Soap Opera

A restaurant manager once told me that the most important person in his restaurant wasn’t the chef or the bartender or any of the serving staff. “The most important person in this place, my boy, is the dishwasher. Without a nonstop supply of clean dishes and pots and pans, we’d have to close the place down.”

As you may have guessed, I was his teenage dishwasher. And I’d just endured another angry tirade from the volatile — and totally unimaginative, alcoholic, hungover — chef. The manager had seen me rip off my apron and tearfully head for the door, and he practically sprinted to stop me from walking out. After the pep talk and a sullen apology from the chef, I returned to the hated Hobart and started scraping plates again.

When I was “promoted” to busboy a few weeks later, I felt as if I’d been released from the depths of hell. Goodbye rubber gloves, soggy clothes, filthy flatware and hours immersed in a cloud of steam (which had, I’ll admit, done wonders for my complexion). It wasn’t the most horrible job I’ve had in my career, but … wait! It was the most horrible job I’ve had in my career.

Still, the dishwasher is key. Just ask any server who has survived a busy Saturday night when a dishwasher doesn’t show up or clocks in drunk or steps out for a cigarette and never comes back. If a manager won’t step behind the heinous Hobart or beg one of the busboys to do it, the evening can go haywire.

I try not to think back to those dishwashing days, but last week, I caught an interview with Pete Jordan, author of the new book Dishwasher: One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in All 50 States, on NPR’s “All Things Considered”.

Jordan, known as “Dishwasher Pete” in a lot of restaurants, told the story of one restaurateur who didn’t want the plates too clean and refused to let him wash water glasses at all. I cringed. It reminded me of a cheapskate I once worked for, who gave me the same instruction about water glasses. Even worse, he yelled at me for throwing out the uneaten olives left in martini glasses. “These are perfectly good,” he said as he retrieved a sodden green garnish and put it back in the container behind the bar.

A dirty little secret.

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