Everything I Know I Learned From Dishwashing

Ok, so the title of this post is a little over exaggerated, however, the discernible similarities between scraping plates and my world views are uncanny if not amusing, to say the least. I hope you can also find the similarities wherever you may find yourself working.

the background

Weekends, over the last five months, have been monopolized by a small restaurant in south east Portland. Why, you may be asking, would I give up my hard earned weekends, to work more— when I already work 40 hour a week?!

Because I wanted something bad enough.

Saving for a year of travel for one’s self and one’s offspring can sound unsurmountable and a touch looney. Agreed. But that is what I wanted and so I set about making it happen. I made a budget that included funneling almost all of my grown-up day job paycheck into a savings account each month, that I did not have full access to– I could deposit but could not withdraw.

And I figured out what small, below poverty line, income/job I could survive off of while my unconventional, albeit quite successful, savings plan was in full swing.

The service industry. Of course.

I had one stipulation and it was: as little and as brief contact with the general public as possible. So now that narrowed it down to a back of house position, which I successfully got. I have worked in the service industry off and on for 10 years. I also have a college degree and post grad work under my belt. However, like flies to that unsavory pile of shit, those of us who have worked in the trenches before know that, regardless of what degrees or experience we may hold out in the real world, the quickest (legal) way for money to be made is in the service industry. And so we return.

deep thoughts

It’s funny what you think about when elbow deep in dirty sink water, finger banging a clogged drain donning thick, blue, fish monger gloves. Initially, there is some self-pity, but that passes quickly. Typically followed by some unreassuring platitude about how hard work builds character. And as you finally dig that chicken wing bone out of the drain and the greasy swill slowly drains, you are left, brow furled, pondering the many similarities of kitchen work to life’s little lessons.


enter new situations with finesse

Ramekins, spoons, and bowls are the vessels of liquids, purees, sauces, and other non-solid menu items. Spoons bridge the gap between table and mouth, ramekins allow for stylish side-dish dunking, and bowls cradle stews, gazpachos and even juicy ceviches. Once a customer has had their fill and the dirty plates are collected and sent to the dish pit, these receptacles need to be rinsed out before being sent through the sanitizer/wash. An overconfident or just total newbie will grab the dish pit hose, and point blank with full water pressure (!) attempt to rinse off these capricious containers without even thinking of the variables in play, and the possible, horrible outcome: steaming hot, watery blue cheese dressing spraying across their face, burning eyes and nostrils for the rest of the shift.

Dish water will inevitable shoot up directly into your face and soak your frontside if you don’t fist understand: the dish you are dealing with, at which angle to hold it for optimal cleaning, and the appropriate water pressure to use. Once you take the short time to understand this about each dish (or work dispute, or human you are interacting with) you are able to approach each scenario with confidence, and a better understanding of how to get the best results without douching yourself in chipotle mayonnaise–or getting fired, or ending a friendship.

eat dessert first

It is a busy weekend night and the restaurant is bustling with diners and the bar’s packed with loners and couples alike. We are all in the zone, precise and meticulous service, food coming out on point, and more people lining up at the door. One of the chefs walked back to the prep area and begins cutting a large piece of chocolate cake, chuckling to himself.

“What is it?” I ask.

“They ordered dessert first. Fuck yeah.”

You can take this little life nugget figuratively or literally, either way, it is the truth and the way.

Eat dessert first, because life is short. Do not hold back, do what radiates your joy on your terms.

Curious about wearing nothing but fishnet stockings under your waders while fly fishing?? DO IT. Want to eat nothing but ice cream for dinner every night this week?? I dare you.


having someone’s back

It was another busy weekend night and front of house ran out of silverware. I dumped the huge bucket soaking all of the cutlery onto a slatted tray and gave it a good rinse off with the hose, but not before slicing my finger open on a renegade steak knife. I pulled my hand back and looked at the damage, just a seemingly small cut… then the blood surfaced. I ran over to the prep sink and washed my hand, which was now pulsating and hot. I wrapped some paper towels around my finger and held my arm above my head, pacing back and forth looking for bandaids. One of the chefs ran back looking for some missing ingredient from the line and glanced over at me.

“You ok? Shit, what happened? Did you cut yourself?

“Yeah, it’s nothing.” I said, not noticing the stream of blood running down my arm.

She dropped what she was doing and disappeared around the corner, returning seconds later with a medical supply stash. Bare-handed, she removed my blood-soaked paper towel and applied a wound gel directly to my cut, bandaged it up, and expertly rolled one of those little rubber finger condoms down over the injury. As she washed her hands, she tossed over her shoulder,

“Are you gonna be ok? Does it hurt?”

“I’m fine, thanks. Thank you!”

And with a smile, replied, “Ok then, get back to work, pussy.” And ran back to her line.

I’m no theologean, but that shit was Christ like.

When someone on your team is down. Pick them up. If a person you consider a friend, lover, co-worker, etc is struggling, help them out. Truly mean it and do it with conviction. Having someone genuinely care about your outcome is priceless, no matter how small the cut.


don’t do crack

I think that we can all agree that flirting with the dark underbelly of  hard drugs will lead to nothing but misery for yourself and others. Few come out unscathed. That being said, my job is located on the cusp of a small, burgeoning foodie district bordered by a notorious area of the city unofficially called Felony Flats. Our clientele consists mostly of neighborhood locals and families, but due to the proximity of the “hood” just a few blocks east, we also get some wild cards.

The man who came in and sat up at the bar and ordered a beer. He had clearly defecated himself earlier. The stench was far reaching and filled the entire dinning room within minutes. He was quietly asked to finish his beer outside.

The young woman who was on a trip to the moon, and decided to make her lift-off launchpad our parking lot. She was on a 4 or 5 hour tweak, hiding amongst the recycling and jumping out at people getting into their cars. She was asked to take the party elsewhere, and obliged.

A shirtless, shoeless octogenarian rummaging through our bottle recycling, lapping at the last drops of booze left behind in the discarded bottles.

I’m not using their misfortune or misguidence as a learning opportunity for myself or for others, just this: Everything in moderation, friends.


take pride in your work

Whatever the work may be. I have worked with non-profits, volunteered many a weekend planting trees, and have held down a government job for longer than I wanted, but nothing defines your true work ethic than having to participate in the most unsavory to get a job done. Scrubbing down walls caked in spicy red, fish sauce jizz? Done it. Leaving the stainless steel dish room spotless and sparkling after a brutal 5 hour shift? That’s my signature. I know the hungover dish boy won’t notice it in the morning, but I do know the owner/brunch chef will immediately take stock of her domain and nod approvingly as she makes her way to the kitchen. I know that at the end of the night, I have busted my ass to make sure the bar never runs out of glassware, the cast iron pans are hand scrubbed and hand dried, and I’ve made a few of my coworkers laugh by making an offhanded comment about table 9 and their loud ass kids.

I clock out and belly up to the bar for my shift drink, feeling content in the blood and sweat I have given that night to the establishment that signs my checks.

in the end

Any knucklehead with one good eye and both their thumbs can dishwash. It doesn’t take a degree or expert knowledge to sweep a floor, but it does require good humor, hustle, and an attitude of irreverence for the task at hand. With my time at the restaurant, I dabbled in prep cooking, bar backing, and any other odd job that needed my attention while also maintaining an orderly dish pit, blaring The Clash or some horribly wonderful 90s music that brought momentary relief to any server running to the back to fill up an ice bucket for the bar. Every night I left with a pocketful of tips, a belly full of drink and food, another day closer to my goal, and knowing that I had made some damn fine friends.


Photo credit here




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