Thursday, June 11, 2009

Critic-Turned-Cook Hits The Pit

Critic Turned Cook follows former Seattle Post-Intelligencer food critic Leslie Kelly on her journey away from the keyboard and into the kitchen as she trains at various Tom Douglas restaurants.

Can I please see a show of hands among veteran cooks of who got their start working the dish pit? It's a dirty job, but a foot in the door. One of the more memorable passages in Soul of a Chef, the book by Michael Ruhlman, is the image of a young Thomas Keller sweeping floors in his first restaurant. Scut work is hard and humbling, but it builds character, right? Makes you appreciate your spot on the line.

That's what I kept telling myself as I took my turn in the steamy dish pit at Shultzy's, a slamming-busy college pub near the University of Washington, where the lunch rush often means the dining room runs out of dishes. There's no dishwasher on staff, so everybody pitches in. The first day on the job, I saw the Mom-and-Pop owners, Don and Susan Shultze, take turns in the pit. "The problem is my glasses get steamed up," Susan said, as she cleaned out the muck that had fallen off the plates.

Initially, I was squeamish about touching people's used food. Ewww, became my mantra as I scraped plates. But I quickly got over that feeling, and powered through racks of dishes before a server showed up to relieve me. He insisted that he didn't mind. "I love coming back here at night and cranking the music," he said. "Yeah, it's kind of like going to the spa," I joked.

As a critic, I often thought of the dishwasher as the unsung hero on the culinary team, the oil that keeps the machine running. Especially at restaurants that make their reputations on tasting menus, with so many plates to clean. At The Herbfarm, a destination restaurant outside Seattle, the entire staff is introduced before the meal, including the dishwasher. Let's all give those hard-working plate jockeys a hand!

a big hand.
to Elio, Gerrardo, Juan, Geoff, Jorge, Minar, Adam, Nate, Emil, Pac Man, Pelon, Oscar, Paul, and all the other dishwashers whose names I can't remember right now,
wherever you are,

intheyearofthepig at 2:50PM on 06/11/09
I used to own and manage a fine dining restaurant and there is no more important staff position than the pearl diver. If you find one that is semi-sober and will show up for his shifts---he (or she) is worth his (or her) weight in gold. Do whatever it takes to make that person happy!!

joerob7 at 2:56PM on 06/11/09
Amen, @joerob7! A stellar dishdog deserves linecook pay, and the utmost respect. And it was never a job I minded doing...I loved training the new ones!

Cary at 2:59PM on 06/11/09
My first job was a busboy, then dishwasher at a very large and busy Woolworth's food counter. Had I received the accolades being dished out here I may have stayed. I got the lowest wage, no respect as a person and no share in the tips. That ended after a summer and I never went back into food service for pay. My next jobs were as a construction laborer; no more physically strenuous than busing and washing but paid three to four times better. The one thing I gleaned from the experience was a fascination for doing even humble foods well. Maybe that summer of humiliation was my tuition being paid in full.

czken at 4:47PM on 06/11/09
there's nothing like being handed a stack of white-hot, greasy skillets. washing the cutlery and dishes is a cake walk compared to washing the carbon-crusted filthy pots and pans for the line.
combine that with cleaning up the vomit in bathrooms, taking care of the gnarliest, most disgusting smelling garbage for less than minimum wage & no health care.
unsung heroes for sure!

dmarina at 6:05PM on 06/11/09
Doesn't strike me as a a great job.

redfish at 8:35PM on 06/11/09
I started on my journey to chefdom in the pit of a crazy busy tourist spot in my home town. The dishwasher was one of those tiny models that are meant to be put behind a bar for glassware. Brutal. I remember thinking that dishwashers were the real backbone of the industry and having fantasies about a dishwashers union.

Nowadays when I get the opportunity to toss some suds it feels like a nostalgic vacation.

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