Few outside F&B have experienced what is termed “bar rot” but believe me, it’s nasty. It comes from spending hours upon hours with your hands submerged in the various cleaning/sanitizing solutions required by your local, friendly health department. I’ve had it bad, seen it worse, and it’s no walk in the park. It starts with a bit of soreness around your index and middle fingers, soon progressing into rotten cuticles, infected fingernails and horribly painful cracks around your thumbnail that are spectacularly agonizing when exposed to citrus or salt and can lead to skin loss. I’m not insinuating for a second it’s as bad as what farmers, welders or Army bomb disposal people go through but it’s surprisingly gnarly for an industry as otherwise polished as ours.
I hate doing dishes but I’ll jump back there if we are short-dicked one night because the la migra picked one of our guys up. My first gig doing dishes was at the Claremont Colleges Faculty House where I worked under the fresh-off-the-boat-from-Palm-Springs Chef Nat Gambino and his pantry guy Jesus. That was a lesson, believe me. It’s not an easy life back there. Like sliding around on greasy, slippery anti-fatigue mats? Sweet. Dig getting burned by hot pans, doing menial prep work and mopping floors? That’s job for you!
All the glamour is out front. The champagne and cocaine is reserved for a privileged few but you can bet they need someone to clean up the puke and sweep up the batman baggies and bindles. And the only upside to their job is free food and the Banda or Ranchera music blaring from their beat up ghetto blaster on the stainless steel shelf above the dish station.
It is said behind every great man there’s a woman and believe me behind every great chef there is some poor slob scraping plates, emptying trash and drying silverware somewhere. That doesn’t mean that his/hers efforts are any less important to grand scheme of the restaurant biz, it just means they get the biggest bite of the back of house shit sandwich. And prostitution may be the world’s oldest profession but I bet washing dishes is right behind it. Whether in the smoke filled eateries of ancient China, grand Roman cavalcades (with frequent trips to the vomitorium) or dark, cold kitchens of European castles there has always been someone there at the bottom of the culinary totem pole doing work that most others won’t. Maybe it’s easier with a cushy union gig at Disney or some hotel but there really isn’t much upside to it.
It seems most of the super lavasplatos hail from Jalisco and Mexico City, and for some reason all the pinche cocineros are all from Guadalajara unless you are in New York City where all the back of house guys seem to come from Puebla. They all have one thing in common though, coming here to make a few bucks and get away from the narcos back home. I’ve seen some dishwashers become very talented chefs and it’s a great way for someone that is new to the country (and maybe not able to work legally) to get their foot in the door. Now, there are some for sure that are there to do the minimum, milk the clock and display a general malaise towards their duties. Most others, however, hustle, grind and start to read your mind like Radar O’Rielly from MASH, handing you a necessary implement a moment before you even realize you need it. Those are ones you keep and believe me at some point they become more valuable to the operation than even the most skilled of floor managers. A dishwasher that knows how to unclog that grease trap in a timely fashion without calling a plumber is going to save plenty of money and headaches in the long run.
So the next time you go out to eat or are awestruck by whomever the current celebrity chef du joir is don’t forget about this unheralded cog in the restaurant machine. While you are driving home in you new 7 series he is, at best, driving his ’92 Sentra or, at worst, on a bike or the bus. And going home to a rented room somewhere where there may or may not have three families living under one roof. So maybe, just maybe, poke your head in back some time to say thank you and slip them a 20 spot. Trust me, they aren’t making any money; they could use the propinas.