It is nearly Christmas. The year is drawing to a close and I realize I will again be late on rent at the start of month. There is work available in my old friend Boron’s restaurant. He calls and asks, with a certain note of desperation, if I might be able to fill a dishwashing position recently vacated to, as he terms it, get him through the holidays. This is a notoriously busy time of year for restaurants, hotels, and other fixtures of the hospitality industry, when families come together, travelers arrive in town, and large companies plan large parties to spend excessive amounts of money on food and drink.
A lot has changed – Boron tells me over the phone – I’ve had to make a few adjustments. All for the better, of course. The service industry is a volatile thing. Hospitality. What people expect. We must adapt or fall behind.
I am to meet with him today to talk and take a tour of the restaurant. I wait for him at the bar, sitting on a stool and staring ahead at the colored bottles of cognac, chartreuse, fernet, gin and whiskey arranged neatly on back-lit shelves. My toes barely touching the hexagonal penny tile of the floor. When I finally see him I almost do not recognize him – he is no longer the young teenager I once knew, bright-eyed, unwashed and underfed. He is now a hardened man of twenty-four, with multiple employees under his direction, and the state of a stylish restaurant in one of the city’s most refined districts to manage, the success of which – though not the profits – is entirely under his supervision.
He wears an ascot and polished shoes that click against the tile as he approaches me from his office. He shakes my hand in a dignified manner and says (as though reading my thoughts), It’s been quite a long time, hasn’t it?
Yes, it has.
And here we are again. He smiles at me. How long has it been?
Years. I say. You were only a dishwasher when I saw you last. I think we were both very hungry then.
This makes Boron laugh loudly. How things change! He says and claps me heartily on the back.
He takes me around the dishwashing station (the dish pit he calls it), the kitchen, storage, etc. Two hours till open! He shouts to the kitchen staff bustling behind the stainless steel counters of the line. We go to the basement where the prep area and walk-in cooler are tucked far away from the prying eyes of patrons.
This is my domain, he says, lifting his arms. Though – home-away-from-home would be a more accurate description.
You have full control of the restaurant?
Oh no – Boron shakes his head and blows his nose into a handkerchief – no, not full control. I do the planning, the work day-to-day, but it is still the owner (the man behind the curtain) who gets to decide yes or no.
The benefit of owning a restaurant – he says, with an accepting half-smile – is simply to have somewhere to eat without need of ever making a reservation. It is a symbol of status and wealth. There is no artistry to it anymore, no romance, no vivacity…
He pauses, shaking his head.
You can start tonight, he tells me then, putting his hand on my shoulder. If you’re able. It is the weekend, after all. We have 200 reserved already for this evening. Do you think you will be ready?
And you remember everything I showed you?
Good. Boron nods, turns and returns to the floor upstairs, disappearing into the clang of pots and pans, the smell of gas stoves and butter and red wine, the shouts and the fury of pre-dinner preparations.
My stomach rumbles, empty. I haven’t eaten all day. Thankfully, the kitchen sets out family meal along the line before the shift begins: an assortment of leftover onion soup and fatty potatoes, the unusable ends of steaks and sausages, baked goods from the day before that are no longer sellable for staff to eat their fill. I take a bowl back to the dishwashers’ station (tucked behind the kitchen) and eat there alone, sitting on an overturned milk crate with my elbows on my knees, separate from the servers who sit together and discuss the menu and specials for the coming evening’s service and laugh with the latest gossip.
There is something to be said about restaurant servers. George Orwell famously called them snobs while he was Down and Out in Paris, but I find it actually goes much deeper than that. If you spend enough time watching them you will begin to notice that they do have a firm sense of superiority (the good ones, at least – the career servers who have made something of an art form out of it). Even though they are indeed the ones serving our patrons, and are, on some level, at the beck-and-call of these guests, a good server still has the sense that they are, for lack of a more descriptive term, better than the majority of them: The server knows more about the food and the wine (and food and wine in general) and the appreciation thereof, and the experience and importance of eating well. They know how to create a magnificent, customized experience for any patron sitting down to dinner; they can read, know, and understand things about a patron that the patron is often unable to read, know, or understand about themselves.
In this, a long and sumptuous dinner at a high-end restaurant can be considered a form of therapy – and is part of the reason why, at the end of a good meal (along with the food itself, of course, as is prescribed in great doses) the patron feels so very calm, relaxed, satisfied, open, and at-ease. Though, like psychiatry/therapy, it is something only members of a certain class can afford on a regular basis.
But there is also a very specific look in the eye of the server – especially when they have returned to the safety of the wait-station, kitchen, or dish pit – that it should be them sitting down to this luxurious meal (instead of serving it) and not those upon whom they wait, that they are the ones who deserve that culinary experience, as they are the only ones who can truly understand and appreciate it. And, somewhat paradoxically, perhaps, this is why servers tend to be the very best and most-gracious guests themselves when they get the chance to go out and enjoy a good meal (this is rarely, if ever, on the weekend, as Fri. and Sat. are when the normal folk, those day-job workers who may as well live in an entirely different universe from restaurant workers, go on dates and go out to nice dinners, and someone, of course, must be there to serve them) – it is simply a point of pride.
And, while waiting tables is still considered labor in the traditional sense and thought of as menial work by much of society, this isn’t entirely accurate. There is a power dynamic in the restaurant industry that shifts in favor of the server (at least while the restaurant is in service). Only chefs receive unmitigated respect from the serving staff; only the head, sous, and chef de cuisine are spared from the air of superiority that defines the character of the career server – not even the floor managers, or maître d’hôtel, enjoy the same level of deference servers must show a chef.
I spend the night washing dishes. Confronting the growing stacks in front of me with the sort of vigor usually reserved for mountain climbers or marathon racers. But while there is an intensity, a fast pace to the work, there is a certain calm to washing dishes as well – it is my own space away from the insanity of chefs scrambling to meet on time, away from the hiss and whistle of flat-tops and frying pans, the heat of the ovens, the expo shouting order after order after order, the endless churning, churning, churning of the line…
Three cassoulets walking in – Yes, chef! – two potatoes on-the-fly – Yes, chef! – Guillaume, if you can’t cook steak better than this you can go home right now, is this what you want? – Yes, chef! I mean, no chef, not at all chef, I will do better, chef…
And the pretense of the waitstaff as they share the menu and converse with guests on the other side of the swinging double-doors. It is two different worlds – that of the workers on one side, and that of the guests on the other, each with their own languages and customs and currency. For example: Words like flash, fire, fly, floor all have meaning and certain connotations to the patron sitting down for dinner in the front of the house. In the back of the house, however, they mean something entirely different – and cannot be used in the same way. Flash – to cook something quickly – might be fairly recognizable. Fire is not the fire a patron might think of; it means rather that it is time to get started on the next course of the order. When something is walking in, it means the ticket has just come through, and so if it is walking in on fire it means then that it should be started right way (fired). Fly means to prepare a dish as quickly as humanly possible (or even quicker than that) – hence, on the fly. And to ask about the floor, while it is generally covered in foodstuffs and grease in the kitchen, one refers not to this filthy tiled ground, but to the dining room, and the action that happens once the food has left the line.
Human interaction in general we take for granted when interacting on this intimate level; the way we communicate takes on an importance in the kitchen completely unknown to the world outside. Never do words carry the weight that they carry when there is a mistake or someone falls behind, the chefs and servers may as well be exchanging the sounds of barnyard animals with the most articulate of courtroom lawyers, and yet what comes out as a result is nothing short of a masterpiece – a chef-d’oeuvre by the time it reaches the civilized world outside the kitchen.
Time passes quickly for a dishwasher. I gain a new understanding of hours made up only of minutes, minutes only of seconds, milliseconds, nanoseconds and so on, and each is important – not one can be wasted – they are a series of moments bunched together like a bouquet of roses for the lover who has caught you cheating again, given for the sole purpose of making it through the dinner rush alive.
And then it all comes to an end. With a deep, sweeping sigh the restaurant is empty almost as quickly as it was full (though there are always a few lingerers left behind, they remain unaware, uncaring or both, of the clock on the wall) and Samantha is waiting for me on the sidewalk outside. She sits on the window ledge with one foot tucked beneath the other, wearing a coquelicot hat and matching scarf, with her hands tucked in the pockets of her coat. The hat her mother had given her as an early Christmas gift, the scarf she had knit herself.
The sounds and smells of the restaurant dissolve as the heavy doors close behind me and we are quiet as we walk hand in hand along the street.
This is one experience. But restaurants are changing now – fine dining disappears slowly (but surely) in favor of what is called fast casual; people less interested in sitting down for long and sumptuous meals with wine, more interested in counter service, or open kitchens where they can see/hear the action unfold before them. Those secrets kept behind those swinging double doors now coming out into the open. And the brigade de cuisine model of old Paris will someday be gone entirely in this country. Or – maybe it will come back again.
But we often fight for days that aren’t worth fighting for. Regardless – there will always be need of a dishwasher.