The Zen of Dishwashing

Caleb Beck

Dishwashing in a restaurant is a position that’s difficult to romanticize. You’re the bottom rung on the ladder, a decomposer of the kitchen, subsisting solely to blast oil scum from pans with hot water and chemicals and return utensils back to sender. More than a few times while running my cycles, I question whether I’m mere years away from the machine automating my input entirely and just digitally searing the plates clean. It’s archaic, it’s rough on the hands and it won’t earn you phone numbers on your check like the waiter Chad outside, schmoozing for tips.

Why is it that I look forward to dishwashing when I clock in? I think for the first time in my week, and after a few semesters of standard deadline anxiety and existential dread (read: age 21), I can finally zone out and complete tasks in a vacuum separate from my perceived identity. I feel some sort of meditative rhythm breathing steadily while I shuffle plates, scrub metal bowls and polish spoons. I can hear every sound so clearly as I write this, and feel where every plate is going to fall because I’ve seen the pattern enough times to carry the motions forever.

In that way, my back-of-house chemical sanitation gig feels like juggling or drumming, and I start drifting away from my form the more I focus on the ebb and flow of the plates clanking, the nozzle hissing, the washing machine roaring to life and dying as it drains.

I work with only two other chefs at a time, and this flow of energy becomes really interesting to me when our conversation dies down for twenty minutes or so, and our drive through the night intertwines as each of us is dealing with our own monologues, absorbed in our motions. A sharp clash as I throw more silverware into the tray. Cucumbers sliced staccato style, mushrooms hissing as they’re sautéed on iron skillets.

For the first time in a long time, my brain feels like the kitchen space, prone to flooding and grease fires, but able to thrive given space. I can compartmentalize my anxieties on a clean stack of saucers, I can wring my worries free from the thoughts they cling to with enough water and effort. Roll your eyes, it’s deserved, but it’s kept me walking back to this restaurant on Freret St. through unlawful New Orleans heat and downpours.

I think restaurant jobs like this everyone should have at least once whether you get fired two weeks in, or you serve somewhere for ten years. I feel like I’ve been humbled by my years in lowly service industry jobs because in these weird fleeting moments of detachment, I’ve learned to simply exist and operate as greater than a sum of my parts.