Ralph Pagano has always been a larger-than-life personality. The chef, who first became a household name while competing on the first season of Gordon Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen, was a beloved name in Miami's culinary community. Pagano worked at big-ticket kitchens such as STK and Ten Palms at Gulfstream Park before opening his first Naked Taco restaurant in South Beach. Pagano, a father of twins with his wife, Buffy.
When tragedy struck, the chef and self-proclaimed workaholic was about to expand his culinary empire with a restaurant in Bimini, Bahamas. The gas burners on the yet-to-be-opened restaurant exploded on a test run of the equipment. Pagano pushed one of his employees to safety, receiving the brunt of the fiery impact.
On June 22, 2017, Pagano was airlifted from the Bahamas to Jackson Memorial's Ryder Trauma Center with second and third-degree burns to about 40 percent of his body. Ultimately, Pagano spent 50 days at Ryder before being released. The road to recovery didn't end there, with Pagano receiving multiple surgeries and countless hours of rehabilitation therapy over several years.
Six years later, Pagano's Naked Taco has expanded to three locations, with a fourth in the works. In addition, the chef is opening a restaurant called Shabibi in Boca Raton, which will explore the Lebanese side of his family tree. But, says Pagano, after his brush with fate, there are more important things than building a culinary empire.
"I became enamored with my family. My life has turned positive with what people consider a negative thing," he tells New Times over the phone on the sixth anniversary of the accident.
"Today is always an emotional day for me. I have such joy in living. I'm so happy my kids are great, my wife is great. But most importantly, I am alive, and that is pretty special."
The chef acknowledges that while the accident was horrific and led to months of pain, it forced him to slow down and realize there was more to life than working. He started to spend more time with his wife and twins. Charlie and Vincent, now 8 years old, were toddlers at the time of the accident. "For lack of a better word, that was a wake-up call for me. My wife and the kids are my life. Everything else takes a back seat."
The chef's sense of humor also played a major part in his recovery. Pagano is frequently seen wearing a shirt that says #Fireproof on it. "You gotta do better than set me on fire to stop me," he quips over the phone.
Pagano says he still manages his multiple restaurants, appears regularly on the Paul Castronovo radio show, and hosts a television series on the Balancing Act TV.
And, with two restaurants scheduled to open in late fall, he's still taking a month off for a summer road trip with his family. "I'm building restaurants, but it's not all important. I'm going on vacation with my wife and kids, and we're going to do stuff," he says. On the agenda: some time at the Jersey Shore and Upstate New York.
When Pagano returns, he'll continue the finishing touches on Shabibi. The restaurant, set to open around Thanksgiving, will be located in Boca Raton at the newly minted "Restaurant Row" near Boca Town Center. When opened, the new area will also house Pubbelly Sushi, Fiolina, a new pasta house by Fabio Trabocchi (Fiola), and El Camino. Pagano says Shabibi (a portmanteau of the Hebrew word "shalom" and the Arabic "habibi") is named for his love affair with Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food. "The name literally comes from words that mean 'peace' and 'my love,' and it translates 100 percent to my love of the region."
The restaurant will offer Lebanese, Armenian, and Televivian staples like hummus, baba ganoush, and sfeehas (meat pies), along with meats and vegetables from a wood-fired grill. A 69-foot-long bar will serve up pomegranate martinis and other potent potables.
Recently, Pagano posted a short film to his Instagram, which spotlighted a trip to Leavenworth, Kansas, to make catfish tacos with Jermaine Wilson, a convicted felon who is now mayor of his town. It also showed graphic scenes of the never-opened Bahamas restaurant Sabor engulfed in flames and Pagano in the hospital as his bandages are changed.
The compelling six-minute story seems like a sizzle reel for a larger project. Pagano, who says he's the creative producer, isn't sure whether it's a project for himself or if he wants to grow it into something larger. "I don't know. I might put it into someone's hands."
Whether Pagano's story of redemption over tacos becomes a breakout hit television series remains to be seen, but one thing is sure: Pagano seems like the perfect person to share stories of human phoenixes rising from their proverbial ashes.
The chef, husband, and father of two calls his brush with the abyss "a pivotal changing moment" that has profoundly changed how he thinks, acts, and lives. "It's the craziest thing. If the accident happened six years ago, I don't know if my life would be as good as it is. I don't know if I would be such a good parent and husband. I'm now aware of how fragile life is."