March 9 was National Dish Washer Day. I’m not sure who decided that this declaration be made, but for those of us in the restaurant business – it is so appropriate. I have long proclaimed that the dish washer was the most important position in the kitchen – even more important than the chef. If you doubt my belief – think about this:
- If a line cook calls out – we simply spread the work out among those who are present. We grumble and curse, we step up the pace and show our anger on our face, but we get by.
- A server doesn’t show up, we adjust the station chart and maybe change the timing at the door, but we figure it out.
- If the chef doesn’t show up for some reason, there are those who might even cheer. At the very least, we know that the work right in front of us won’t change. We dig in an get by.
- The dishwasher doesn’t show up and the place falls apart. As much as some may tend to pass off this position as unskilled in comparison to cooks, no one else wants to do this physically demanding, oftentimes thankless job that everyone takes for granted until the person fails to show up.
- I rest my case.
On this day of recognition, and for that matter every day that we turn on the kitchen lights, let’s rethink how we view the position and look at the facts:
- The best food will never be received well on a less than sparkling plate.
- The most expensive wine with rave reviews from Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator will fail to impress if there are spots on that Riedl stemware.
- How frustrating would it be if that stacked china ready for plating was spotted or chipped?
- How frustrated would a line cook be if he or she had to clean their own sauté pans after every use?
- How much more difficult would your job as a cook be if every pot or pan that you picked up were slick with grease or caked with yesterday’s burnt mirepoix?
- How beautiful is a kitchen that sparkles?
- How fluid is a kitchen when the cooks and dishwasher are in sync?
- And maybe most importantly: How many professional cooks got their start by working in the dish pit – the place where they received their first taste of kitchen life and suddenly knew that this was the career for them? How many chefs owe their appreciation for building a team to starting their careers at the age of sixteen – diving for pearls and stacking steaming hot plates?
The rhythm of the kitchen is closely tied to the work and efficiency that is present in the dish area. Why do we place so much value on the organization and professionalism of cooks and chefs, but forget how this must apply to the dish area as well? Why do we sometimes treat dish washers as commodities – interchangeable and easily replaceable parts, when their role is so critical to the success of the restaurant (front and back of the house)? On this day of recognition and every day that follows we might want to re-think how we approach this essential position.
Think about this:
- The most expensive piece of equipment in kitchens is the dishwashing machine. Who is responsible for this machine? The dish washer!
- One of the hidden painful costs of operating a kitchen comes from the cost of chemicals used in the dish area. Who is in control of this? Who can make a difference through efficient use of the machine and the process of washing dishes? The dish washer!
- By far one of the most expensive inventories in a kitchen is china, glassware, and flatware. Who is responsible for this? The dish washer!
- Who has one of the most impactful relationships with restaurant employees (front and back of the house)? The dish washer!
- What employee is constantly viewed as “low man on the totem pole”, paid the lowest possible wage, ignored until they get behind, and passed off as non-essential by many? The dish washer!
- It’s time to change attitudes.
Here are some great rules to live by when it comes to dishwashers:
 Hire great attitudes.
 Pay a fair wage and offer ample opportunities to scale up every few months.
 Provide a clean, crisp uniform that parallels what you offer your cooks.
 Make sure new dish washers are properly oriented and trained. Introduce them to every cook and server, and every manager and sous chef as an essential member of your team.
 Feed them well, give them breaks.
 Teach your cooks how to properly scrape and stack pots and pans in the dish area. Treat the dish washer with respect.
 Discipline any employee who fails to treat the dish washer with respect.
 Involve the dish washer in your staff meetings and give he or she an opportunity to express themselves.
 Provide opportunities for dish washers to learn about cooking (if they express an interest). Show them the way to move up.
 As a chef, when dish washers arrive at work – welcome them, shake their hand, and at the end of the shift – thank them for a good day’s work.
 If the dish washer gets backed up, in the weeds, jump in to help, or have a line cook give a hand if they are free.
 When trying out new menu items – allow the dish washer to be part of your tasting panel.
 Give the dish washer some added responsibilities and let everyone know that they are in charge. Make them the sanitation lead in the kitchen – maybe even in charge of HACCP logs, etc.
A sous chef who worked with me once stated that I should just constantly hire dish washers if any show up looking for a job. “You may not need them today, but you will tomorrow.” Maybe, just maybe, the rule of thumb should be: “Treat those dish washers like they are important, and they might just stay with you for quite some time. These individuals might be a chef or owner someday.”
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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