Ralph Pagano Is the Fireproof Chef
Photo by Michael Campina

Ralph Pagano Is the Fireproof Chef

When Ralph Pagano did a walkthrough of his soon-to-be-opened Bimini outpost of his popular Naked Taco restaurant in June 2017, he didn't know his life was about to change forever.

Pagano pushed an employee out of harm's way when a violent explosion occurred during a training session at Naked Taco at Resorts World Bimini. The chef sustained serious injuries and was airlifted to Miami's Ryder Trauma Center, where he remained for 59 days.

At Ryder, Pagano endured dozens of skin-graft surgeries and hundreds of excruciating hours of physical therapy, but he never lost his sense of humor or joie de vivre throughout the process. The chef would have tacos delivered to the nursing staff tasked with treating him, and he stashed a few bottles of booze for visitors.

Though his most important chef's tools — his hands — were damaged, Pagano insisted on going to his restaurant at least a few times a week after he was released from the hospital.

His first public appearance after the accident was the 2017 South Beach Seafood Festival. Holding a cane and wearing special neoprene gloves to protect his hands, the chef was jubilant as thousands of people cheered for him.

Pagano says his near-death experience was the literal spark that ignited a complete change in the way he sees the world. "Facing mortality is powerful. In many ways, it's the greatest thing that ever happened to me."

The chef says that, a year after the accident, he has embraced life like never before. "The sun is a little brighter, the water is more beautiful, and the tacos taste better."

Pagano has decided to focus on his family instead of expanding his business endeavors. He now concentrates solely on his South Beach party spot, Naked Taco, and has taken to using the hashtag #fireproof. "They say, 'What does not kill you makes you stronger,' and I am 100 percent living proof of that," the chef explains.

Pagano has also found a new role in life as a beacon of hope for other people who have been in accidents. "People have reached out to me who have been injured or handicapped by life events. These are not victims; if you go through severe burns, you're a survivor. We go back to the hospital from time to time. I talk to people, and I thank the wonderful staff. And I do it while serving up margaritas and tacos. That's my purpose. That's what I'm supposed to be doing."

Octavia Yearwood | Ron Magill

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