Tales of a dishwasher in an Italian restaurant

Tales of a dishwasher in an Italian restaurant

When I was in high school, I held several different jobs, including working in the Canton (Mass.) Public Library as a book clerk. But I also worked as a dishwasher at an Italian restaurant called Capriccio’s, also in my hometown of Canton.

It was a nice place, but not too upscale. You can’t be too upscale in a local mall. And working there was kind of a family tradition. My sister Francesca had worked there as a waitress and my brother John worked there later, first as a waiter and then as a line cook. He was my connection to the job.

It was quite an education in having a work ethic for a 16-year-old kid. I usually worked the weekend evening shifts. I’d come about 4 or 6 pm (one dishwasher started earlier and the second would come later), and the night would start out slow. If I was lucky, they would have me doing some prep work, slicing cases of mushrooms or opening up can after can of tomatoes for sauce or, if I was unlucky, peeling a giant stockpot full of onions. (The trick is to hold the onion under running water.)

The rhythm of the kitchen

Eventually, though, the pace would pick up, diners would start filling the tables, and first pots and pans and then dishes and silverware would come flowing in. The standard practice was to have two dishwashers, one to rinse and then load the dishes onto racks and push them into the dishwasher (which was really just a sterilizer) and the other to pull the rack out of the washer, unload the racks, and bring the plates back to the cooks while bringing pots and pans to the front of the process. Over and over again for hours and hours.

You got into a rhythm with it, moving in unison, sweat from the heat of the stoves and humidity from the dishwasher combining until you were completely soaked through your workshirt. Time compressed as it is wont to do and suddenly you’re looking for the next plate or pan and there’s nothing to wash.

The last customer was usually seated at 9 or so, although there always seemed to be some joker who wanted to get seated just before closing. Here’s a tip: don’t do it. Otherwise you’ll get to a meal prepared by people who are angry at you. Take my word for it, you don’t want to.

Of course, once the dishes were done, we still had plenty of closing work to do. All the remaining dishes had to be stacked for the next day, glasses put in their racks ready for the servers to fill, pots and pans stacked up for the chefs. The garbage had to be toted out through the back to the dumpster. This was a nice respite from the overheated kitchen in winter and summer, except in winter you didn’t tend to linger. But then again in summer you didn’t want to linger either because of the smell of a dumpster full of old food that had been sitting in the sun that day. Ew.

Back in the kitchen we had to wash the stove grills and mop the floors and other necessary scut work. Finally, about 10:30 the chef would declare everything satisfactory and we’d be set free. If it wasn’t satisfactory, we stayed until it was.

Fun with the waitresses and customers

But working in the kitchen wasn’t all hard work and nose to the grindstone. The chefs, Vince and Steve, were fun and had a whole cast of characters in their friends who were always stopping by. One guy they called “the Senator”—I don’t know why—was always past the point of tipsy and they’d make him a “special” dish. Once he was so wasted that they put half a bottle of Tabasco sauce in his dish and he didn’t notice. Well, that is until the next day when he suffered some very serious gastro-intestinal distress.

They also had fun with the waitstaff. A perennial special was the lobster scampi, which meant we always had live lobsters around. One waitress was petrified of the tasty little bugs and so Steve and Vince took great pleasure in hiding them wherever she might find them: in the bread drawer, under a towel on her tray, among the desserts. That last one was a bad idea. She screamed and jumped and knocked a bunch of them over. The owner, Robert, was not pleased.

(Speaking of lobster scampi, I was always scandalized at how little of the lobster the customers would eat, just tails and claws. Sometimes only the tail. As the grandson of a fisherman trained to eat a lobster such that there wouldn’t be enough left to interest a passing seagull, such waste was appalling. But what could you do? It was someone’s leftover meal. Sometimes, I’d even find cigarette butts inside the lobster body. Such a shame.)

Another famous gag was “chemical warfare.” Did you know that if you drop hot sauce on a rocket-hot pan it will immediately atomize into the air? Can you imagine what will happen to your nose and throat and eyes when that happens? When they were preparing for an attack they’d alert the rest of the kitchen staff, we’d cover our mouths and noses with wet napkins like banditos, and the fun would begin. A waiter or waitress would walk in and cough. Then cough again and then go into a coughing fit and start cursing the chefs. I can’t imagine what the customers thought of all these waiters coming out of the kitchen crying.

The night of a thousand dishes

As I said, it was a good place to work, but mainly because the chefs were great guys who treated us younger guys well. (They also had great stories about their early days working in the casinos in Las Vegas back in the 70s.) The dishwasher who had the longer shift would usually be asked if he wanted something for dinner. I’d usually ask for a burger or for some pasta and sauce. They always made it especially tasty for us. On my last day working at the restaurant, the head chef, Steve, told me I could have anything I wanted so I asked for my favorite: Shrimp fra Diavolo, shrimp in a spicy tomato sauce over linguine. Mmmm, I can still taste it.

There I was at 9:30, hoping to go to my friend’s party at 10 and I had every dish, every glass, every knife, fork, spoon, pot, and pan still to clean.

My most enduring memory was of one particular night. I’d asked ahead of time if it was possible for me to leave at 10, before the closing work was done because I’d been invited to a party and wanted to meet up with my friends. Steve said it shouldn’t be a problem, but on the day of the party the other dishwasher didn’t show up. I was going to have to wash dishes on my own on a Saturday night, the busiest night of the week. I didn’t complain (much) and just put my head down and worked at full tilt. Oh to be young and full of such energy again. Most of the night was a blur, although I recall that at one point I had nearly every dish and saute pan in the restaurant in front of me waiting to be washed. There’s no way for one person to stay in front of the rush, but fortunately I was only far enough behind that it reached its worst at the end of the night.

And there I was at 9:30, hoping to go to my friend’s party at 10 and I had every dish, every glass, every knife, fork, spoon, pot, and pan still to clean and then all the scut work after that. But still I didn’t complain. I knew that a special favor was contingent on circumstances and that I was being paid to do a job. So I kept my head down except for the occasional glance at the clock and kept working. The chefs finished their regular closing duties and then started in on mine, getting out the mop bucket for the floor and putting dishes away. I was amazed. These guys weren’t elitists by any means, but chefs don’t do grunt work. Yet here they were. Finally when 10 o’clock had come and gone, Steve said to me, “Go on and go to your party.”

I was incredulous. “Really?”

“Yeah, go ahead. We’ll finish up here.”

What great guys. And I learned an important lesson about work ethic. Do your job, don’t complain, and realize that a special favor for one person probably means that someone else has to pick up the slack. I also learned an important lesson about being a boss, that showing such appreciation for an employee’s loyalty and hard work is worth more than all the team-building and morale exercises you can find.

What a teenager took away

The other great lesson I took away from my time at Capriccio’s was how to cook. I’d say about 40 percent of my early knowledge of cooking came from watching Julia Child and Graham Kerr on PBS in high school, another 40 percent from watching the chefs at Capriccio’s, and another 20 percent from watching my mom and other relatives cook. I love my mom and, God bless her, she was doing the best should could working full-time and raising five kids, but we had some bizarre meals growing up. (But when she had the time we had great ones too.)

But working in that restaurant kitchen gave me a great education in how to manage the preparation of a meal. I saw how to time dishes to come together at the same moment, how to cook a bunch of pasta ahead of time and have it ready to serve with dishes later, how to bring pan sauces together, how to set up a prep station, how to handle a knife, and so much more. I often would taste the sauces in the pans as I was bringing them over to the dishwashing station and then ask the chefs which ones they were and what was in them. (But only when they weren’t busy.) The lessons learned in that kitchen are still with me today.

I didn’t earn a lot of money working as a dishwasher back in the early 80s, but I did come away with a lot: good memories, good lessons, good skills, good work ethic. It’s stayed with me all these years and I wonder if Steve and Vince and Robert and the rest of them know how much I appreciate it. Maybe they’ll read this someday and know.