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The Importance of the Dishwasher: A Rant from Restaurateur Justin Cucci

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Restaurateur and chef Justin Cucci of RootDown, Linger, and Ophelia's talks about the role of the dishwasher.


On the House is Eater's column that goes behind the scenes of the restaurant business, written by the owners, operators, chefs and others who make our favorite establishments tick. Today, Justin Cucci, the man who brought us the popular RootDown, Linger, and Ophelia's, talks about the role of the dishwasher in the restaurant's life and well-being.

Some days, when I need to bitch slap myself—platonically, that is—and I need a little reality check, I poke my head in the dish pit and say hi to any one of the many hard working, smiling, humble, usually Latino, dishwashers. I drop a quick "Que Pedo, Holmes," in my best East LA gringo swag, which never fails to solicit a warm, generous and politely bewildered gold-studded smile. And instantly, there is my much needed perspective into the invisible forces — dishwashers — that exist in the restaurant universe that are (literally) at work.

Herein lies the secret sauce: These men and women don't just wash dishes, but rather are the fabric of the safety net that catches all the shit that the gravity of a busy dinner service sends rolling downhill in a dirty, greasy, grimy, soggy, noisy, humid mess.

While we chefs charm the crowd walking the tightrope, in the spotlight, on center stage, and a few servers are loudly kvetching that they made less than $1300 on their three hour shift, the dishwashers are quietly bleeding integrity, busting their asses to send $20 bills back to their families in the hopes of creating a better life back home. Ever been away from your family or spouse when you worked a double? "GAWD, that's SO GHETTO"! Well, most dishwashers I know have left their families thousands of miles away for months and years on end while they work for meager wages, often thanklessly and garnering little recognition, without complaint.

Did you know that there is a band called "Rage Against The Dish Machine?" No? That made fiercely polemical music, which brewed sloganeering leftist rants against corporate America, cultural imperialism, and government oppression into a Molotov cocktail of punk, hip-hop, and thrash? Well, there should be, or there would be if white kids had to wash dishes at a busy restaurant. So there's that.

Wanna know what depression really looks like? Try closing a restaurant down, in the wee, shitty hours of the night, waiting for the last dirty dishes to saunter in under the worst lighting the restaurant can muster. The distinctive smell of the dishpit, hauling 300 pound garbage cans of greasy nuclear food waste, and finally mopping up a floor on par with a rain-soaked Woodstock festival. Meanwhile, the closing manager is drinking a $30 scotch with a filtered water ice ball, simultaneously texting, playing Sudoku, watching Game of Thrones and flirting with the last host in the air-conditioned office. Yeah, and there's that too.

I guess my point is this: I grew up a privileged white kid from the West Village, in my grandparents' restaurant, in a sea of dysfunction and craziness, in an industry that is much more cliquish than "Mean Girls." I have been on almost every team in restaurant biz — the entitled actor-musician servers team, the startender ass-getting machine team, the managers carte blanche to party team with no accountability, and finally the secret clubhouse of the back of the house team. But I have never been on the Dishwashers team. Sure, I did a shift here and there and washed dishes to get it on my resume, which comes in handy when I have to give the ol' "I have done every job in the restaurant..." speech.

But let's face it: I was never really a dishwasher. I never had to be one, so I can only look through the steam of the dish machine and peer in. I do know this: I have much respect, big-ups, and mad love for the many, many dishwashers that have worked with me and for me. I envy their work ethic, their integrity, their humility and most of all their character, which to me is one of the foundations of the culture of hospitality I try and deliver to my guests every day.

To all the hard working, humble, kind and gentle dishwashers, THANK YOU and muchas gracias amigos. I am very grateful for you.