Saturday, May 10th, 2008

Reason for Not Eating Out #21: Doing Dishes is Good for the White-Collar Soul

Getting into the topic of the bottom-rung, low-wage, mostly immigrant workforce in a restaurant is slippery business. Dishsoapy-slippery.

Everyone knows it: the restaurant industry is fueled by these underpaid, undocumented and often mistreated workers who receive little or no benefits and often work two or three jobs literally around the clock. Food service is no egalitarian utopia, okay. The same goes for any other capitalist enterprise in today’s global economy, perhaps. But unlike with buying clothes from major retailers that were manufactured by kidnapped children in developing countries at slave wages (if any), the social dichotomy in a restaurant is right under our noses every day, three times a day in fact for anyone who eats out that much.

It used to be that when an entry-level or apprentice cook joined the staff of a kitchen, they would pay their dues by doing some dirty work like cleaning, scrubbing and dishwashing. If they did well, they could reasonably rise through the ranks. Today, with a seemingly endless pool of immigrants looking for work, the smallest roles in a kitchen such as that of a dishwasher are all too easily filled. There is little need to train these workers further, and therefore little opportunity for them to ascend. It’s important to note that it’s not necessarily for lack of talent or hard work. In Heat, Bill Buford is told by the kitchen manager of Babbo that recent graduates of culinary schools were generally less useful to her than untrained Latino cooks, who seemed to naturally “know their way around the kitchen” better. But with their degrees, not to mention fluency in English, these graduates at least have a fair shot at the glamorous dream of becoming a chef that they aspire for. And, doing dishes is unheard of. (Note how enraged the cooks on Hell’s Kitchen are when Gordon Ramsay orders them to clean up the kitchen after losing a challenge.)

If you’ve ever been a server or waiter at a restaurant (and I have), you’ve probably felt the burn of jealousy from such less fortunate workers in the back of the kitchen. The annonymous author of Waiter Rant describes in his forthcoming book of same title his way of dealing with the kitchen staff so as to avoid hostile conflict and even sabotage attempts. According to him, these guys are particularly envious of waiters, who in their mind do far less work and far less hours of it for much more money, and therefore deserve some bullying. Yikes.

By the way, I bring this up simply because so many people have told me that they’d like to cook more often, but can’t stand doing dishes.

So now that we’ve covered some case examples and explored the psyches behind the class divide a bit, you might be asking, so what can I do about it? Vote for immigration policy reform? Tip the dishwashers? Choke — not eat out at all, like your crazy self and ride some half-serious, half-stupid moral high horse? Sorry, I don’t have any big philosophies. After all, you could argue that the trickle-down economics of dishwashing benefits poverty-stricken countries and gives immigrants a chance at gaining more freedom, rights and better jobs in time. But I find it grounding to know that someone is always going to have to deal with the dirty work. Instruments like dishes and utensils are as old an accompaniment to the act of eating as fire. Whether it’s a disposable plastic carton that gets thrown out, dumped in a landfill like the one in the Pacific that’s twice the size of Texas, and whose production contributes to greenhouse gases that future generations are going to have to figure out what to do with; whether it’s fine china in a restaurant that an underpaid worker has to work till early morning to clean; or whether it’s the foul pile of dishes in our own sinks, cleaning is an integral part of eating.

So just because we as a class may have washed our hands clean of the responsibility of doing dishes, doesn’t mean they disappear. Even if we opt for the luxury of paying to have someone else do the unpleasant work for us (and by extension, you could say the same for having our food prepared for us), doing our dishes at least affords us the opportunity to think along the ranks of their perspective. Now, to that foul pile.

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10 Responses to “Reason for Not Eating Out #21: Doing Dishes is Good for the White-Collar Soul”

  1. Bito says:

    Anthony Bourdain has done a good job of raising awareness of this issue. But, completely unrelated to this post, I want to thank you for writing about Wildman Steve Brill. My husband and I just took his foraging walk through Central Park this past weekend. Although the group was a bit big (it had to be at least 30-40 people – are the groups in Prospect Park that size? We are thinking of signing up for a tour there), it was a really fun and delicious way to explore our urban “backyard”.

  2. Marisa says:

    Great post! I not only waitressed, but bussed and backwaited as well. Dishwashing has always seemed to be done by men. I grew up in a kitchen, since my dad’s a chef (now a chef instructor). The kitchen is a nasty workplace, full of class divides/sexism/racism. But it also provides the opportunity to form fast friendships. Under the heat lamps, a lot is possible.

  3. Liz says:

    I think you missed the point. Since you write so much about locality of ingredients, I though this might turn into an interesting discussion on the need to look for locality of labor as well. Instead, I found this a rather pointless anti-restaurant blathering with no real point. It was unclear whether we should press the restaurant to use fair employment and advancement policies or to just boycott restaurants because of their evil ways. Either way it does nothing, because both will just eliminate the jobs for the underpaid, under-trained, illegal who was in that job in the first place.

  4. cathy says:

    Hi Liz: It’s true, this post has no practical point, let alone a solution to labor issues on a local or international scale. It is a blathering anti-restaurant sentiment and maybe it’s a little irresponsible to have gone on so long about the issues without offering any return, but really I just want to make people — everyday diners — more aware of who and what is behind the food they order. Because it’s easy to not think about the things that go on behind closed doors. I do think that restaurants need improvement in maintaining fair, safe and healthy working environments for all and I think that more awareness and dialogue on these issues is a start to making solutions (like you mention, Bito, Bourdain has contributed to extensively).

  5. Liz says:

    But there’s so much good behind the scenes at a restaurant as well. Restaurants have easier access to much better ingredients than the home cook. I’ll use sushi as an example. The last time I checked, even good fish markets have tuna of generally lower quality than the average sushi restaurant. And when was the last time you saw shiso (perilla) in a market (used in dozens of japanese dishes, I grow it in my back yard – so it can be grown locally). Yes, all these things may be available, but some are costly and time consuming to obtain or store, especially in small quantities.

    I cook at least 5 nights each week, and I love it, but there a lot of gory details and plain old inconveniences, for the everyday apartment home cook. Many everyday cooks do not like dealing with these (sometimes difficult and time consuming) details, like the ickiness of handling raw chicken, the dangerous pointiness of using a knife to chop carrots (and not fingers), the invisible threat of cross contamination (which many home cooks often fall into) and yes, the inconvenience of washing the dishes.

    And then there is the economics of scale which restaurants have which our homes do not – efficient mechanical dishwashers, a large, hot oven to feed 50 while home cooks use many more cubic inches of gas per person to feed far fewer people. The home kitchen is by no means efficient.

    I love restaurants, because restaurants can do things that I can’t (sous-vide, slow cooked ribs on a tuesday night). I love cooking at home because there are a lot of things I can do in my kitchen that a restaurant can’t (season things just the way I like them, eat out of the pot in front of the TV, have ice cream as an appetizer).

  6. natalie says:

    wow- nice to see another self-respecting home cook who isn’t at the texas state line chanting “build the wall higher!” here in birmingham, the racism issues have only changed focus, not intensity. my boyfriend is hispanic, illegal, and still works in the same restaurant we met at 2 years ago- and he has actually been there for 6… and you’d be sick if you knew how much they pay him hourly. personally, i can’t stand restuarant food, except if i am enebriated, and know that i must eat something in order to not be sick in the morning. anyway i enjoyed your “anti-restuarant blathering”…, and liz, try not to refer to them as illegals. it’s an unsavory term; and regardless to your race, if you live here in the US, you too are an immigrant addition to this melting pot, and i seriously doubt you and/or your ancestors would appreciate being refered to with such a weighted stereotypical label, regardless to their/your immigration status.

  7. Liz says:

    Hmmm. But YOU just called your boyfriend illegal…

    Well, now that you mention it, it’s true, my ancestors are not native americans. They did immigrate to the US, to avoid being murdered by nazis (but that is a completely different story hardly relevant to this discussion).

    What is relevant… They immigrated legally, embraced english as a primary language, paid taxes, worked for pennies (when there was no such thing as minimum wage) in sweatshops, lived in the slums on the lower east side, and still managed to save, build a life, educate themselves and their children and advance in their careers.

    Perhaps the restaurant workers in question should look for jobs in other industries. Or perhaps find work in a place of business where management will allow them to advance. There are opportunities for the “non-resident, foreign, undocumented worker” outside of the dish washing station.

    But that again is not my point.

    If you don’t like the way a restaurant operates, don’t go to them. Don’t work for them. Don’t allow them to donate a gift certificate to the church raffle.

    But all restaurants do not operate similarly.

  8. Robert Mathews says:

    Great post. YOu make it seem so easy to share your experiences. I wish I could do as well in sharing on my blog. I just got it started and sometimes feel stuck on what to share or if it is the right thing to share. what to do?

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