours of surgery on Tuesday, Pagano was scheduled to have more surgery Friday and Monday, he said.

Lytal said Pagano’s hands were particularly hard hit. “All the skin has fallen off,” Lytal said.

“It’s bad — a chef’s hands are his livelihood,” said Paul Castronovo, the Big 105.9 radio morning show host and Pagano friend who has a weekly segment with him.

Lytal said Pagano had a management contract to bring Naked Taco to Resorts World Bimini to a space that was previously another restaurant. Lytal said the premises and kitchen equipment “were owned and required to be maintained by Resorts World Bimini.” It is unclear if any new equipment, piping or gas lines were recently installed, and if permitting or inspections were required or performed.

“Resorts World Bimini is fully cooperating with authorities regarding the investigation. However, as the investigation is still ongoing, we won't be able to provide any further comments at this time,” a spokeswoman for Resorts World Bimini wrote in an email.

Lytal said his West Palm Beach-based law firm (Lytal, Reiter, Smith, Ivey & Fronrath) would send its own investigators to the restaurant as soon as authorities allow access.

Lytal said Pagano appreciates the outpouring of support from customers and fans, but Pagano and wife Buffy request privacy at this time. A Facebook group, “Ralph’s recovery — healing and hysterical messages,” has sprouted for those who want to share thoughts, encouragement and humorous memes.

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

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