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 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".
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.
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