In Defence of Washing Dishes

When I first started dish-washing at age 21 to fund my studies, I winced at the thought of coming into contact with all that half-chewed food, spilt mayonnaise and ashtray contents (it’s not just cigarette butts people put in there, let me tell you that). Then there were the obvious indignities of having a perpetually soiled apron and frequently being sent off in search of some mystery ingredient the name of which has been barked to you so incomprehensibly as to make you sure that you weren’t intended to hear it properly — and then coming back with the wrong thing and being barked at again, this time in perfectly clear and colourful language.

And yet, dishwashing (or kitchen porter work, if you’re from the UK or a bit up your own arse) has to be one of the most underappreciated jobs in the world. Never have I had a job that was so easy to walk into. My interview for my first dishwashing job lasted all of ten minutes and my employment was secured as soon as it was established that I could work evenings and weekends and start immediately. All of this before I had been asked for references or a CV, or before any form of preliminary check that I wasn’t some escaped lunatic or convict or hadn’t been fired from a previous kitchen job for brandishing the kitchen knives as weapons against my colleagues.

Thankfully for them, I wasn’t a lunatic – at least not one that’s escaped from anywhere. I spent the next three years washing dishes in a busy restaurant in Maastricht’s city centre. It wasn’t just the ease with which I got the job, or the simplicity of the job itself. There are so many perks of dishwashing that I believe have gone largely unnoticed. Since I’ll soon be hanging up my soiled apron to explore new career paths — I fear I can’t keep up the enthusiasm to wash dirty dishes much longer — I thought I’d remind myself of some of the things I’ve come to appreciate about washing dishes for a living, and state my case for giving dishwashers the recognition they deserve.

Freedom, physical and mental, is a big plus point of dish-washing. You get so much time and space to roam as a dishwasher, so long as you know how to pass off your wanderings as work. I’ve never had a job that was more tolerant of my constant abandoning of my station and disappearing for what I can only call unprofessional lengths of time. The nature of being a dishwasher is such that, given that you occupy the space of the restaurant that’s out of sight, you are largely treated as such. Oftentimes colleagues would only acknowledge my presence when something they’d sent to me to be washed half an hour ago had still not resurfaced. For the rest, so long as the work gets done, you are largely left alone. That means that during the quieter shifts I am free to roam the restaurant more or less at my leisure, as long as I return at regular enough intervals that the pile of dishes was regularly trimmed and returned, piping hot and glaring white, to its rightful place.

But please, don’t pity me the isolation I endured while washing dishes. What I’ll miss even more than the freedom to roam is the mental space that being left alone gives you. For me, this is invaluable. I am a real thinker. I know that word sounds pretentious, and it’s not to say that everything I think about is profound and philosophical: it’s mostly film quotes and snippets of annoying, catchy songs. But, whatever the thoughts are, I consider myself privileged to have a job that allows me so much time to just think while I use my body. As a student, it was a lifesaver. University demands much from your head while leaving your body unused. What an antidote it was to have a job that let me work my body and demanded almost nothing from my head. I was amazed to find that a lot of the brain work I had to do as a student, the kind you’d think only occurs in the classroom or at the desk at home, got done while I was at work, engaged in something completely outside of university. There were so many occasions when I’d be mulling over some problem or another and the solution would present itself, just fucking float in on a breeze while I was elbow-deep in grimy dishwater. And, of course, there’s no replacement for the feeling of coming home after a long shift of good, bodily work. It makes me never, ever want to work at a desk.

What I won’t miss are those Friday and Saturday evenings (it never occurs at any other time) when the dishwasher suddenly stops working. The actual machine that is, not me. There’s always a moment that I get giddy at the thought of the restaurant closing early and us all being sent home. But then I look over to the cooks, who are all looking back at me with faces that say, “well, we’re still going to need those dishes”. Come hell or high water, these people will get their fucking lasagne. 

The worst such incidence occurred three days before Christmas in 2015. I was working an intense shift with a Scottish guy, new to the place, who I got along with very well but whose work ethic tended to desert him at the worst of times. We were already struggling with the sheer volume of dishes to wash when our machine’s light flickered out and everything went quiet.

What always amuses me in situations like this, especially if you work with a lot of men, is how half the workforce suddenly become mechanics when a machine breaks down. Pretty soon you’ve got a crowd gathered around your now-defunct dishwasher, each man offering his two cents as to the nature of the problem how to get it working again — and each input as inane as the last.

Unfortunately for us, none of these solutions bore fruit, leaving me and my companion to revert to old-fashioned methods. With little more than sponges and scourers and a sink full of soapy hot water, and the promise of an ever-imminent smoke break to motivate the Scotsman, we managed  to wash every dish, pot, pan, ladle, coffee cup, baking tray and piece of cutlery that came our way. We were flattened by the time the restaurant closed, but I finished my shift elated. What we had achieved that night was, to me, about much more than simply doing our jobs. If I may indulge in a bit of self-congratulation, that shift was a testament to my ability to respond to adversity and rouse my team into doing the same. Dish-washing is not known for its moments of glory, but that shift was one of my most gratifying by far.

Now, another thing I won’t miss. Like I said, there’s little glory in washing dishes, and I didn’t expect to be carried around on peoples’ shoulders for the heroics that my colleague and I performed that shift. But to receive the recognition that we did (that is to say, none besides the customary “thanks” and handshake from the chef, which he has given to me on shifts when I’ve done almost no work) stung a little. My boss was a man with all the finesse of a neanderthal who seemed to aspire, by way of running a tourist-trap restaurant, to a position among the city’s upper classes. He was not known for generous outpourings of gratitude nor, for that matter, for graces of any kind. He was also apparently incapable of retaining my name. Once, as I was returning fresh coffee cups and glasses to the bar, he called out to me several times from across the bar (on principle, I ignored him unless he used my name), and when I didn’t respond asked one of the bartenders what was wrong with Christopher and why he was being so rude as to ignore his boss. When the bartender responded that that was not Christopher, but Lorenzo, the boss responded, “Oh…what happened to Christopher?” Those occasions when he did get my name right, I determined, must have been sheer flukes. To the best of my knowledge, nobody called Christopher has ever worked at that restaurant.

This interaction between my boss and me (or whoever he thought I was) was rare. For most of the three years I worked there, he seemed by turns mildly startled, irritated, and downright bemused by my continued presence in his restaurant. Though my chef was a kind and genuine man who looked out for me, I always felt slightly hard-done-by that my boss, for whatever reason, wouldn’t give me the time of day. Being a middle-aged man of an apparently crude nature, he of course had plenty of kind words to say to the young, female members of the kitchen staff, however little they seemed to appreciate or solicit his attention. But it stung when I departed to spend Christmas with my family without having received the slightest recognition for the shift I had put in the night the dishwasher broke. Surely a simple “Thank you” or some other minor gesture of appreciation wouldn’t have been beyond him.

Nobody is ever too old or mature to be praised. We tend to see praise as something wielded by primary school teachers to encourage children so that they associate high academic performance with the warming feeling of being told you did well. And, while I don’t believe in doing something solely for praise or recognition, the internal satisfaction of knowing I did a good job usually enough for me, I do believe that everyone, no matter how independent and capable they think they are, yearns for validation at some points in their lives. That’s why I believe it is important to praise people, even for the most seemingly inconsequential jobs. A restaurant is nothing without the people who wash its dishes. As my manager in Maastricht once put it to me, “it all starts with you.” It doesn’t matter how exquisite the food or exemplary the service: if the plates or cutlery are dirty, the customer will remember. That it is generally assumed that the plates and cutlery will be clean when a customer sits down to eat does not detract from the work that goes into making it so. It is only right, therefore, that due acknowledgement is afforded to those who sweat and toil, mostly out of sight and mind of the patrons, for the work that they do.

Love and strength to my fellow dishwashers around the world. You’re the real MVPs.

4 thoughts on “In Defence of Washing Dishes

  1. May I share this to a Cape Town group called the good the bad and the ugly restaurant guide I think

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