Diatribe With Dave: An Ode to the Unsung and Lowly Dishwasher

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All photos by Dave Mau, if you already haven't got the drift...
Jesús at Memphis
Every second and fourth Wednesday night of the month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau hosts Dinner With Dave at Memphis At the Santora, where he treats drinkers to a free meal and live music as the evening progresses. To remind ustedes of this great night, Dave treats us every Wednesday morning to a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!

Few outside the food and beverage world 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.

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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. And the only place worse to catch it than behind the bar is at the dish station, where you are exposed to even more potent degreasers, solvents and astringent compounds.

I hate doing dishes, but I'll jump back there if we are short-dicked one night because la migra picked one of our guys up. My first gig was at the Claremont Colleges Faculty House, where I worked under fresh-off-the-boat-from-Palm-Springs Chef Nat Gambino and his pantry guy, Jesús. 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 the 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 sitting on the stainless-steel shelf above the dish station.
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Celso, before he left

It's 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. That doesn't mean that his/her efforts are any less important to the grand scheme of the restaurant biz; it just means he/she gets the biggest bite of the back-of-house shit sandwich, of which all of us in the biz get a nibble. 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 cloaca), or dark, cold kitchens of European castles, there has always been someone 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 NYC, where all the back-of-house guys seem to come from Puebla). They all have the same things in common, though: coming here to make a few bucks, get away from the narcos back home, and hopefully send the familia some spending money. I've seen some dishwashers become very talented chefs, and it's a great way for someone new to the country to get a 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 toward their duties. Most others, however, hustle, grind and start to read your mind as though they're Radar O'Rielly from M*A*S*H, handing you a necessary implement a moment before you even realize you need it. Those are ones you keep, and at some point, they become more valuable to the operation than even the most skilled floor managers. A dishwasher who 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.
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And Know Nothings say our immigrants don't want to learn English . . .

So the next time you go out to eat or are awestruck by whomever the current douchebag celebrity chef du joir is, don't forget about this unheralded cog in the restaurant machine. While you are driving home in your new BMW 7 Series, he is, at best, driving his beat-up '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 be 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.

Want more of Dave's rantings/ravings/ramblings? Check out www.dinnerwithdave.com for the latest!





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3 comments
Seth A. Weil
Seth A. Weil

Great and well written article as usual.

Lisa Plant
Lisa Plant

I applied for a job as a dishwasher...they said I didn't have enough experience. Um, collect dishes, rinse off dishes, put dishes in dishwasher, add soap. If they just didn't want to hire me, they could have came up with a less insulting excuse!

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