There are tough and lousy jobs in every field, and then there are the ones that are truly thankless, with the power to make you feel invisible. Restaurant work offers many such roles; shifts are unpredictable, the environment is chaotic, and whether you work front or back of house, you’re going to need a thick skin. But there’s always one particular person holding down the fort at any restaurant, without whom the entire operation would be screwed. Can you guess who that might be? That’s right, it’s the dishwasher—the most thankless job of them all.
The dishwasher’s gig is the most misunderstood and, unfortunately, the most maligned. Many people consider dishwashing to be so-called unskilled labor, but it certainly builds up skills like endurance, patience, and mental toughness. Think about it: Do you like washing dishes? Does anyone? It’s one thing to zone out in front of a sink full of dishes in the comfort of your own kitchen. But when a dishwasher is slammed during the dinner rush and their workload determines whether literally any customers can be served their food, you’ll understand why this is the most under-appreciated job at any restaurant.
When I say “slammed,” think multiple industrial-sized sinks overflowing with dirty dishes, soaking in scalding water. Many of these dishes haven’t been properly scraped and are covered in food detritus, which means the dishwasher has to scrub and rinse all of that stuff off of strangers’ plates themselves. It’s not as nasty as you might think—it’s nastier.
Cooks often leave the dishwasher with pots and pans that are caked in grease and burnt-on bits that require a ton of elbow grease to remove. But guess what? The cooks need those same tools back within minutes, so they hover by the station complaining that the dishwasher is being too slow.
In the meantime, servers can’t reset tables unless they have clean plates, cups, and silverware, which need to be impeccably spotless. After all, no customer wants to use a fork with unidentified gunk on it. Those enormous sinks full of dirty dishes have to be emptied, and fast.
A decent dish pit will be outfitted with an industrial dishwashing machine that can clean entire racks of dishes within minutes. It’s good at cleaning plates, silverware, cups, and other smaller items that aren’t too messy. But after those items come out of the machine, they need to be dried individually before they can be stacked and reused.
Guess whose job that is? Yup, it usually falls to the dishwasher. If it’s not too busy, sometimes the dishwasher can get away with letting some of that stuff air dry, but that’s usually not the case. After the items are dried, they have to be put back in their precise designated areas, otherwise no one will be able to find what they need for serving. Workers get frustrated when their workflow is hobbled, and when you have a crabby restaurant worker, that attitude spreads among the staff like wildfire. (In such cramped conditions, how could it not?)
The dishwasher, unfortunately, has to remain calm, because otherwise completing their tasks would be impossible.
Things get a little more complicated when you consider that, for all their benefits, dishwashing machines aren’t perfect. They can get clogged with food, stop draining properly, get stuck at the hinges, and simply break down. If a dishwashing machine is broken, then the dishwasher needs to do everything meticulously by hand with everyone hovering.
There are also a lot of kitchen tools that can’t be run through a dishwasher at all. Food processor attachments, deli slicers, blender parts—anything that needs to be disassembled is usually washed by hand, and these gadgets, with their nooks and crannies full of gunk, can be tedious to handle properly.
Something you probably don’t think about as you do your kitchen chores at home is that the average restaurant dishwasher must face countless physical hazards. If a blade is submerged in water and the employee isn’t aware, fishing around in a giant, sudsy sink can suddenly become dangerous. People can and do cut themselves if a cook doesn’t make the dishwasher acutely aware of the sharp item that’s beneath the surface of the water.
You can imagine that water quickly accumulates on the floor of a dish pit. That makes for a slippery surface, and no matter how non-slip your shoes are, at some point, you’ll probably go sliding. Ideally not while carrying a whole rack of glassware.
It can also get unbearably hot in the back of a restaurant, and coupled with scalding hot water in the sinks and the industrial dishwashing unit, it’s not only terribly uncomfortable, but burns can happen. The sanitizing solution in which dishes sit is hard on human skin, which means your hands can experience stinging, burning sensations and your skin can crack after being exposed to it for a prolonged period. Oh yeah, and it almost always smells terrible in a dish pit, no matter how clean you keep it.
Then there’s the wear-and-tear that dishwashing can have on the body. Feet, knees, and backs are often strained after years of being a dishwasher. One night of rough service can be hard; think about going home and doing it again the next day, despite injuries and sore muscles. It’s both thankless and relentless. If you ask for a day off to recover, chances are your manager will scoff at you.
Because dishwashers are usually some of the lowest paid positions in a restaurant, people often walk off the job, especially on particularly difficult nights. If a dishwashing machine breaks down in front of your very eyes, with bus tubs of dirty dishes piling up hopelessly, would you want to deal with that? You’re human. Chances are you’d probably want to leave too. So people do.
At its best, the role can be demoralizing. As a dishwasher, you’re the last one stuck with work at closing time. While servers and cooks wipe down their stations, you’re dealing with the aftermath of service, and the rest of the staff is often done before you are; if it’s been particularly hectic, a dishwasher must stay and finish what’s left.
In an ideal kitchen, the rest of the staff would pitch in to make life easier, but that’s not always the case. Everyone wants to go home, so many people duck out before they’re asked to help. That makes the dishwasher the last one working, and it can get awfully lonely in back.
Did reading about the pitfalls of being a dishwasher exhaust you as much as it exhausted me to mentally relive them? If so, then realize that this is what someone is going through every time you go out to eat. Nobody wants to be a career dishwasher; it’s usually a job people take because they really need it. While the cooks and the chefs tend to get the (often exaggerated) glory, the dishwasher is the person we should be thanking on our way out of the restaurant. Too bad they’re probably stationed as far back in the building as possible, hidden from view.