Martin Bosley has been recuperating at home in Greytown since February after a gardening accident that almost severed his left foot. Photo/Marty Melville
One of Wellington’s best-known food names talks to Kim Knight about life after the fall – the weeks when he feared he might lose a foot and getting through it sober.
Late summer in Greytown.
Martin Bosley sits on his porch tasting whelks for the first time. He digs meat from the shells with a tiny metal pick and adds malt vinegar and black pepper.
They’ve been delivered by his mate Len, a 72-year-old tall, skinny Englishman on a bicycle, whose wife found these treasures – inexplicably, wondrously – in the frozen section of Kilbirnie Pak n Save.
The two men sit together, eating and chatting. Life is so lovely. And then you fall off a ladder.
“I hit the ground on my back, on my bum,” says Bosley. “I looked down at my foot . . . it was in the boot, but it was facing the wrong way.”
It was the Saturday after the whelks. A week of work-home-work, the gentle monotony of a year just kicking into gear. The sun is still shining and Bosley is back outside, cutting the hornbeam hedge that surrounds the home he bought two-and-a-half years ago. He wears rugby shorts and a pair of Dr Martens ankle boots. Shirtless, no pockets, his cellphone on a table inside. He looks at the old aluminium ladder and thinks: This is definitely your last job. You’re going to the dump with the green waste.
He is a couple of metres from finishing the hedge when he hears the ladder creak. Its bottom feet buckle and fold. The ladder pancakes and Bosley biffs aside the still running hedge trimmer. Leg bones snap as he falls into the mangled metal, and then his ankle comes down on a broken rung.
“The step of the ladder acted like a guillotine. Rather than just breaking the ankle, it cut the foot open and severed right through the bone and the ligaments.”
Bosley, national sales manager at sustainable seafood company Yellow Brick Road, is better known as a celebrity chef. He is a broadcast media regular who has published two cookbooks and written dozens of magazine columns. He is the former head chef of Wellington’s Brasserie Flip, who went on to do fine dining at Martin Bosley’s Yacht Club and bacon butties with his own brand “Marty Sauce” at City Market, which he co-founded. In 2014, he survived a very public business liquidation; in 2020, he made a more private decision to quit drinking. And now, on a Saturday afternoon in Greytown, he knows everything has changed again.
“The metal step of the ladder was literally just like a knife. Like a meat axe through the foot.”
Autumn is hanging on for grim life when the Weekend Herald pulls up outside a tiny cottage with a bright yellow door. The last of the leaves spindle in the cold wind and Bosley is ready to tell a cautionary tale. Four months ago, doctors told him there was a possibility he would lose his foot. For weeks, the prognosis has been bad. Now, the infection has finally gone and physio has started in earnest. His foot is saved. One day soon, he will walk again.
“It was just this profound sense of relief,” he says as the Weekend Herald camera rolls. “Like the storm clouds had lifted. Sort of a biblical moment, when the sun came through and the angels sang because this terrible, terrible thing was no longer a possibility and for the first time since the accident, I could see the finish line.”
But what Bosley doesn’t know – what he doesn’t find out until three days after we leave and the video is edited, the photographs filed and the story underway – is that the infection is back. He is not out of the woods.
At Masterton Hospital, during his weekly check-up, a doctor will tell Bosley the setback is likely caused by the screws that have been placed in the bottom of his tibia; that, assuming another round of antibiotics does its job, the metalware may need to come out sooner than anticipated.
Bosley faces more surgery and the ultimate threat – an infection that can’t be controlled, that gets into his bones, that once again raises the spectre of amputation just below the knee.
“It’s been a s*** day,” he tells the Weekend Herald over the phone.
What happens when your world literally collapses?
Three days earlier, Bosley told us, “I’d never broken anything. I’ve never sprained an ankle, I used to read about those accidents where bone came through the skin and I’d literally start throwing up in my mouth.”
His neighbours heard him yelling for help. Sue over the back fence dialled 111. Nicholla Tobin, on the other side, had never met him (“he was the quiet neighbour with great smells coming off the grill”) but she fetched his shirt and a blanket and was holding his head when Bosley heard ambulance officers tell her “he can’t go unconscious, we need to stop him losing so much blood, we need to try and save the foot”. Her husband, Chris, part-way through his volunteer firefighter training, assisted an ambulance officer dealing with the compound fractures and profuse bleeding.
Bosley: “I still don’t, at that point, think I’ve broken it badly. I’m sure it looks worse than what it actually is and they’re wrong. I thought everybody was wrong. For probably the next six weeks, actually.”
Last year, when New Zealand went into an extended Covid lockdown, Bosley hunkered down in his 55sq m cottage with his mum (now 83), his daughter (now 23), a labrador dog (50kg) and two rabbits. They joked that only one person could stand up at a time. They baked a multi-level, eight-hour mission of an Ottolenghi birthday cake and played a lot of Scrabble. It was a provincial New Zealand sitcom, played out over Twitter. We learned his mum loathed Jamie Oliver and that the dog farted often. Post-accident, says Bosley, was a very different kind of lockdown.
“I’m a really positive person. I’ve always been an optimist and I’ve fortunately never had to go through any sort of depressive episodes or anything like that. But suddenly I found myself in that state. When was the first time I cried, Mum . . ?”
Brenda Bosley usually lives in Waikanae but was, coincidentally, visiting the weekend the ladder broke. In the past 12 weeks, she has become chief cook and cup-of-tea maker, going home only to see her hairdresser.
“I was scared. Yes, I was scared he was going to lose his leg. He’s always on the go, he never stops, he drives into Wellington and out each day and he just never stops. You think, ‘how on earth is he going to cope, what’s going to happen to him?’ If he can’t cook, he’d go mad.
“He’ll send me shopping for stuff I’ve never brought before. I’m ‘oh crikey, where do I find that in the supermarket?’ Spices and things. The pantry? There’s stuff in there that I wouldn’t know where to start with.”
More seriously: “The things people have said, the things they’ve dropped in. I’ve been really quite emotionally impressed. I’m just so proud of him.”
And yes, she remembers that first time he cried.
“I was on the walking frame,” says Bosley. “I came out of the bedroom, and I banged into a picture and it fell off the wall and hit the ground, and the glass . . . and you know, I just couldn’t do anything.
“I’d lost all agency over my own life. It kind of really hit me at that point, just what I was dealing with. Everybody had been saying ‘this is going to take you a long time’ and I was refusing to believe it. And I just grieved. I just cried and cried and cried. I went into my room and said, ‘I just need to be alone for a while’.”
On Twitter, nine days after his fall, Bosley records: “When we were poorly sick as kids, our mum would soothe us saying ‘you’ll be ok, pet lamb’. As she said goodnight, she just said those words. Such comfort. #bestmumever.”
The aftermath of the accident was, he says, “probably the lowest I’ve ever been in my life. I couldn’t find one good thing in a day to focus on or think about.”
Search the archives and there’s Bosley in 2014 describing the closure of his restaurant as the most difficult decision he’s ever made. He uses words like “devastating” and “terribly disheartened”. But that was not, he says, as hard as this.
“So, previously, I drank. And now I’m sober.”
On May 14, three months after the fall, Bosley posted 375 days and 18 hours of sobriety to Facebook.
“I’ve probably been an alcoholic for 30 years, in and around that space, always drinking every day . . . I thought ‘I probably need to do a weekend where I don’t have a drink’ and I ended up with the worst kind of withdrawal symptoms. I realised I had a real problem and that was followed up with a visit to the doctor and a call to the alcohol helpline and that’s a test you don’t want a high score on, but I pretty much aced it.”
This year, “someone said ‘s***, it would be okay if you had a drink right now, we’d all understand if you had one’. And that’s alcohol talking. You listen to that voice, lying in bed at night, in pain, thinking ‘I know what will fix this’ . . . But it was like, no, no . . . in terms of how I was feeling about my recovery, it was like ‘this could define me, it will define me. How it defines me, is entirely up to me.”
Confined to his tiny home with its eclectic mix of taxidermied chickens, food books and bones (that’s a crocodile skull on the coffee table), he says, “I was sober, so I was feeling this honestly. And I couldn’t move, I couldn’t go anywhere, I couldn’t get busy in the garden and occupy myself. If I needed something, Mum had to bring it to me.”
Bosley is speaking in the past tense because, when we sat down to do this first interview, the prognosis was bright. He was healing – and he had found love.
He’s reluctant to say too much, but it started with an Instagram post and a shared enjoyment of a cafe.
“And she had my number from ages ago and she got in touch and it’s just grown from there. It’s deep. Totally unexpected. I wasn’t looking for it, I didn’t see it coming, and she’s seen me at my absolute worst.”
Bosley had his first surgery on Valentine’s Day. It’s how he remembers the accident date. Climbing up that ladder, he says, he was thinking about how much effort he used to put into making the celebration special for couples when he was a restaurateur. Today, his focus has shifted. He is looking forward to very simple things, like walking his dog (“the unguided missile!”), Kina. The first meal he cooked, when he could finally navigate his tiny Greytown kitchen, was pan-fried snapper, mashed potatoes and spinach.
“I need to be in the kitchen cooking. That’s always been my happy place . . . my rock, the place where I can centre myself. Wherever I’ve been in the world, I’ve been able to do that and suddenly I couldn’t. This is all I’ve ever known. This is what I do – and I thought I might not be able to do this anymore.”
What happens when your world collapses?
Monsoon Poon sends vacuum-packed parcels of yellow chicken curry, lamb shanks arrive from Boulcott St Bistro, and there is a care package from Simon Gault. The wife of the Englishman with the whelks brings cawl soup – all lamb necks and Caerphilly cheese. You learn to make origami animals and discover you need a bigger piece of paper for the squirrel and yes, that is a rhinoceros, thank-you-very-much. You get your sense of humour back. Your Twitter feed returns to form:
“Mum: How long do I reheat this pie for?
Me: 30 minutes.
Mum: I’ll give it half an hour instead.
Me: Man facepalming emoji.”
And that idea that you can be defined by only one thing?
“It’s a bit conceited isn’t it? It’s been kind of a one-dimensional life in some respects . . . you create something, you put all that effort into something to eat and it’s gone in five minutes and the next day you start again. There’s nothing you can point to, and go ‘that’s my legacy, that’s what I did’.
“I think I’ve just simplified things right back. I’ve pared back to what’s important . . . Stress? Worry? Really? Stress and worry is losing your leg, it’s not worrying about someone’s fish order, or that they haven’t got their oysters yet by midday.”
Your perspective changes, says Bosley, when you meet someone at rehab who is learning to renegotiate the world on two prosthetic limbs. And while he never made peace with the worst possible outcome, he says he did get to a point where he accepted it.
He says all of this, with all of that behind him. The worst is over. He tells us that, this week, when he heads to Masterton Hospital for his x-ray, physio and fracture clinic appointments, he plans to walk a few steps unaided. The photographer packs up his lights and we drive back to Wellington. Three days later, Bosley posts to Facebook.
“The infection is back . . . physio rehab has been put on hold and I’m back in a holding pattern, the world of the unknown . . . I feel like I have lost control over aspects of my life and as someone for whom control is everything, I’m somewhat adrift.
“Enough ‘poor me’. This wasn’t for sympathy. Tomorrow is a new day with a new fight. And I’m going to win.”
On the phone to the Weekend Herald, he says the news “left me furiously angry and desperately sad in equal measures”. He spent several days trying to process the return of the infection and its possible implications.
“And then I woke up on Sunday and thought ‘no, time to don the suit of armour with a fresh attitude’.”
Last Thursday, two days before this story was due to go to print, there is a text from Bosley. Two palms, pressed in praise. A week into another round of heavy-duty antibiotics and “it’s great news, no surgery required”.
The hardest thing about life after the fall?
“I’ve had to face the fact that I don’t know everything. It’s taken a long time for that to happen to me and I haven’t coped with that bit of news terribly well. Now I’ve come to accept the fact that there are those who know a bit more than I do. Who knew?! Give yourself over to those who know better.”