Text: Peter Hertzmann
I was twenty-four years old and had driven 3,000 miles across the United States in a rusted-out GMC van. My terminus was a supermarket parking lot in Upstate New York. In one hand I held the local newspaper folded open to the apartment want-ads. I was walking towards one of the pay phones at the edge of the lot with a pocket full of dimes when I heard someone call my name. It had been three years since I dropped out of the college I was returning to. I didn’t expect to run into anyone from my previous internment, but there I was standing in an empty parking space catching up with someone whom I couldn’t remember but who obviously remembered me. He proffered that he and his wife were moving in a week, but that I could stay in his basement until then. I could also, if the chef agreed, have his current dishwashing job. Not knowing the reality of the work, the job sounded great.
I was restarting my college career with a ten-week-long introductory course designed for third-year students transferring into my field. For me, it would be a refresher of the first two years that I mostly skipped or slept through. I had to show up for class from eight to five, Monday through Friday. The dishwashing job shifts were Friday and Saturday nights plus Sunday lunch. We agreed to meet with the chef in the next few days. The interview consisted of me being introduced to the chef and him telling me to show up the following Friday night at six.
At a few minutes before my scheduled time, I entered the rear door of the restaurant and stood just across the threshold until someone asked my reason for being there. I was told where in the basement to change my clothes. I was supposed to change into a pair of checked kitchen pants and a thin, short-sleeved white shirt with snaps instead of buttons. There was nothing in my size. The pants were too big and the shirts were too small. I would have this same size issue for the entire summer. I also donned a universal-fit, plastic, disposable apron.
When I reemerged into the kitchen, I was told to return to the basement and wash the pots that had been used earlier in the day. The pot-washing area was at the foot of the stairs. Sometimes pots came flying down from the kitchen instead being brought in a tote. Sometimes I was called upstairs to retrieve them. Along one wall of the basement was a large, three-chamber sink with a wide, flat drainage area attached at each end. That first evening, the flat areas, all three chambers, and the floor in front of the sink were stacked with pots of all sizes and what seemed like hundreds of greased-covered, bent, aluminum pie pans. I was informed that I would need to fix the sump pump below the sink before I could start washing up. I asked, “What’s a sump pump?”
My instructor was one of the younger cooks. Although his instructions were quick, and it was obvious that he needed to return to his station in the world above, I had all the information I needed. Someone had emptied a bucket with a bunch of long strings from a disintegrating mop into the sump collection area, bypassing the strainer in the sink drain. The strings were wound around the pump impeller and needed to be extracted. I managed to remove enough string with the bent screwdriver I was provided to eventually get the pump running again.
Just as I was finishing, the young cook reappeared and instructed me as to how to fill the three chambers of the sink. The left one was filled with hot soapy water, the middle one with plain, hot water, and the third with hot water tainted with a capful of sanitizer solution.
I was given a pair of heavy-duty rubber gloves to wear but they were only good for the pots near the top. If I reached too deep into the water, the gloves would fill up. I eventually found it easier to work without the gloves. My only tools to help with the cleaning were a coarse brush and occasionally a chunk of well-worn steel wool. One-by-one, the pots were scrubbed and transferred to the rinse water in the middle chamber. When that was full, its contents were dipped in the sanitizing solution and then set to drain on the draining area to the right. When the next batch was ready to be sanitized, the pots sitting in the draining area were mostly dry. I soon learned which items needed to bring upstairs to the kitchen and which, because they were too large to sit upstairs when not in use, had to be left on a rack in the pot cleaning area.
Most pots, even those with scorched bottoms, would eventually reveal a shiny surface to my efforts. The aluminum pie pans were a different story. They varied from new to being distorted into the cruelest of shapes. Each was coated with a thick layer of dried, reddish grease. The pans were used to cook fish fillets under the broiler. Just prior to cooking, each fillet was salted, sprinkled with paprika, and squirted was vegetable oil from a squeeze bottle. The fillet was slapped on an aluminum pan retrieved from a bucket sitting next to the broiler. The pan was placed under the bluish-green flames of the broiler until the fish was well colored on both sides. The used pie pan was thrown into a different bucket along the other side the broiler. When the bucket was full, the contents were dumped into whatever pots were waiting to be transferred downstairs for cleaning. It was impossible to wash more than the surface grease from the pie pans. There was a tacit agreement between the dishwashers and the cooks that a best effort was sufficient. Everyone knew that the old grease burning in the broiler wouldn’t make bad fish any worse. This was not a restaurant that people came to for great food.
When dinner service began in earnest and the dishwashing station in the kitchen became backed-up, I would be summoned to the start of the dishwashing line. When the restaurant was going full-tilt on a Saturday evening, the dishwashing duties required four workers. Two would stand at the head of the line and receive the large service trays full of the dining room detritus. The busboys dramatically charged through the swinging doors next to start of the line with the intent of banging into any dishwasher not careful enough to always stand clear of the doors. Once or twice during service, the chef would admonish the busboys for their carelessness. Since they worked the front of the house, the chef had no power over them, and they generally ignored him. Besides stacks of soiled dishes and cutlery, the trays would have baskets of uneaten rolls, tiny cups of drawn butter, and dishes of butter pats setting on their individual cardboard squares, all having been ignored by the diners. The leading edge of each tray was inserted into a slot at the edge of the counter leaving them to precariously cantilever until emptied. There was enough space for two, large, round trays set side-by-side. If the first trays didn’t get emptied before the next trays came in, the new arrivals would be balanced on the earlier trays. When the dining room was slammed, the trays would be stacked three or four high.
The first items removed from the trays were used table linens and napkins. These were placed in a cloth laundry bag that hung from a hook between the trays and stretched to the floor when full. To the right side was a large plastic bag-lined garbage can waiting to receive uneaten food and other table waste. To the front was an open shelf where the dirty dishes would be passed to the head dishwasher who stood between whoever was emptying trays and the massive machine that sucked in cold, dirty plates and glasses and exuded hot, clean ones. There was an old champagne bucket partially filled with hot water to receive the cutlery. There was also an old wine bucket where the small, stainless-steel cups of drawn butter were emptied of any that remained if the contents didn’t also contain any foreign substances. Little pats of butter on the cardboard squares were also thrown into the bucket if their cover paper was intact, and no one had extinguished their cigarette, a common occurrence, into it. The bucket contents would be heated, strained, and rescued as a new batch of drawn butter. Uneaten rolls would be recycled if they looked undamaged. Any large, boneless pieces of steak would be set on a plate for the head dishwasher’s dog.
When the garbage can was full, the two dishwashers at the head of the line would each grab one handle of the can and carry the can out to the large dumpster at the rear of the parking lot. Next to the dumpster was a shed where we would obtain a new plastic bag for the garbage can and a supply of the water-polluting dishwashing soap that was used during those last days before the world became enlightened.
The head dishwasher loaded the individual dishwasher racks. Unlike most dishwashers that I would meet during my later visits to restaurant kitchens, our head dishwasher was a bit obsessive-compulsive and organized all the dishes in the racks by shape and size.
The dishwashing machine didn’t have doors where the racks entered and left, just plastic curtains. The dishwasher would shove a filled rack into the machine, and it would automatically start its wash function. When cleaned and sanitized, the rack of dishes was automatically delivered to a landing area at the exit. That space held up to four completed racks. If the dishwasher, the man not the machine, became slammed and the discharge area became full, I would be sent to the area to empty the racks onto the stainless-steel table that separated the dishwashing area from the remainder of the kitchen. The chef, who stood at the pass, would move the hot plates across the aisle that separated us, to a shelf above the line.
When the bucket with the cutlery was full, its contents were strewn onto a flat rack. When it finished washing, I was called to the back of the line to separate the silverware into partitioned totes. The head dishwasher seemed capable of organizing dishes, but when it came to silverware that exited the dishwashing machine as hot as boiling water, he couldn’t distinguish a knife from fork.
Over the summer that I spent living my Orwellian weekends, I came to learn that myself and the head dishwasher were the only members of the clean-up crew that didn’t reside in either a halfway house for recently paroled convicts or a residential home for men with lower than normal IQs. This status allowed me the special privilege of being the only dishwasher allowed to clean the chef’s knives. I also was the only person that summer entrusted with fixing the sump pump and cleaning the grease traps.
As I’ve spent time in different kitchens in the years since, I’ve learned that there are two types of professional cooks: those who spent their formative years as dishwashers and those inconsiderate assholes that only know how to scorch pots. Professional kitchens are not havens of equality. They are built upon a traditional, Escoffier-instituted hierarchy that has worked for more than a century. No one is much in a hurry to change it. In the back of the house, the chef is king and the dishwasher is the lowest of the serfs. For most cooks, the ranked nobles of the kitchen, the dishwashers are untouchables not worth engaging in conversation. In that first, long ago dishwashing job, when I was washing pots and the chef was busy cutting meat at a nearby work table, we’d engage in conversation. If someone came within shouting distance, our conversation would cease. Upstairs in the kitchen, I was invisible unless it was my turn to be admonished for some unknown crime.
Most of the kitchens I’ve experienced through the years have a few common characteristics when it comes to their full-time, career dishwashers. Most dishwashers have been immigrants with limited local-language skills. In most restaurants, their shift starts long after the cooks have begun the evening preparations and dirtied most of the pots in the restaurant. When the cooks sit down for the evening’s family meal, the dishwasher sits apart from the others. Other than the requisite “hello” when they arrive in the kitchen for their shift, the interaction between the cooks and the dishwashers is minimal. In restaurants where the dish pit is separate from the kitchen, the contact is even less.
In some restaurants during prep and before the dishwasher arrives, when the kitchen runs short of cooking pots, the newest apprentice will be told to wash pots. They generally do a crappy job. In other places, I’ve seen the sous chef attend to the dirty pots during prep. When questioned why a member of the ruling class was washing pots, each one turned out to be a former member of the dishwashing fraternity.
In some kitchens, the facilities for washing pots is separate from the facilities for washing the serving plates and cutlery. In one French-countryside restaurant where I spent time over a series of stages, the dishwashing area was the domain of a woman from the village and the pot washing area was the realm of the cooks. This kitchen produced the fewest scorched pots of any I’ve worked in. In another much smaller kitchen, the dishwasher arrived earlier in the shift and helped with the basic prep work in between clean-up activities. Every restaurant is different and still similar.
Restaurant kitchens in high-end establishments are known for their high turnover of personnel. Both cooks and chefs are constantly playing musical chairs in this sector of the restaurant business. Initially, for cooks, this can be a way of advancing through the various cooking positions. As young cooks age, it begins to seem like a form of restlessness. By the time most are in their thirties, they are either at the helm of a restaurant or out of the kitchen. Walk into these same establishments and search for the dish pit. There you’ll most likely find a dishwasher that is one of the longest serving employees of the restaurant and possibly the oldest.
Although not as routine as an assembly line job, dishwashing has many repetitive elements that certain workers like. The job requires a native intelligence — few dishwashers are trained in their jobs and many are not fluent in the dominant language of the kitchen — of how to attack the work at hand. Every dirty pot or dish is the same and yet different. The variety of soiled dishes is the same every night, but the dishes come to the dishwasher in a different order requiring at least a little thinking as to which to wash next and how to arrange them in the racks for washing. For the dishwasher, there are a number of times during most service situations where they can achieve a certain satisfaction of having everything in their area washed, organized, and distributed. What looks like an impossible task in the form of dishes and pots piled high on the equipment and maybe even on the floor in front of the dishwashing area looks like an opportunity to the dishwasher.
Dishwashers are responsible for maintaining the equipment they use. Line cooks are not only responsible for the kitchen working properly but are often responsible for the short life of equipment they mistreat. While cooks move rapidly and sometimes carelessly through the kitchen, dishwashers move purposely. The cook, when finished with a pot or pan, throws the item in a tote for the dishwasher to pick up. When the dishwasher returns clean dishes or cooking equipment to the kitchen, the process is performed at a slower, careful pace to prevent damage.
After the chef, the dishwasher is the most powerful person in a modern kitchen. Few restaurants have sufficient plates, glasses, or cutlery to make it completely through a single service. The same is true for the pots and pans used in the kitchen. It is the responsibility of the dishwasher to maintain a clean supply of every item required. All a dishwasher has to do to halt service is to slow his or her work or wash around a needed item. More than once, because of some private issue between two individuals, I’ve seen a dishwasher delay the washing of a needed frying pan or misplace a critical machine part to get back at a line cook during service.
Not all interpersonal issues in the dish pit are due to bad relationships between the cooks and the dishwasher. Some dishwashers seem to simply be grumpy people. Whether it is the job or life outside of the restaurant, a foul-tempered dishwasher can affect the temperament of the entire kitchen is left unchecked by the chef. These unchecked emotions are more of a problem when the dish pit is in the kitchen instead of a separate area.
The relationship between the cooks and the dishwasher is also affected by the background of the cooks. Even though some culinary schools require the students to wash their own dishes and other equipment, the graduates generally do not treat dishwashers with the same respect as cooks trained on the job, often starting in the dish pit, will.
Dishwashers may be the serfs of the kitchen, serving the king and the nobles, but uprisings do occur. The domain is always most peaceful and functions best when the serfs are well-treated and happy. If a noble, I mean a cook, quits, the kitchen continues to produce food. If the serf quits, the kingdom is unable to function until a replacement is found.
cook tops are really touchy
The kitchen stays cool.