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I washed dishes on the night you died. I feel like you would have liked that.

My dishwasher got slammed after a 55-person party decided to give up the ghost, saunter out with full bellies, and leave the war-torn tables with fallen meals. Good kid; New York native, parents from Belize. He pokes fun of the Johnny cake recipe on our menu. He says his mom can make it better.

I believe him.

The kitchen I work in is a god-forsaken shoe box. No fire, all electric, 3 burners- the stuff nightmares are made of, dude. We grill on a backyard, socks-with-sandles, hockey puck your beef patty-type gas grill. The dish pit, occupying one-third of the shoe box, is a less than ideal situation. It’s in the back corner, so dishes get slugged through the line in their respective tubs while line cooks step aside from their searing scallops and re-heating mashed potatoes to not get knocked in the ass or elbow. The oven is on a low boy. The dish machine had a prep table between it and the 3-compartment sink. We can feed 300 people out of this kitchen, to my constant and unabashed amazement. In simple terms, this kitchen is hell. But the food… we make it work.

New York was getting his ass handed to him. The servers did most of the busing all at once, which, in turn, caused wave after wave of scraped and sad dishes to cross this man’s path all at once. The mountain to climb kept expanding and reaching closer to the ceiling and he was left to scale the bastard with the dishwasher-equivalent of a simple twine rope and running shoes.

In a set-up this minuscule and clumsy, your title stops mattering- Kitchen Manager, Sous Chef, Line Cook. None of them hold weight when you see the most important guy in your team fall behind. You roll up your sleeves, slap on a rubber apron, and dig. It’s not in your job description, but nothing you do on a day-to-day basis technically is. Repair the oven door 2 hours before the party. Have the sous chef Mickey Mouse the dish hose to not burst water in every direction from a blown gasket. Deep clean the dry storage. Nothing is off limits or below you.

My line cook from Russia, who speaks crudely-hewn English and primarily communicates through Google Translate and an interpretive dance-like mimic of tasks and products, sees me suit up. She follows suit, saying nothing, but leaving to retrieve sanitizer. The other line cook starts the closing ritual, collecting deli cups and a few spoons, making his way to my expo station. The boss is washing dishes, so you do the boss’ job.

No words, just work. Kitchens don’t need language, they just need a core of basic skills, respect, and above all else, humility.

You knew dishwashers were the backbone of an operation. You said you valued your work as a dishwasher above everything else. The work gave you a sense of accomplishment. It added a finality to the day, making the aching back, raisin hands and damp footwear a badge of honor. We climbed that mountain, came down the other side, and dragged ourselves out of the fire. Sinks were cleaned, fridges wipes, tables sanitized. We left as a team.

I drank a beer with wet socks that day, Tony.

It tasted a little better than usual.


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