The Most Important Things I Learned as a Chef Took Place in the Dishpit

By Paul Sorgule, MS, AAC

The position of chef is enormously challenging; it requires the full gamut of skills as an accomplished cook, a manager of the kitchen environment, a savvy financial wizard and the leadership qualities of a winning football coach. What every successful chef learns is that the complexity of this job is only manageable with the right team in place–a team of dedicated technicians who take their position seriously and perform with minimal intervention. To this end, a chef can only realize success in his or her position if the lessons learned along a career path are appreciated and practiced.Dishes

The title of this article may seem to focus on those essential employees who tirelessly address one of the most thankless jobs in the kitchen, but in reality the intent is to encourage every chef to take the time to reflect on all of the lessons learned throughout his or her career. When this is held close to the heart throughout a chef’s time in the kitchen, only then will he or she achieve a high level of success.

Let’s look at some of those lessons addressed along the way:

Great Food Requires a Clean Canvas

Cooks and chefs invest time, talent and personal pride in building food that tastes as wonderful as it looks. If the plate is the canvas and it’s not pristine, then all else is lost on the customer. Your dishwasher plays a critical role in presenting your cuisine.dsc_0733_31512100093_o2

Respect Comes Through Example

If a chef strives to earn the respect of his or her staff, then it is essential that he or she set an example of appreciation for each and every player. Respect your dishwasher.

Everything in a Kitchen has a Place

Just as mise en place is critical to a line cook’s success during service and a server’s efficiency in the dining room, so too is mise en place important to the dishwasher.  Knowing exactly where specific plates, flatware, glassware and pots and pans must be stored and ensuring they are in place when a cook or server needs them will be important for a smooth service. Train your dishwashers about mise en place and appreciate their attention to detail.

A Simple ‘Thank You’ Goes a Long Way Toward Leadership

Motivation is a concept that is in the hands of the beholder, yet the small things that leaders do to set the stage for personal motivation are ultimately important. Taking a minute at the end of a shift to shake a dishwasher’s hand or pat them on the back with a very sincerely thank you will go a long way toward building respect. Encourage your line cooks to do the same.

Cost Control Requires Many Eyes

Kitchens run on very tight margins–portions that are too large, the loss of china, glassware, and flatware due to carelessness, and wasteful use of cleaning chemicals can be the straw that breaks the restaurant’s back. Your dishwasher has the eyes to monitor these things and keep the chef informed. Appreciate the value of your dishwasher as a profit maker.

The Kitchen is Only as Strong as its Weakest Link

Often dismissed as interchangeable parts, the dish crew is considered by far too many cooks and chefs as the least significant members of a kitchen team. This is far from accurate. If you don’t agree, just watch what happens in a kitchen when the dishwasher doesn’t show up.

Treat your Dishwasher Well–Without the Dishwasher, the Kitchen will come to its Knees

The fact remains that every cook cringes at the thought of having to wash dishes when the dish crew fails to arrive. Cooks know how physically hard, thankless and mentally challenging the job is. When the dish crew is short staffed or not available, the entire system is pushed toward potential failure. Appreciate your dish crew.

No One Person is More Important than the Other

In the big scheme of things, once a cook or chef experiences the task of doing the job of someone else, then the importance of that role becomes vivid. Every position is _2T_3549important.

Your Dishwasher Might be your Next Breakfast Cook

How many excellent breakfast cooks or prep cooks had their start as a dishwasher?  Look into a dishwasher’s eyes–do you see the desire to learn? Is that spark of passion present that can be molded into a great cook? Don’t look at a person for what they do, look at them for what they might become.

Your Dishwasher Might be a Chef Someday

Ask any chef about their first job in a kitchen. My money is on the same response: “dishwasher.” In fact, I would assume that any chef worth a grain of salt that did not start in the dishpit is at a real disadvantage. I rest my case.

Treat Everyone the Same, Yet Everyone Differently

Everyone in the kitchen must be treated fairly–a restaurants’ employee handbook will likely state this in so many words. At the same time, every employee comes to work with a different set of baggage, challenges, interests and needs. That dishwasher who is consistently late for work may not be able to afford transportation based on the meager wages paid. Empathy is one approach, but helping that person arrange for dependable transportation is a step toward true leadership. Be empathetic and help find solutions–that’s what leaders do.

Think about it: One of your Lowest Paid Employees is Responsible for the Most Expensive Piece of Equipment and One of the Most Expensive Inventories in your Operation

Maybe you have never thought of the dishwasher in this regard, but that dish machine may tip the scales at $20,000 or more and the inventory of china, Riedel glassware and sterling flatware could cost significantly more. Know how crucial that person is to your restaurant’s financial success and invest in his or her training.

Dishwashers are Team Members, too

When you celebrate a great service, include your dishwashers. They had an important role to play that is just as important as your line cooks. Bring your dishwasher into the fold.ACF Atlanta Sunday Misc Pictures (267)

If you don’t have the time to treat your dishwasher with respect, when will you find the time to hire their replacement?

Every chef I know complains about the revolving door with dish staff. I have worked as a chef in operations where a dishwasher help wanted ad is always posted–if you don’t need them today, you will need them tomorrow. Treat your dishwashers with respect, train them, acknowledge their work and demonstrate their importance to the team and maybe, just maybe, you won’t need to be constantly on the lookout for new staff.

15 Minutes a Day Spent Helping your Dishwasher may be the Most Important Investment you Make

Finally, one of the best things that a chef can do, each and every day, is to take off that chef coat, put on a bib apron and jump behind that dish machine or pot sink and give your dish crew a hand. When the entire kitchen sees that no job is beneath the chef, then they will understand that you walk the talk: “Everything is everyone’s job in the kitchen.”

Paul Sorgule has been a chef and educator for more than four decades holding positions as hotel executive chef, food and beverage director, faculty member, dean of culinary arts and provost at a prominent culinary college. Sorgule is president of Harvest America Ventures, a restaurant and culinary school consulting and training company he formed in 2012. He blogs about culinary issues and finding that work/life balance at



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