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Chefs say a dishwasher can make or break a restaurant. So I signed up for a shift.

Time:2017-08-10 00:29Shoes websites Click:

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Until recently, the most dishes I've ever washed were at home, following a dinner party for 10. So why would I sign up to do it at a 250-seat restaurant? Because I wanted to experience firsthand the job that CNN star Anthony Bourdain says taught him "every important lesson of my life," the one New York chef Daniel Boulud calls "the best way to enter the business."

Plenty of bandwidth has been lavished on the men and women who cook the food, pour the wine and otherwise pamper us in restaurants. Scant attention has been paid to some of the lowest-paid workers with the most responsibility, the ones chefs say are the linchpins of the restaurant kitchen. "You can't have a successful service in a restaurant without a great dishwasher," says Emeril Lagasse, the New Orleans-based chef and cookbook author with 14 restaurants across the country. "Bad ones will bring the ship down."

After years of performing tasks no one else wants to do - cleaning nasty messes, taking out trash, polishing Japanese wine glasses priced at $66 a stem (at Quince in San Francisco) - the unsung heroes of the kitchen might be finally getting their due.

This spring, chef Rene Redzepi of the world-renowned Noma in Copenhagen made headlines when he made his dishwasher, Ali Sonko, a partner in his business. The Gambian native helped Redzepi open the landmark restaurant in 2003. And in July, workers at the esteemed French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., one of master chef Thomas Keller's 12 U.S. restaurants and bakeries, voted to give their most prestigious company honor, the Core Award, to a dishwasher: Jaimie Portillo, who says he has never missed a day of work in seven years.

The median annual wage for the 500,000 or so dishwashers in the United States is about $20,000, up only $4,000 or so from just over a decade ago. But a few restaurants, including the French Laundry, give cleaners the stature of sous-chefs and extend titles that capture the broad range of responsibilities.

"We don't call them dishwashers, but porters," says Keller, who got his start washing dishes in his mother's restaurant, the late Bay & Surf in Laurel, Md. "We give them the same respect we give anyone else in the restaurant." Indeed, the only difference between the embroidered uniforms worn by his chefs and his porters are the latter's short sleeves.

When I start my shift at Caracol, an upscale Mexican seafood restaurant in Houston, Keller's words are echoing in my head: "Everyone in the restaurant depends on you," he told me. "If there are no glasses, drinks don't get served. If there is no silverware, tables can't get set. If there are no pots or pans, food doesn't get cooked."

Yes, chef.

"The main concern for dishwashers is not to get injured by hot pans, broken glass or sharp knives," Caracol owner Hugo Ortega tells me before my seven-hour shift. Caracol is the largest of his five restaurants, one of which includes Backstreet Cafe, where the recent James Beard Award winner got his start in the business in 1987 - as a dishwasher and a Mexican immigrant speaking no English.

Ortega's imagery suggests a war zone, especially for a volunteer recruit with some notable handicaps, including inexperience with pots the size of planters and the layout of a 3,300-square-foot kitchen. In my favor, it's the evening after the Fourth of July, when Caracol has just 77 reservations on the books. Instead of the usual four dishwashers, there will be three, including me.

Caracol has welcomed me with a black shirt, vented cap, industrial-strength plastic apron and a plastic container of water labeled with my name. For tonight, I'm "Tomas."

My minders - dishwashers Esteban Soc, 30, and Joselino Aguilar, 19, both from Guatemala - are wearing black trash bags, with holes torn out for their heads, over their black shirts. For their efforts here, the dishwashers earn $10 an hour, an invitation to join the staff for family meal, health insurance and a week's paid vacation after a year of service. The presence of an interpreter (to help with my interviews) reminds me how lonely their job must sometimes be.

Steps away from the dining room's oyster bar, the dishwashing station is fronted with trash cans into which servers empty uneaten food, and lined with an L-shaped stainless-steel counter. On one side waiters put like dishes together, and on the other side cooks deposit dirty equipment. At the start of the shift, the counter closest to the kitchen is already littered with utensils from the prep cooks and dishes from late lunchers and early happy-hour customers.

At Caracol, the dishwashers take turns rinsing, sorting and moving dishes through the conveyor-type machine, and taking them out, sorting them on a steel table and delivering them to stations where other staff members dry the silver and stemware. I watch Soc and Aguilar for a while before asking to relieve first one, then the other.

By far, the messiest chore is the front end of the business.

A cutting board with an orange stain sends everyone around me into crying jags when I spray it down. Note to self: Hot water on habanero oil creates tear gas. Also, unlike at home, the five-second rule does not apply. So when I drop a mixing bowl, snatch it up and show it to one of my mentors, he nods in the direction of the dishwasher rather than the sorting table.

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