The dishwasher chronicles
Everyone ends up in the weeds sometimes
It’s funny to be in Miami for the summer. While most people look forward to warmer temperatures, the opposite holds true in a semi-tropical climate. But you adapt and eventually dry off, and everything’s more quiet. I took a summer week to write the sequel to the paperboy chronicles. Let me know what you think: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The dishwasher chronicles
If you’re lucky you’ll only be “in the weeds” once or twice a night. Some unfortunate shifts, especially if someone didn’t show up or quit or it was the Ladies Fashion Luncheon at the Golden Inn, you’d be in the weeds your entire shift. That’s life as a dishwasher.
Being in the weeds is admitting that you cannot possibly keep up with the incoming. Inexperienced dishwashers make matters worse by trying to frantically throw plates, bowls, coffee cups, wine glasses haphazardly into racks to shove them through the machine. This is all impulse, a blunt force approach that’s all adrenaline. After all, you have servers coming back and screaming at you they’re out of monkey dishes. It’s also a way to break stuff and clog drains, which will slow you down even more – and it makes offloading cumbersome, again working against the ultimate goal. Reorganize the mountains of disorganized dishes into piles of plates, bowls and side dishes. Understand what’s of critical shortage, prioritize a rack of those, then move on to the next pile. That way, the unloading process is far more efficient. Taking a step back, even while you’re getting yelled at, is the right move.
I spent the better part of several summers in high school toiling as a dishwasher in restaurants on the Jersey Shore. Being a dishwasher meant you were the lowest-ranking person in the kitchen. You lost the skin off your fingertips from the heat. Your teenage acne worsened from the chemicals. You got paid the least. You got yelled at a lot. You had to empty the deep fryer at the end of the night and likely get grease burns on your arms. You went home smelling like garbage, and your sneakers were so fetid, you had to keep them outside – and they never dried. But in the kitchen you got to listen to music while you worked.
The kitchen people were… different. They often cursed, in frustration and at each other. One time, sadly at the Ladies Fashion Lunch, my colleague got into a major fight with the chef and quit mid-shift, leaving me high and dry and in the weeds until the dinner shift. Usually people yelled and moved on. Moving 300 dinners in a few hours is stressful. But at the end of the shift, as you did cleanup and prep for the next day, everyone was bone tired but still up for beers after cleanup or a smoke in the parking lot. Frustrations happen.
The dinner service might only last four hours, but typically your shift was split with the first half for prep cooking. As a dishwasher, you did a split shift as a prep cook, chopping zucchini after zucchini or breading dozens of slimy veal cutlets. (I can never eat veal because of the texture of these slabs I took from vacuum-sealed plastic.) Eventually, you graduate to prep cook and then find your way to working the line.
The chef sets the tone for the kitchen. The biggest argument was typically what music to listen to. In the kitchens I worked, the chef decided. In one kitchen, the chef was from the South so he wanted country music, a decision that didn’t sit well with his mostly teenage staff. So he compromised, and we did two hours of country and two hours of Pearl Jam and Nirvana. In truth, most of us came to begrudgingly have our favorites we’d want to rank highest in the Country Countdown. Listening to your people and making compromises pays off.
Chopping vegetables can go astray, particularly when you’ve been slicing radishes for an hour while listening to Garth Brooks. I once had to be brought to urgent care to get stitches. The prep cooking had to go on, so I was unceremoniously dumped out front with the instructions to be sure to be back for the dinner service to wash dishes. Luckily for me, the kitchen had a supply of “finger condoms” so the stitches wouldn’t be an issue. I didn’t find this odd at all, because if I just went home I’d leave the kitchen down a person and catch hell from my coworkers. You gotta show up.
Every organization has hierarchies. The church-and-state divide of restaurants is front of the house (servers, bussers, hosts) and the back of the house (cooks, dishwashers). Any sensible person would work in the front of the house as a server. They made the most money, worked in air conditioning and left early not smelling like garbage. Kitchen people tolerated the front of the house, knowing that even if the servers made more money with tips, cooking the food was way more important than putting the food on the table and delivering the check. I spent one summer in the front of the house, as a busboy, and it was more pleasant and lucrative – if the servers contributed their fair share of the tips. The problem: customers. People would get bombed and be rude, even to kids clearing their tables. Even worse, you had to wear uniforms that included a little vest. No thanks. Sometimes it’s better to sweat in a Cure concert shirt.
Within the kitchen, cooks were the most powerful. They’re making the dishes, after all, and wear bandanas. The chef was at the top and set the tone. The best chefs dealt with their own specialty dish – “We have Chef Pete’s famous Cioppino as a special for $19.95” – but mostly delegated, did organizational stuff and handled management. Prep cooking was commodity labor that even a dishwasher could do. Working a deep fryer was hardly much better. Doesn’t take much skill to drop french fries or crab balls. At least at the grill there was fire and steaks and swordfish. The experienced cooks worked more elaborate dishes with sauté pans. They had skills. The dishwashers ranked last but at least were appreciated because they had a very bad job. Weirdly, I always noticed a lack of respect for the pastry chef. He would fiddle with his desserts while the rest of us were pouring sweat. People come to restaurants for the dinners, not the desserts.
The dinner service was a chaotic orchestration. In a kitchen, you have to trust the person next to you is going to do their job. Rarely is a single person making the entire dish. Instead the different elements come together, at least in theory. I always thought the role of expediter was an undervalued role. It required a certain type of person who was more front of the house than back of the house. The expediter would orchestrate the process, calling out orders, taking feedback from the dining room and delicately breaking the news that an already well done steak needed to go on for a few more minutes. The best expediters were diplomats, as comfortable in the humming dining room as they were in the chaotic kitchen. You need people with one foot on both sides.
Even at the bottom, dishwashing had distinct roles..The easiest job, which I noticed usually went to the college kid who worked in the kitchen the longest and sold weed to the cooks, was washing sauté pans, pots and knives that couldn’t go into the dishwashers. This was light work. Most need just a rinse and a quick scrub. Big part of that job was cracking jokes with cooks on the line. The center of the action was working the washers themselves. Each machine was typically a two-person team. The first person fed the machine, the second person emptied. There were upsides to both. Feeding the machine meant you didn’t burn your hands as much or get the chemical steam bath as intensely. It also meant you smelled like garbage and got yelled at. After a while, you learn to ignore the yelling and turn up the music. I remember being short handed one night and hopelessly in the weeds to the point where dinners were not moving. The chef came over from the line. I was ready for the yelling, but he appraised the situation and started stacking. It’s easy to yell, more effective to get your hands dirty.
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Thank You. You managed to capture the exact nature and feel of being the dishwasher. Well Done. Dishwashing in diners was my speciality through high school. Like veal, shrimp is not something edible after peeling an ocean or two. Great description of the hiearchy. There are a few unimaginable things left in life, two are hearing a server say to the dishwasher "here, let me give you a hand with the" or "oh, it's the holiday season, since we're pooling the tips anyway, let's include the dishwasher." Great read.
This is priceless: 'Chopping vegetables can go astray, particularly when you’ve been slicing radishes for an hour while listening to Garth Brooks.'