When I say I had a chance to help a few chefs at their small kitchens people say “wow” and something to that effect. Little they know (and so did I before) that when assisting a chef the first thing you get to know is dishes. I mean, dishes! Save your aspirations to learn the recipes and cool chef tricks for later as the first skill you will hone to perfection during your apprenticeship at a restaurant kitchen will be dishwashing.
What happens at the dishwashing station of a professional kitchens is that you receive trays of serving dishes, plates, glasses and cutlery from the restaurant flour and a non-stop flow of kitchen utensils used for making food. You remove food leftovers, sort (plates to plates, etc), thoroughly rinse and arrange them on the tray of the washing machine.
Now, restaurant washing machines are different from those we have at home. Quick turnover at the restaurant requires much shorter washing cycles as it would be a luxury to wait for a batch of the glasses to be washed for an hour. Also chefs are constantly using assorted dishes and kitchen utensils to mix ingredients, make sauces and cook the food; there is a reasonable stock of those at a restaurant kitchen but their turnover is naturally faster than the time required to collect a whole tray of items, wash and dry them. Hence the professional dishwashing machines sterilize rather than wash. It mandates you to do serious rinsing which is more of a pre-washing if you ask me.
After you rinse (pre-wash) and fill the tray you close the machine, wait for a few minutes, open the machine, take out the steaming tray and throw in the new one to fill. If you are lucky you get help with sorting the washed dishes, polishing the cutlery and bringing it all back for the use of the chefs or the waiters. And if not – this task is yours to handle too.
I did dishwashing for 1.5 months when transiting from my consulting career to running Istanbul food walking tours and cooking classes. This was my entry strategy to the new country and career and it did teach me a thing or two about Turkish cooking, work and life in general. These learnings helped me so much this year that I would like to carry them ahead as the New Year’s resolutions.
1. Get Efficient by Batching Tasks
Dishwashing is a scale affair: you deal with a rather monotonous task for a long period of time. Therefore how organized and efficient you are has a direct effect on how much you accomplish without getting tired. I later witnessed how our cleaning ladies would get overwhelmed too soon simply because they failed to set up a system.
Dishwashing brings home a very basic rule of time management – batching tasks. After hundreds of dishes at the very mechanical level you understand why it’s easier and quicker to empty, line up and wash 40 glasses and then repeat the process with 30 plates rather than juggling dirty glasses and plates at the same time.
I’ve learned to apply this rule of batching to most menial tasks: I don’t get to ironing till I amass a substantial pile of clothes from several wash-ups, or I don’t go for a household shopping unless I have been putting items on the list for the last few weeks. As a New Year’s resolution I would love to implement batching to more creative tasks such as online readings or writing my blog posts.
2. Draw The Line To Stay Sane
Dishes don’t stop coming. You are done with cleaning the pots and bowls from the food preparation and here the dishes from the restaurant floor start arriving as customers get to their meals. You are done with those and then it is time to get back to the pots and bowls from the food making. And then more dishes as the customers leave. Eventually after the restaurant closes you have gala time with stove tops to clean, working surfaces to wipe, floors to mop and garbage bins to empty.
Dishwashing at a professional kitchen does require some stamina and nerve. To endure and stay sane you have to do breaks. Which is tricky and not in your authority completely but absolutely required. Especially if you work with others. There are always a few people at the kitchen who can make your dishwashing life easier or harder. From my experiences those who make it harder are larger in numbers and it is between them and yourself you need to draw the line.
A major breakthrough for me was then a girl I worked with pointed at a large trash can to empty and with my then scarce Turkish language capability I replied, “So, here you go”! It was a story retold many times at the kitchen with affirmations, “Girl, you have learned Turkish”. What I have really learned that you don’t need to say much to draw the line. That girl is long gone and there are new ones and my New Year’s resolution is to draw the line so it will not become a wall between them and me.
3. Don’t Multiply Waste
Buy doing a dishwashing job you will inevitably see how much food people waste. We are socialized to create waste especially in the big cities. My heart sinks every time I see a half of a vegetable thrown away while chopping at the American TV cooking shows.
To me leaving mess and waste on the plate is a clear sign of disrespect to food and people who grew it, turned into deliciousness and will be cleaning after you. Especially in Turkey where food is mostly served on the common plates to share and hence you are given sufficient opportunity to be humble.
Our buffet breakfast at the Sapanca farmhouse is a great example. Özgür’s mom is very generous as she prepares the table with dozen cured olives, twenty types of cheeses, twenty six jams and eighteen dry fruits and nuts. Every Sunday I see lots of plates with tons of stuff which was not even touched arriving to the dishwashing station: leftovers of cheese and olives, pieces of börek, five little bowls of jam and a occasional cigarette butts stacked into the pile of tissues. I always wonder why some people instead of simply doing a few helpings as they eat prefer to create this dubious art form. My New Year’s resolution will be to minimize waste at home too: it has been five months without clothes shopping for me and I am planning to make it a full year of keeping my wardrobe cluttering-free.
4. Use Every Opportunity To Learn
When I had time I would always peek into the kitchen, watch for how food is being made and if there was no big rush ask questions about the preparation. You learn a lot about the cooking process: you plant yourself next to the chef and try to understand the rationale of the chef’s actions. The idea is to catch and wash the dishes and utensils that are not needed any more but not to wash something which will still be used: for instance, once I nearly washed a frying pan in which a tuna steak was grilled yet the chef seized it last moment from my clueless hands and poured soy sauce on the hot pan so it started sizzling and with some magic become the sauce the tuna was served with.
Even when I did not have chance to peek into the kitchen I used my dishwasher role to learn. Whenever I was taking an empty pot or bowl of dish just being made from the chef I would always take a bit with my finger to taste and record in my mind the ingredients and the flavor so I could reproduce it on my own.
And needless to say through dishwashing I got really up and close with dishes and found out the purpose and use of some wild kitchen utensils and serving dishes. This is how I got introduced to quick clay pot used for slow cooking (güveç) or quirky knife akin to a little pole axe. My New Year’s resolution will be to keep the learning pace despite I am very familiar with Turkish cooking. With cooking getting basics can take a few months but honing your skills can take a lifetime so my learning opportunities are far from exhausted.
5. Stay humble about what you do
Dishwasher is definitely one of those looked down professions. No one wants to be one. For me the challenge was to put up with your ego. How could I do the dirty dishes produced by those village guys which no education. Me who graduated from a business school and worked at a prestigious consultancy. Me who lived and traveled the world. Me who fine-dined. Me who splashed. Yet as weeks passed I had realized I was only a woman trying to figure out ways to move to this country and start her business. Just as before I was a sleepless overworked miserable woman with no life outside the office. This helped me figure that prestigious and cool matter only when you pitch something. And your need to simply live your life instead of pitching some image of it to the others.
In a metaphorical way we all are dishwashers: putting lots of effort in something that does not always gets the due recognition. Most of the time you understand that effort if you had taken it yourself. That is why I am the biggest advocate of our cleaning ladies here in Sapanca as I know so well what they are going through with the dishwashing. My New Year’s resolution will be to quietly wash dishes .. because they never stop coming. And because I hope that people around me also “wash dishes” in their own way and understand the effort.