Typically discounted, often maligned, frequently abused, and rarely appreciated (until he or she doesn’t show up) – the dishwasher is actually the most important employee in the kitchen. Cooks may scoff, chefs will dismiss, and owners have no opinion whatsoever, but I stand by my statement regarding a dishwasher’s importance to the kitchen and the restaurant. Dishwashers rule!
Surely, a talented cook and a seasoned chef are far more important than someone who passes racks through a machine. Without a doubt the baker who arrives at 3 a.m. should be more revered for his or her skill than a meager dishwasher. There can be little doubt that the person who runs the front of the house and builds customer loyalty is far superior to someone who dives for pearls in the three-bay sink – right?? I mean, dishwashers come and go. It is rare to find someone holding this position to last more than a couple months before he or she is never heard from again. Dishwashers are notoriously undependable to the point where many chefs just continually hire new ones even if they don’t need them today – realizing that they will likely need them tomorrow.
Let’s take a moment to rationalize why my statement of importance might be (is) true.
- EQUIPMENT: In most cases, the single most expensive piece of equipment in your restaurant is the dish machine. Caring for this valuable tool is the lowest paid employee in your kitchen. Failure to fill the tanks adequately, monitor the heat booster, properly clean the machine of lime scale, or pay attention to the signs of stress in that machine may cause significant expense for the operation, and in some cases operational paralysis if the machine breaks down on a Saturday night.
- CHEMICALS: Some of the most expensive staples in a kitchen are not the proteins and vegetables in your cooler, but rather the soaps, drying agents, and de-liming solutions that keep your china clean. The person responsible for the management of these costly ingredients is the lowest paid employee in your kitchen.
- CHINA, GLASSWARE, and FLATWARE: One of the more expensive inventories in your restaurant is the china, glassware, and flatware that you keep in use. Quality food must be respected by using quality tabletop appointments. That Italian bone china that the chef enjoys using as the canvas for his or her creations may cost $15-$30 per plate. The Riedel glassware to support your perfect wine list can be $20 a stem or more. The sterling flatware that complements the pricy menu items that you take care to present can easily run into many thousands of dollars to maintain an inventory to support three turns in the dining room. All-in-all, this inventory of chefs canvas, sommeliers vessels, and adequately impressive flatware can represent tens of thousands of dollars that must be cared for, spotless before use, and replaced frequently when chipped or broken through mishandling. The person responsible for the maintenance and management of this inventory is the lowest paid employee in the kitchen and probably the restaurant.
- INTERACTION WITH AND SUPPORT OF COOKS: Just as important as the station cook standing next to you is the support received from the dish washer/pot washer. Line cooks are constantly calling for clean sauté pans, sizzle plates, replacement tongs, spoons, and ladles, and back-ups on every plate size and shape to support the menu. There can be no delay- when these items are needed they are needed immediately. The dish washer is always multi-tasking between pre-washing plates, running items through the machine, changing wash water, stacking and delivering plates and flatware, keeping up with an endless stream of pots and pans from cooks hungry for every piece of equipment in the kitchen, and those action items demanded by line cooks.
- EVERYONE’S PUNCHING BAG: The lack of respect for the dishwasher is apparent in every kitchen. There was an old song from Arlo Gutherie where he stated that one redeeming quality of bad situations is that “Someone always has it worse than you.” He goes on to ask: “But, what about the last guy – who has it worse than the last guy?” The dishwasher in a kitchen is the last guy. Everyone gives this employee directives, no one ever offers to listen to his or her concerns, and all intentionally or unintentionally consider that dishwasher – the last guy.
- THE DEMISE OF THE KITCHEN SYSTEM: We talk a great deal about the importance of mise en place, sticking to the foundations of solid cooking, working well as a team, being consistent with flavors and plate presentations, respecting the ingredients and their source, and the beauty of a perfectly orchestrated service. What we sometimes forget is what happens to all of this when the dishwasher fails to show up or walks off the job under total distress. When those dishes pile up, no one is there to respond to the line cooks demands, cooks actually need to wash their own pots and pans, the dining room starts to run out of clean flatware, and the $20 Riedel glassware is covered in water spots – the empire begins to crumble. If you want to see a kitchen brought down to its’ knees then be around when the dishwasher is absent.
- WHERE DO YOU THINK THE NEXT WAVE OF PREP COOKS AND LINE COOKS COME FROM: Throughout time, kitchens have operated loosely under the design of the apprentice system. They may not always follow the formally designed program of structured learning, but rest assured many of tomorrows cooks are today’s dishwashers. Treat them with respect and they will develop an interest in learning more and moving up. Treat them like crap and it suddenly becomes just a meager paycheck. The later situation does not inspire loyalty, dedication, interest, team, or passion. The later employee will leave without notice, arrive late, fail to show up at all, or walk off the job totally frustrated and demoralized.
So, what is the answer? We need to start with understanding and appreciation. I doubt that any chef or cook could disagree with what is stated above. This is the world of the dishwasher and this is the reality of his or her importance to the operation. Understand this and appreciate the employee for his or her role. Take the time to express this appreciation on occasion. Require every cook to role up his or her sleeves for a few minutes every day to help this important employee – the chef might do the same. Realize what you say and what you do in reference to treating this employee as integral to the team rather than an after thought. Understand the importance of their management of the equipment and inventory that is at the heart of the restaurant operation. Know that the potential is always there to transition this employee to your next breakfast cook, prep cook, and beyond. Treat them well and your dishwashers will be loyal, will take their job seriously, and will contribute greatly to the success of your team.
Salute to all of the dishwashers out there!