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.