The call or text that instantly turns your life into a living hell isn’t about death or taxes. It’s the dishwasher calling off right before pre-shift, on a fully booked night.
Without a dishwasher, the dish tank grinds to a halt and so does your restaurant. They may be on the bottom rung with the hardest, nastiest, worst job ever, but dishwasher happens to be the most important role in your restaurant.
So, keep your dish crew happy. Feeding them and being respectful is common sense, but it doesn’t buy skin in the game. Recognize that dishwashers are the secret weapon to your overall success and you’ll see the benefits touch everyone.
Get More Done
First, realize that dishwashers can and should do more than wash dishes. This means prep work such as chopping herbs, slicing fruit and peeling vegetables.
Asking an employee to get more done and take on more work that deviates from their day-to-day duties isn’t easy. It’s even harder when the worker earns around minimum wage. But here’s the carrot: Taking on more responsibilities prepares the dishwasher to move up the ladder, leads to higher pay and creates a work environment that proves hard work pays off.
Getting your dish crew to embrace prep work is as important as them doing it. Seeing is believing, which is why promoting from within has so many advantages.
When dishwashers see their coworkers move up and vice-versa, it’s infectious. Better pay also contributes to a contagious positive attitude, all of which makes the entire kitchen run more successfully.
That said, it’s important to clearly communicate the trajectory. Make sure your dish crew understands that if they listen, learn and apply the skills you’ve taught, they will have the opportunity to be promoted.
The concept of teaching dishwashers to prep is straightforward. Your kitchen will run more efficiently if the more talented, higher paid production staff and cooks aren’t peeling potatoes or chopping celery.
Make a list of the mundane and tedious tasks better left to the beginners. Prep chores that my dishwashers do include peeling turnips and asparagus, washing lettuce, and shelling and deveining shrimp. Every kitchen is different, so take some time to figure out what your crew can accomplish through better dishwasher efficiency. If you’re one of those chefs who would never buy peeled garlic, leave it to your dish crew.
Growth from within helps ensure consistency because lessons learned correctly the first time tend to stick versus breaking bad habits acquired in some other hash house. When prep cooks make mistakes, everyone on the line slows down and it costs you money.
Cuts Like a Knife
Start with basic mirepoix prep for stock, picking and chopping herbs, letting them get a feel for a knife. Gradually add dicing and slicing to their repertoire.
As dishwashers gain confidence, introduce different shapes to the mix, such as a julienne or chiffonade cut. Like any employee, the smart and ambitious ones will show themselves. Not every dishwasher can or wants to move up. Dishwashers who resist can continue to peel vegetables and pick herbs. Invest in the cat that shines, which won’t take long to figure out. Then schedule a few hours a week on the prep roster for your new star.
Aside from telling whiny cooks, “Don’t make your problem my problem—figure it out,” I like to catch workers doing things right and complimenting them. Our business is known for power-hungry
chefs who get off on crapping all over their employees when they make mistakes. This may work for certain high-wattage celebrity chefs, but for most of us, it just reinforces an unstable kitchen.
At pre-shift, make a point of singing praises and recognizing good work in front of other staff members.
Training dishwashers to do more than handle the dish tank is no different from cross-training cooks on every station: There are no short cuts and mentoring takes time.
Poor performance is on you. The payoff, however, is less stress, a kitchen that runs more smoothly and a crew that feels good about coming to work. That dishwasher you spent time teaching just may become your next sous chef—or at the very least, cut the likelihood of you working the dish station.
Michael Tsonton has been a working chef for more than 20 years. Follow him on Twitter @ChefTsonton.