Dishwashers – in today’s competitive market for good, reliable employees, they’ve become a valuable commodity. But even though their toil may no longer be thankless, it is still hard and dirty work and everyone had better respect that. For some, being a dishwasher is a career, for others it’s only a stepping stone to their dreams of culinary stardom, while a few are just in it for the money. Whatever. It’s their job to clean up every one else’s act and they do it with pride and professionalism. We talk to dishwashers who have worked at three top restaurants in Vancouver: Tojo’s, Provence Marinaside and Lumiere.
PO TANG – TOJO’S
Po Tang is a Chinese-Canadian man working in a predominantly Japanese speaking environment. Perhaps being forced to keep his observations and comments to himself translates into better job stability. Then again, maybe he just likes the place. Mr. Tang is entering his third decade at his post by the sink, armed with the tools of his trade – rubber gloves and a spray hose.
You have been a dishwasher at Tojo’s for over 20 years. Why so long?
Mr. Tojo is a nice guy and he gives a little more in wages and benefits and we all share tips. Tojo cares about all staff like a family. I work here and feel happy – if I felt no good I would be gone. For me, nothing is a problem here.
Do you do anything else besides washing the dishes?
I cook tempura; started 10 years ago. Now Mr. Yang is dishwasher for 13 years and I can do more.
Besides Tojo, how do you get along with the other Japanese chefs?
My Japanese is pretty stupid – our culture is far apart. English and French is easier to speak than Japanese and they speak English to me. When they speak Japanese to each other I watch their faces and I know the meaning. We never fight but a little argue. Tojo likes to say bullshit.
You must be happier in this new place.
Old place rented, now Tojo owns this place and everything has improved. In the other place, it was so small I couldn’t even shake a pan. Now I even have a window. I like the new layout a lot.
Is there anything you don’t like about your job?
Washrooms. I hate to clean washrooms. But now other staff besides me has to take care of them; everyone shares responsibility.
You must have seen some changes in 20 years
I’ve seen many people come and go. I came here when I was 33 years old.
Do you ever get tired and fed up?
Never tired? Bullshit. I’m like a battery and need to be recharged on Sundays – my day off. On Friday I think about Sunday.
What do you do on Sunday?
I go to church with my family and then we go for lunch, maybe Chinese or hamburgers; sometimes we go to dim sum or a steakhouse with friends.
Do you have any ambitions?
Step by step I’m moving up. I first prepped daikon, shredded it. I changed the oil for deep-frying. Then I learned how to cut fish. I was very worried about working with fish but Tojo explained. For me, a Japanese restaurant is the best. I don’t want to own a Chinese restaurant. I think I will stay here until I retire – if Tojo lets me.
CARLO SAUL – PROVENCE MARINASIDE
Carlo Saul and his brother, Mark, were born in the Philippines, and both are employed by the Quaglia family. Carlo is now a sous chef and Mark is a waiter, but they both started out as sink jockeys, washing pots and pans at the original Provence on 10th Ave.
You have been at Provence for 10 years. Why stay so long at one restaurant?
I decided to be a cook and I figured if I stayed in one place I would have more opportunity to learn; more people to teach me.
Who was your best teacher?
(Provence Chef and Owner) Jean-Francis. He is always there for me, teaching. Sometimes he gets mad but he never yells. And I learned by myself, watching everyone. Sometimes they would put me on the line when there was a no-show. It was scary – I made a lotta mistakes.
What kind of mistakes?
Overcooking steak, overcooking pasta, ruining the staff’s dinner.
What did the staff get for dinner?
Something usually cooked from my own Philippine recipes, beef stew, roast pork. We never ate leftovers.
Sounds like you’ve got a generous boss.
Yep, he is a really good guy.
What changes have you seen in a decade?
A lot. Generally, people move up the ranks faster. Dishwashers are learning to prep right away, and given more opportunities. They can’t be in one place, just scrubbing pots and pans – everyone has to help each other.
What are the worst parts of a dishwasher’s job?
Scrubbing and shining the fans and vents – a horrible job, you have to do it by hand. And cooks burn the pots. I soaked them in degreaser, sometimes overnight and then scrubbed with metal scrubbies the next day. Most of the time, I am cursing them. When I was busy they had to scrub their own.
Your first prep job?
I had to dice tomatoes. The dice was the right size so I moved up to baby carrots, peeled potatoes, and then I made fries in the deep fryer. The worst thing was
fish. I take the guts out, then scale. It’s a whole fresh fish like sea bass, big. JF taught me. I don’t have to do that anymore – our prep cook is now the fish guy.
Do you get much time off?
I usually go away for a month and see my family in the Philippines, once every two years. The rest of the time I’m working, sometimes one day off a week. I’m okay with that – I’m only 29 and I’m saving my paychecks. I am surprised that I am a sous chef – didn’t expect it so soon. At first I didn’t want to be a cook but then it got into my blood. Now I want to be chef, the boss. I hope to have my own restaurant one day and cook my native recipes and French-Italian food.
SABA NALLIAJ MAHENBRAN – LUMIERE
Saba Nalliaj Mahenbran hails from Sri Lanka and has been working as a dishwasher at Lumiere for 10 years. He is the unofficial holder of the title “Vancouver’s Highest Paid Dishwasher”.
We hear you are the highest paid dishwasher in town.
How do you know you are?
I’ve worked at other places – and Rob Feenie knows.
So how much is he paying you?
$15 per hour.
You must be good!
If he paid me $20 an hour I would be better. It is a very difficult job and it would be hard to train someone else to do my job.
Yeah, there’s a lot of stainless steel in that kitchen.
Yes, very hard to keep clean. I am always polishing, polishing.
How hot is that water anyway?
How many glasses are broken in a week?
I don’t clean the glasses anymore – the bar does. But a few years ago I did the glassware. I wouldn’t break any, but sometimes the waiters did.
Speaking of glasses ….. does the washing up team really, really hate those wine tastings?
Yeah, I think they hate the wine tastings. Too many glasses and plates. In one day I wash 2,500 plates.
How many glasses?
Over 1,000 per day.
What’s your trick for cleaning burnt pots?
I soak for a few hours and if the burn is really bad, I spray it with oven cleaner.
Any plans for the future?
I want to cook, but I am too old.
That’s not old! Really, that’s not old. Do you do any prep?
A long time ago I used to cook but not anymore. Here I just wash dishes, but if it isn’t busy I cut vegetables.
I guess that doesn’t happen too often.