Chefs say the pot washer can make or break a restaurant. So I signed up for a shift

After a night of scrubbing and hosing, food critic Tom Sietsema understands why top chefs are trying to give the position of pot washer its due credit

Tom Sietsema
Monday 14 August 2017 13:40
Show me a chef who sings the praises of pot washers and, chances are, he or she has spent time 'diving for pearls'
Show me a chef who sings the praises of pot washers and, chances are, he or she has spent time 'diving for pearls'

My dish hose has a mind of its own.

Every time I use it to spray water on to a dirty plate, it splashes clean whatever it touches — and shoots much of the detritus back into my face. By the end of my shift, I’ve ingested specks of just about every dish at this restaurant: rice, seafood, salsa, black beans, you name it. And each time I set the wriggling rubber snake down between tasks, it repositions itself, obliging me to apologise to colleagues for soaking more than just myself.

Until recently, the most dishes I’ve ever washed were at home, after a dinner party for 10. So why would I sign up to do it at a 250-seat restaurant? Because I wanted to experience firsthand the job that CNN star Anthony Bourdain says taught him “every important lesson of my life”, and the one New York chef Daniel Boulud calls “the best way to enter the business”.

Chef Ortega at Caracol, the largest of his five restaurants, in Houston. He got his start in the business as a pot washer

Plenty of bandwidth has been lavished on the men and women who cook the food, pour the wine and otherwise pamper us in restaurants. Scant attention has been paid to some of the lowest-paid workers with the most responsibility, the ones chefs say are the linchpins of the restaurant kitchen. “You can’t have a successful service in a restaurant without a great dishwasher,” says Emeril Lagasse, the New Orleans-based chef and author with 14 restaurants across the country. “Bad ones will bring the ship down.”

After years of performing tasks no one else wants to do — cleaning nasty messes, taking out trash, polishing Japanese wine glasses priced at $66 a stem — the unsung heroes of the kitchen might be finally getting their due.

This spring, chef Rene Redzepi of the world-renowned Noma, in Copenhagen, made headlines when he made his dishwasher, Ali Sonko, a partner in his business. The Gambian native helped Redzepi open the landmark restaurant in 2003. And in July, workers at the esteemed French Laundry in Yountville, California, voted to give their most prestigious company honour, the Core Award, to a dishwasher: Jaimie Portillo, who says he has never missed a day of work in seven years.

The median annual wage for the 500,000 or so pot washers in the United States is about $20,000 (£15,000), up only $4,000 from just over a decade ago. But a few restaurants, including the French Laundry, give pot washers the stature of sous chefs and extend titles that capture the broad range of responsibilities.

 A pot washer at Manhattan restaurant Daniel cleans silverware during dinner service

“We don’t call them pot washers, but porters,” says Keller, who got his start washing dishes in his mother’s restaurant, the late Bay & Surf. “We give them the same respect we give anyone else in the restaurant.” Indeed, the only difference between the embroidered uniforms worn by his chefs and his porters are the latter’s short sleeves.

When I start my shift at Caracol, an upscale Mexican seafood restaurant in Houston, Keller’s words are echoing in my head: “Everyone in the restaurant depends on you,” he told me. “If there are no glasses, drinks don’t get served. If there is no silverware, tables can’t get set. If there are no pots or pans, food doesn’t get cooked.”

Yes, chef.

Plunging in

“The main concern for pot washers is not to get injured by hot pans, broken glass or sharp knives,” Hugo Ortega tells me before my seven-hour shift. Caracol is the largest of his five restaurants, one of which includes Backstreet Cafe, where the recent James Beard Award winner got his start in the business in 1987 — as a dish washer and a Mexican immigrant speaking no English.

Ortega’s imagery suggests a war zone, especially for a volunteer recruit with some notable handicaps, including inexperience with pots the size of planters and the layout of a 3,300-square-foot kitchen. In my favour, there are just 77 reservations on the books this evening. Instead of the usual four potwashers, there will be three, including me.

Caracol has welcomed me with a black shirt, vented cap, industrial-strength plastic apron and a plastic container of water labelled with my name. For tonight, I’m “Tomas.”

My minders — pot washers Esteban Soc, 30, and Joselino Aguilar, 19, both from Guatemala — are wearing black trash bags, with holes torn out for their heads, over their black shirts. For their efforts here, the pot washers earn $10 an hour, an invitation to join the staff for a family meal, health insurance and a week’s paid vacation after a year of service. The presence of an interpreter (to help with my interviews) reminds me how lonely their job must sometimes be.

Pots the size of planters: Abdoul Sylla works in the kitchen of Daniel, one of chef Daniel Boulud's restaurants in New York

Steps away from the diningroom’s oyster bar, the dish washing station is fronted with rubbish cans into which servers empty uneaten food, and lined with an L-shaped stainless steel counter. On one side waiters put like dishes together, and on the other side cooks deposit dirty equipment. At the start of the shift, the counter closest to the kitchen is already littered with utensils from the prep cooks and dishes from late lunchers and early happy-hour customers.

At Caracol, the pot washers take turns rinsing, sorting and moving dishes through the conveyor-type machine, and taking them out, sorting them on a steel table and delivering them to stations where other staff members dry the silver and stemware. I watch Soc and Aguilar for a while before asking to relieve first one, then the other.

By far, the messiest chore is the front end of the business.

A cutting board with an orange stain sends everyone around me into crying jags when I spray it down. Note to self: hot water on habanero oil creates tear gas. Also, unlike at home, the five-second rule does not apply. So when I drop a mixing bowl, snatch it up and show it to one of my mentors, he nods in the direction of the dishwasher rather than the sorting table.

I push a full rack into the dish washing machine, where it gets blasted with 160-degree water and a solution of detergent and a drying agent, emerging 30 seconds later. Well, most of the time. When I send a large cutting board into the washer sans rack, it brings the machine to a halt and forces my teammates to open a metal door in the centre to remove the obstacle.

A little mindless, the repetition can be frantic. Remember the “I Love Lucy” episode where Lucy and Ethel fail to keep up with a conveyor belt of chocolates in need of wrapping? That was me, only with plates and pans instead of candy.

Taking a cue from Soc, who whistles to pass the time, I stop rinsing individual plates and arrange them in racks before dousing them with water, saving valuable time — and collecting less of Caracol’s menu on myself. My teammates smile their approval.

“You’re hired!” jokes Aguilar.

Tomorrow’s chefs

Show me a chef who sings the praises of pot washers and, chances are, he or she has spent time “diving for pearls”. That’s how restaurant consultant Paul Sorgule describes searching for dishes beneath soap bubbles.

Ulises Olmos, an executive sous chef, works the line during dinner service at Boulud Sud in Manhattan. Olmos began as a pot washer at Cafe Boulud in 2005

“If you want to be a chef, you need to wash dishes first,” says Sorgule, former vice-president of the New England Culinary Institute. “If you don’t know where things go or how a kitchen functions — who does what and where — you have no business.” As the executive chef of the Mirror Lake Inn Resort and Spa in Lake Placid, Sorgule required interns to wash dishes for a week before cooking. He also made sure to wash dishes himself nearly every day for 15 to 30 minutes, to “show it’s everyone’s job” to pitch in. Similarly, to remind servers to show porters respect, Boulud occasionally demonstrates how to arrange dirty wares to make less work for cleaners: mise en place in the dish pit!

Among the graduates of grunt work are, like Keller and Bourdain, some of the most respected brands in the business. They include: Michael Schlow, the Boston-based chef with six Washington restaurants in his portfolio; Gonzalo Guzmán, the San Francisco chef whose popular Nopalito inspired the new cookbook, “Nopalito: A Mexican Kitchen”; and Lagasse, who recalls washing dishes in a Portuguese bakery in his native Fall River, when he was just 11.

Their entry points illustrate different paths to chefdom. A 14-year-old Schlow lied about his age to wash dishes in New Jersey. “It was hard, hot, sweaty work, but I loved it.” Guzmán left work in an auto shop and factory in Mexico to join his father in San Francisco, where he initially worked for food but so impressed his bosses he went from three days a week to five and moved on to a prep-cook station within months.

What pot washers-turned-chefs share is a desire to give a helping hand to the people they used to be, ever ready to pitch in and willing to learn something new. Because many workers come from immigrant backgrounds and speak minimal English, Schlow plans to offer free language instruction for any of his Washington employees, an idea he first executed in Boston.

At the Italian-themed Alta Strada in Washington, Schlow has promoted two potwashers to mid-level cooking posts. One of them, Edwin Villatora, is so good at his craft he’s known as Mr Pizza. Guzmán developed three senior cooks from the dish pit. “Hire people who have dreams,” he says. Ortega estimates 100 former pot washers have gone on to loftier positions within his Houston-based company.

In a clear allusion to current immigration issues in the United States, Keller says of porters: “Today, it’s important they feel they are needed and respected.”

His peers concur. Lagasse designed his most recent kitchen, Meril in New Orleans, with ware washers in mind, placing their larger-than-usual station closer to both kitchen and dining room and incorporating a storage area in the layout. Meanwhile, at Cafe Boulud in New York, a staff meal of posole with pig’s head created by a porter was so well-received, the Mexican dish went on to star on the restaurant’s Voyage (non-French) menu.

Guzmán says he knows he’s a better chef for having cleaned pots and pans and worked his way up in the kitchen. “Cooking school doesn’t prepare you for a broken dishwasher,” he says. Plus, when his staff complains, “I know what people are talking about.”

While Boulud, as a young apprentice in Lyon, France, only occasionally washed dishes, he can always tell which cooks started that way: “When you learn to clean dishes,” says the French chef, “you learn to dirty fewer pots and pans.”

As hectic and dirty as dish duty can be, some food figures have taken a measure of comfort in water, soap and elbow grease.

“I was a happy dishwasher,” says Bourdain. The job “was the first time I went home proud of myself after a day’s work, the first time I wanted the respect and worked for the respect of others. Pot washing was, in a world of gray areas, and ambiguity, absolute: dishes went in dirty. They came out clean. You either kept up the pace or you didn’t. Merit was immediately and measurably apparent.”

Lessons for life

A pattern sets in. I look forward to seeing white plates, no matter their size (so easy to rinse and rack!) and sigh at the sight of the snail-shaped bowls used to serve guacamole (hard to clean, given the interior ridges). I don’t mind the deep pots or even the mixing bowls. My arms are long. But for someone who still fumbles with a food processor at home, thoroughly cleaning its interlocking parts in a restaurant that seemingly never sleeps is a pain.

Pot washer Esteban Soc is stacking plates while working in the kitchen at Caracol 

The single worst object to wash? The pewter platters for the oysters, which are lined with rock salt and spend time in Caracol’s 600-degree wood-fired oven (staffed mostly by former pot washers). The coarse salt sticks to the hot pans like white on rice; a blast from the power hose is rarely enough, so only a thorough hand scrubbing with salt (and sometimes bleach) will do.

In stark contrast to the dining room, the potwashing area is steamy and wet and loud, as if a generator were sharing our work station. Heavy webbed rubber mats minimise slipping, but early on, my tennis shoes are as wet as a Brillo pad. None of us is wearing gloves. Too cumbersome. Except when I’m stacking or ferrying dishes, my hands are never dry.

My colleagues’ work ethic is heroic. The slightest pause in the action, and they’re looking for something to do, whether it’s returning a 40-quart, half-their-size mixing bowl to its proper station or taking out the trash, which involves manoeuvering plastic bins full of solids and liquids through the confines of the kitchen, through a cooler and a storage room and the rear of Caracol. The bins are too heavy for one person to hoist up and over a big metal garbage bin, a task I learn the hard way when some of the contents from a slippery trash bag make contact with my uniform. I’m joking when I ask my minders if they’d run me through the dishwasher, too, but the truth is, I can’t wait to get back to my hotel and shower.

Nearing the end of my shift, I ask my fellow pot washers what hurts most after a shift. “I’m just tired,” Soc says and Aguilar echoes.

Sing it, brothers. My feet and back ache, but my pride is hurt most of all. Not until I’m about to surrender my apron do I notice a hook on which I could have rested the animated dish hose.

I ask Aguilar: How does this compare to the construction work you did back home? “It’s easy,” he says.

Tonight’s takeaways are many, and they include advice from Bourdain, who says his time at the sink “served me well on all the twists and turns of my life, and in whatever industry”. In an email, he wrote, “respect the people you work with who work hard . . . shut up and learn . . . and be prepared to accept that you might well be the stupidest person in the room.”

No doubt, a restaurant’s dirtiest job is one of the most crucial, a point nailed home by Ortega when he says pot washers need a title that better reflects their many contributions.

He likes “the finisher”.

© Washington Post

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