Saturday, January 31, 2009

"86 The Salmon!!!"

I'm sure there are many readers who have heard the term "86" in a restaurant, whether intentionally or not. At some point in time, college mostly, there are those who are familiar with the term. Retired or not, experienced buss boys, waiters, bar tenders, managers, cooks, chefs and dish washers all know the term, it makes them wince. As much as I would like to not include the "part time hostess, only on weekends, in the evening, but only when daddy doesn't schedule a dinner party down at the country club after his and mommy's tennis tournament exclusively for executive members," I'm certain even they have heard the term, and stared back blankly.

In 1986 I was working in the pantry and at 18 I learned a lot from watching and listening, spying on everyone quietly, watching their every move, like we were all pinned down in a bunker and one false move could make you a gonner. Keep your head down, or it might get blown off. I would see another more experienced cook do something and the chef would go off on him. "Well", I'd say to myself, trying not to stare or smile, keeping busy, "PW-Don't do THAT".

Early on I immediately noticed that when we ran out of something everyone yelled "86 the salmon, or pate, or special pasta". It is the back of the house restaurant equivilent of screaming "fire" in the dining room. Cooks double check tickets to see if they need the one we don't have so they can inform the waiter "you screwed up, I don't have it". Waiters riffle through notes to see if they reserved the one they needed for table 34, thinking "that guy is such a jerk to his wife and this may send him over the edge, I could get her killed." The manager writes in on the white board with a dry erase pen, bold, in black. 86 Salmon. It gets repeated over and over by everyone like a hyptic chant until everyone has heard it one hundred times. Even the piano player knows it and twinkles out a little "86" jive he has been working on.

It's a big freaking deal.

My first New Years Eve came and went, and Chef Dean and the experienced kitchen crew saw that I had survived,"he still comes back every day, he's still standing, he hasn't broken yet" I would hear. They took me in and slowly, I emulated their every good move and learned from their mistakes. Organization, posture over a cutting board, knife skills, keeping your cool while facing a firing squad. I was really beginning to feel special, I had really found something I was good at and I really enjoyed it. It was like throwing a party every night for guests who might not go out to eat until their next anniversary. It was a rush and very satisfying to learn numerous new things each day for years and years.

One night I was running a count on an item in the pantry, Blackout Cake, a house favorite. The count ran low, I informed the chef and the staff. Three left, Two left , One left, ...

"87 the Blackout Cake!!!" I began the chant.

Adam, who learned to cook in the army, one of the most dedicated and organized cooks I would ever meet or learn from stopped dead in his tracks and turned to me with his eyebrows raised, "What did you say?"At this point I was really beginning to feel like one of the gang, like I was being accepted. The look in his piercing eyes told me my success was on the fence.
I swallowed, "you know, 87 the Blackout Cake, I'm out, I have no more orders, it's gone."

Without a word Adam turned the corner and I heard, "Hey Chef, Pee Wee just '87ed' the Blackout Cake!" Then he did what I feared, he laughed.

"He did WHAT?!!?"
Oh God, what have I done?

Chef Dean saddled up to me, trying not to laugh. "What's up with the Cake Pee Wee?"
"I ran out, I had a count down and I ran out, so I 87ed it Chef."
"You mean 86ed it?", he asked.
"No, I 87ed it." He really looked puzzed and I wasn't sure why.
"Why did you 87 the cake?" He was serious.
Deep breath, a crowd of hot line cooks was peering around the corner. "Last year we 86ed everything when we ran out, now it's 1987". No response. "Don't we 87 it now when we run out, you know, because it's 1987?"

He was really trying not to laugh, what was so funny?

He put his arm on my shoulder, was he going to throw me into the stock pot?
"P Dub, when we run out of something it is always "86ed", no matter what calender year it is, it's out, it's "86ed". Understand?" he smirked.
Shaking my head, "Yes Chef, but why?"
"Why what?"
"Why do we say 86, it doesn't make any sense?"
He searched his memory, "I really don't know, that's what I was taught too, it's just what we say".
"Yes Chef".

Twenty years later I had told this story to about every cook or chef I worked with, but no one could ever tell me WHY we said "86". Even in culinary school I never got a straight answer, for real.

Then we took a family vacation to Disneyland. We were in line for Soaring over California, which is a cool ride, and my mother in law says, "Hey Paul, look at this".

And this is a photo of what I saw...a discription of the F-86 Saberjet from the Korean war, at the time the world's fastest fighter jet...

So that is why we 86 items when they run out, go figure.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Contest Winner-Not So Much

I recently entered a national foodie contest, much to my dismay I never heard back, despite making the original deadline (they extended it twice). It was about a twelve page application and I had to turn in a three minute video as well. I thought this "major network" would've at least had an intern send me the "thanks but no thanks" on a 3x5 card. But no such luck. I wrote them a note suggesting that they were punishing the punctual and organized. I never heard back from them on that one either now that I think about it, go figure. It probably didn't help that I poked fun at one of their franchise personalities in my video.
It did however give me the opportunity to reflect on the questions they asked, which ended up being very satisfying. I came home one night and told Janet, "I got an e-mail with another invitation to enter this contest again this year" Gung-ho Janet responded with, "Do it, just go for it, do it. What's the worst that could happen? You could win or do well and we could move to NY. So what!!!" She is so great.
With the help of a Janet and a couple friends, I wrote and re-wrote, had a video recorded and edited, and had a couple stills taken. Since the network didn't want to share me with the world, I thought I would. So without quoting the actual application questions on my blog and finally getting contacted by this network, by way of their legal department, I thought I would share a couple of my answers.

-I would be honey, because honey is the real deal. Honey is strong, pure, sweet, adaptable and loved by all. Honey is organic, translucent, sustainable, medicinal, therapeutic and embraced by different cultures around the world. With its distinctive flavor, it can work alone, like me, or as an ingredient, as part of a culinary team. Honey’s flavor is influenced by the surrounding nectar of flowers, as my cooking has been influenced by those I have spent time next to over the stove in the kitchen. Honey contains complex carbohydrates, trace amounts of vitamins and minerals and antioxidants. I contain knowledge, experience and a strong personality, willing to share what I know with others. Honey is good for the individual, a powerful resource used in a variety of ways and settings, understated and valuable, as I am.

-Keep your knife sharp and clean, treat it with respect and with care, like driving a car you know you cannot afford.

-When you are working on a specific task and paying close attention to all the details in front of you, it is crucial to also keep in mind what your next task is so that your time is managed well. Nothing is more detrimental to a deadline in the kitchen than a cook who is not sure what to do next. I like to say, “Think about what you have just done, concentrate on what you are doing, and focus on what to do next.”

-When producing large amounts of food it can get particularly challenging when you are racing against the clock and trying to do a quality job. I find that more inexperienced cooks get confused easily and become messy and disorganized. This can also lead to an accident. One of the most important things you can do to keep on task is to keep your cutting board clean, dry and organized; I find that it is a reflection of what is going on in your mind.

-All ingredients should be handled with respect and care; from carrots to foie gras, they are a gift and we who posses the skills should treat them as a gift. Don’t take shortcuts that damage your ingredients and compromise your results.

-Don’t over complicate your recipes, plates or presentations. Be clean, crisp, straightforward and honest. Just because you think of something to add doesn’t mean you should; think it over carefully. You can add it, but you can’t take it out.

Take that major network.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Two Great Foodie Books

My lovely wife Janet got me an incredible book for Christmas 1001 Foods You Must Taste Before You Die by Frances Case. Does that girl know me or what?
It’s not as morbid as it sounds. It’s a reference of crazy hard to find or unique foods from countries and cultures around the world. Not all of them are available unless you do some serious traveling, but where else are you going to find such great ideas and get the exposure in one place? Don’t say the internet; it’s a book for cryin’ out loud. It’s got different sections; Fruit, Vegetables, Dairy, Fish, Meats, Aromatics, Grain, Bakery and Confections. It’s amazing; if someone can find another book with such coverage I dare you to find it for me.

I also got The Flavor Bible from my parents by two of my favorite food authors Karen Page and Andrew Dorenburg, these two write books that speak to me. A book that explores flavor combinations and for use as a reference. For instance, if you wanted Thai food you could look it up and it would give you flavor profiles and indigenous items to that region. Exciting stuff for foodies like me. People often ask me what my favorite cookbook is and I never have an answer because I never buy a book for recipes, but rather inspiration or reference when I’m stumped or when Jazz or Modern Rock can’t find the creative buttons in my head. The introduction has a great quote that sums up my point of view.
“Over the years, cookbooks have come to dictate precise measurement of ingredients along with instructions for their preparation and assembly, which has done much to improve the general accessibility of recipes. However, they also have come to provide a false sense of security for which the unsuspecting cook pays a price. When a recipe is rigidly scripted and blindly followed, it negates the cook’s own creative instincts and good judgment-not to mention much of the pleasure of truly ‘being ‘ in the moment”
That’s probably why I have always enjoyed live music so much, the point of cooking when you just “go off” and reach, making something you were working on go from good to great because you choose to step off the ledge and don’t fall off.

Check out those books.