With all the section megastars, gun chefs, dessert divas and culinary kahunas it's easy to forget the unsung heroes of the kitchen – the dish washers and kitchen hands. Anyone who thinks these are obscure or ignoble roles has not worked in a serious kitchen. In big places these are two distinct jobs. In smaller kitchens it's often just the one hard-working body doing it all.
Dishwashers, known as dishys or dish pigs, and in army slang as dixie bashers, are very important people. These rubbish humping sink jockeys are a mighty link in the chain and a good one is worth their weight in truffles.
The crucial qualification for a dish pig is the ability to demolish piles of dirty pots, pans, plates and cutlery and get every item clean - every time. There’s no such thing as half clean. Being fast and putting away greasy, crusty things for the cooks later to find is no good. Neither is being hopelessly anal - cleaning every pot back to its original factory sheen while the dirty dishes mount up. The good dish pig finds that perfect balance of speed and cleanliness and just gets it right.
The top weapon in the dish pig arsenal is water so hot that two pairs of gloves are needed. Even then it should still sting. Crucially, the steaming water's non-greasy integrity must be obsessively maintained. Everything with oil or grease on it should be scraped, even rinsed, before it goes into the water. It doesn't matter if the water is scalding hot – when saturated with grease it’s useless. Even detergent fails after a certain point. Pro dish pigs keep a wise eye on this.
Some kitchen items, like frying pans or dinner plates, are continuously used throughout service, and a dish pig must keep up with demand for clean ones. They must also empty kitchen rubbish bins during a shift and it pays for them to keep an eye on just how full the bins get. An overfull bag can split, drenching the busy kitchen floor with all kinds of greasy stinky fun and this will get the chefs offside in a mighty big way. At shift's end the dish pig has to sweep up the scree of service, diligently mop the floors, put cooled food away and help front-of-house dry kilos of cutlery.
Kitchen hands are also vital cogs in the cooking machine. They are usually blokes, but regardless of what sex they are – physical strength is a must. Kitchen hands are the grunts and muscle, lifting giant stock pots and lugging in weighty stores. Bringing twenty kilo bags of veggies into the kitchen, they knife process them; peeling onions and potatoes, topping and tailing beans. Kitchen hands also strain stocks and smash out other basic prep work; weighing out recipes, prepping herbs and making spice mixes. They also break down and flatten empty boxes, and twice a week drag numerous heavy wheelie bins to the street.
Knowing how to juggle all these tasks in a shift for maximum chronological advantage is the mark of a good kitchen hand. Like any other crew member they understand the principles of time and motion.
Gandhi said, “The moral progress of a country can be judged on how it treats its animals.” Substituting kitchen for country and dish pig or kitchen hand for animals is also true. Just because someone is getting paid less and is doing a more unpleasant job doesn't mean that they are a lesser person.
In one kitchen I briefly worked in, the kitchen hand, Jean-Claude, was obviously African. The Head-Chef, thinking it was one hell of a joke, took to putting on an 'African' accent and yodeling like Tarzan at Jean-Claude. Until we told him to put a sock in it. Sure he was a racist, but he basically thought he could get away with it because Jean Claude was just a lowly kitchen-hand.
I soon found out Jean-Claude was a hip guy. During quiet spells of prep and clean-up, we discussed Norman Mailer, Fela Kuti, Bruce Chatwin and Herbie Hancock. Sometimes after work, back at his place, Jean-Claude would mention his degree. The one from Ganja University. He'd carefully roll an intricate multi-paper spliff and say, “See - this is engineering.” Then he'd light up and say, “Now – some philosophy.”
Many a cook or chef started out bashing dixies and straining stocks, and you can tell – they work clean and treat everyone with respect. These aspirationals ripped through the dirty pots and pans - mad-dog eager to help a chef, learn something and get involved with food and cooking. Any dish pig or kitchen hand who says, “Can I do something for you Chef?” needs to be encouraged. Give them more hours, get another dishy, but get them on the line. You can teach cooking but you can't teach enthusiasm.
Good dish-pigs and kitchen-hands are treasured by chefs and cooks. Here's one – https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/food/wp/2017/03/02/a-dishwasher-becomes-a-partner-in-one-of-the-worlds-greatest-restaurants/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.4f045636b277 .
These sort of team players watch everything in the kitchen and are supernaturally prescient. Clean plates and tea-towels appear just before you run out; just emptied bags and boxes are spirited away and every spoon and side plate is clean - every time. You'll put up with their idiosyncrasies if they're good. One bandanna wearing old pirate of a dish pig was shit hot at the job, but was caught deep in a web of conspiracy theories. I'd often get a start, as he materialized next to me, muttering things like, “JFK was a grey,” and “Do you know why the cops have the best dope?”
Another good dishy, a Koori lady, got jack of the dinner plate used in the microwave. By the shift's end, it was covered with an impenetrable food crust that only hard chipping would remove. Following repeated requests to frequently change the plate, she began to loudly say, “Oops - I've dropped a plate!” The microwave plate was then dropped to smash on the floor. The Head Chef soon put a stop to this – by telling the line cooks to bloody well change the plate.
The most hard-core dish pig I ever worked with was an incredibly talkative (and fortunately erudite) bloke. A hyperactive cleaning demon and a compulsive Mr. Fixit, he would often finish his shift with some repairing and cleaning. He boasted of sleeping only 3 or 4 hours a night and worked two jobs - with me through the day til 4pm, and then at another restaurant 40 kilometers up the coast where he toiled til 10.30pm.
One night a monumental series of thunderstorms lashed the region. I opened up at work the next morning at 7.30 am and I was surprised to find the kitchen hand there – 3 hours before he was supposed to start. Strangely silent and looking very wired, he was robotically putting the newly cleaned pizza oven back together – a job that must have taken hours.
I made him coffee and heard his tale. Driving back from his job the previous night in the torrential rain he came upon a massive landslip blocking the road. Doubling back, he made for the interior highway. A 40km journey had now doubled. With dark country roads and intense rain rates – the driving was hard.Up in the hills, with visibility almost nil, he drove into a flash flood and his little two door car was swept sideways across the road. Quickly reversing, he got the vehicle away from the water before his engine stalled. Then he sat in his car for hours until the flood went down. It was 4 am and he hadn't slept a wink. So what the hell - he'd go into work early and clean the pizza oven!