Critic Turned Cook follows former Seattle Post-Intelligencer food critic Leslie Kelly on her journey away from the keyboard and into the kitchen as she trains at various Tom Douglas restaurants. Take it away, Leslie!
Can I please see a show of hands among veteran cooks of who got their start working the dish pit? It's a dirty job, but a foot in the door. One of the more memorable passages in Soul of a Chef, the book by Michael Ruhlman, is the image of a young Thomas Keller sweeping floors in his first restaurant. Scut work is hard and humbling, but it builds character, right? Makes you appreciate your spot on the line.
That's what I kept telling myself as I took my turn in the steamy dish pit at Shultzy's, a slamming-busy college pub near the University of Washington, where the lunch rush often means the dining room runs out of dishes. There's no dishwasher on staff, so everybody pitches in. The first day on the job, I saw the Mom-and-Pop owners, Don and Susan Shultze, take turns in the pit. "The problem is my glasses get steamed up," Susan said, as she cleaned out the muck that had fallen off the plates.
Initially, I was squeamish about touching people's used food. Ewww, became my mantra as I scraped plates. But I quickly got over that feeling, and powered through racks of dishes before a server showed up to relieve me. He insisted that he didn't mind. "I love coming back here at night and cranking the music," he said. "Yeah, it's kind of like going to the spa," I joked.
As a critic, I often thought of the dishwasher as the unsung hero on the culinary team, the oil that keeps the machine running. Especially at restaurants that make their reputations on tasting menus, with so many plates to clean. At The Herbfarm, a destination restaurant outside Seattle, the entire staff is introduced before the meal, including the dishwasher. Let's all give those hard-working plate jockeys a hand!