The number “86” in kitchen lingo means to “be out of a particular menu item or ingredient.” Urban legend contends that the term originated from a famous New York speakeasy called Chumley’s. The bar was located at 86 Bedford Street, but had its entrance through an interior adjoining courtyard to provide privacy for its customers. The prohibition era, was the perfect petri dish for clandestine business activities, with government officials accepting bribes to allow bars like Chumley’s to keep the masses inebriated. If the police were planning a raid in that area, the bartender would be tipped off, at which point he could “86” his customers through the backdoor on Bedford Street, while the police were coming through the front courtyard.
Georges Blanc, wrote in his 1943 cookbook, ‘Ma Cuisine des Saisons’ that
“Happy and successful cooking doesn’t rely only on know-how; it comes from
the heart, makes great demands on the palate and needs enthusiasm and a deep
love of food to bring it to life.”
In the trenches where it’s 8:30 pm and open warfare has been declared between hungry diners and line cooks working feverishly to keep them sated. Wrong time for poetry or romantic ideals, buddy! The tension is palpable, we’re communicating, shouting, moving, no time for laughter, focus, everything must be perfect.
Cooking professionally is like skiing a double diamond run like Alta Zero; it’s an adrenaline rush, a straight shot of B12 to the heart. But it also means that technique, repetition and precision guide every move. From sauté pan to plate each motor skill has been honed to create an economy of movement that conditions a cook to multi-task without thinking. Night after night, line cooks “86” happiness in their hearts because we have no place for it; might as well seal such sentiments in the center of an onion, a large purple one, with roots attached and crinkly brown parchment like skin.
Anyway who cares? Show me a happy line cook and I’ll show you a lazy one. And there’s a collective gasp, how could anyone be so mean? There is no ill intent, but great kitchens push and challenge the mettle of everyone who works there. Let me break it down for you, there is no place for complacency in the evolution of a cook. From cook to sous chef and eventually executive chef, there must be personal struggle, pain, sacrifice and a penance paid through years of hard work.
A happy cook is content, there’s no uncomfortable places in that kitchen, you know what’s coming, where’s the challenge? Where’s the catalyst forcing you to grow? I’ve never worked in a kitchen where knowledge, technique or prowess comes naturally or is given with tablespoons of patience. You make mistakes, take your licks, cower, cringe, get beat up by the chef, but you’ve also learnt how to fix the hollandaise when it’s broken. Learning in everyday workplace situations, that slow accumulation of knowledge that in time becomes wisdom is like fresh milk from cows. Sure you can drink it, but add rennet, heat it, strain the curds and wait. It’s milk that’s been transformed, yellow, sweet, salty, stinky, but infinitely better for its transformation.
“Maybe that’s enlightenment enough: to know that there is no final resting place of the mind; no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom…is realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go. -Anthony Bourdain”
“86 Happiness” Sidney (Sous Chef)