গোপন বাসন পরিস্কার / Dishwasher Confidential

 

Illustration / Lucie Ménétrier for Are We Europe

 
 

THIS IS THE STORY OF THE CLOSEST PERSON IN MY LIFE. Not the person I trust the most. Not someone I live with, sleep with, or love. Not my mother, not my brother, not a girlfriend, not a boyfriend, not a best friend. I mean the person who is physically closest to me most days, which I spend working as a chef in a restaurant in Paris.

There are a few different job titles that describe the role this person plays in a kitchen, and none of them are lovely. Scullion, lavapiatti, plongeur, sguattero; depending on your level of political correctness, you might decide to call him a “multi-purpose agent.” But usually, most people call him—or rarely her—a dishwasher.

Blaise Pascal once said that the hardest thing for a human being is to be left alone in a closed space with no one to talk to and nothing to do. I bet he never worked in a professional kitchen. Chefs, cooks and dishwashers crave solitude and silence. Unfortunately for everyone else in a kitchen, a chef’s supreme authority allows him to be nervous, peevish, and sometimes irascible at will. Sometimes I am guilty of this, but there is a constraining force: I know that if I’m too cruel with other cooks, they’ll leave. And so it falls, all too often, upon the dishwasher to bear the brunt of my fire and fury.

Here’s the problem if you’re a dishwasher: I know you need to move to a different spot, I know that you need to open this drawer, because you need that potato peeler, and you need it right now; I know you need to go over there, even if every time you open the drawer you hit my shin, and when you hit my shin I curse against both the gods you believe in and the one I grew up with.

You move those messy columns of dirty plates knotted with strange forks and lobster carcasses and lamb bones. I know that they are very likely to fall, crash and make lots of noise, I know that. It’s not your fault if they fall, but it bothers my sacred chef’s concentration and I need to blame someone. I’m pretty sure that heaven is a place where plates never fall, and where glasses break in silence.

There is nothing more annoying than someone who does everything to avoid annoying you. Why are they so often sloppy and irritating? Because they are scared. Because year after year, chef after chef has blamed them for the very fact that they exist.

***

Subroto, from Northern Bangladesh, has a finance degree and dreams of being a concierge in luxury hotels. He applied twice, but failed because his English wasn’t good enough. His English and French vocabularies are in fact quite rich, but both languages come out completely messy when it comes to putting their words into sentences with proper syntax. But at least we can make small talk in the kitchen.

He’s delicate, sensitive, and often wears lip gloss and some mascara. With his huge and old white shirts and aprons he is doubtless the most elegant of the team, the waiters and the chef included. And he considers dishwashing to be torture.

 
 
 
There are a few different job titles
that describe
the role
this person plays
in a kitchen,
and none of them
are lovely.
 

 
 

It seems that so many of our stories now are about cooks, restaurants, and chefs. But these stories never mention the other members of the crew. Waiters, delivery men, and, of course, dishwashers.

Once upon a time, George Orwell was Subroto, Gopal, and Dulal at a chic hotel on Paris’s rue de Rivoli, in the late 1920’s. “For what it’s worth, I want to give my opinions about the life of a Paris plongeur,” he later wrote, in Down and Out in Paris and London. “It is strange that thousands of people in a great modern city should spend their waking hours swabbing dishes in hot dens underground. The question I am raising is why this life goes on - what purpose it serves, and who wants it to continue, and why I am not taking the merely rebellious faineant attitude.”

In trying to consider the social significance of a plongeur’s life, he concluded, “I think one should start by saying that a plongeur is one of the slaves of the modern world.”

***

 
Illustration /  Lucie Ménétrier  for Are We Europe

Illustration / Lucie Ménétrier for Are We Europe

 

Gopal, 27, is the youngest I’ve ever worked with, and he was a champion bāsana pariskāraka, which is what I’d call his job if we spoke Bangla. He has worked with better chefs than me, and he has washed far more dishes than I’ll probably ever send out.

When struggling to stay on top of dozens of orders during a particularly busy dinner service, I could sometimes feel him looking at me. I knew what was going through his mind in these moments. I knew he was thinking, “You’re doing alright, but I’ve seen chefs who are so much better than you.”

Besides working as dishwasher, Gopal was a real business man: he owned a “cyber,” a shop where you can make phone calls, access the internet, and print things (it’s where I had our restaurant menus printed), very close to the restaurant and was about to buy another one. He wasn’t making a very significant amount of money from the shop yet, which brought in something like 800€ per month. But Gopal had big plans. To work a lot while he was young, save up money, buy more stores around town, bring his wife from Bangladesh to Paris, and eventually retire at 40.

***

Before celebrity chefs, cooking game shows, food bloggers, and instagram-perfect pictures of brunch, the restaurant business used to be an underground culture that was closed to the outside world. Being cut off from the daily middle-class routine allowed us to be wild and rude. We chefs like to think that it is still the case. That we are different, that we excite you because we possess some superhuman ability to combine creativity with relentless work, and because you literally lap up the fruits of our labor.

I belong to the first generation of cooks who actually chose this job. I could have been scholar, engineer, lobbyist or journalist, but I’m a cook. I love it, and I’m pretty sure I’d hate being one of the other things above. I chose my own education step by step, and I wanted it to be liberal, feminist, European, post-colonial and pinned with lots of critical thinking.

Perhaps it’s ironic, then, that after all of that, I find myself in the role of ‘master,’ telling a story about those who serve. After six years of working as a chef, I still don’t know how to turn on the dishwashing machine.

 
 
 
We understand that he had to leave
during the civil war between the Tamil Tigers
and the government,
that he has a wife and four children
still in Sri Lanka,
that he hadn’t seen them
in twelve years.
 

 
 

Dulal is 37, and his goal in life is to become Gopal. At the time when we worked together, he was struggling to find enough money to open his own grocery shop. In the kitchen, he was painfully slow, and a real creature of habit. I still dream about him slowly rotating meatballs between the palms of his hands.

When I left the restaurant he cried, and when he called me a few days later, I cried, because he was asking for help and I had no idea what to do.

***

“He is no freer than if he were bought and sold,” Orwell wrote. “His work is servile and without art; he is paid just enough to keep him alive; his only holiday is the sack. (...) They have simply been trapped by a routine which makes thought impossible.”

Orwell went on to write that the solution was that dishwashers weren’t necessary, because we didn’t need fancy restaurants. That in time, they would disappear, and injustice along with them. That was Orwell, in 1933.

***

Roshan is the most recent dishwasher I’ve worked with, and the only one who wasn’t from Bangladesh, but rather, from Sri Lanka. He’s lived in France for twelve years. He’s a political refugee and a fervent Catholic. I can’t even count the number of times my colleagues and I have tried to coax his story out of him; we understand crumbs of it. We understand that he had to leave during the civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the government, that he has a wife and four children still in Sri Lanka, that he hadn’t seen them in twelve years. We also learned, not long ago, that the oldest of his children—still in Sri Lanka—is 18, deaf, and mute, which makes communicating over Skype fairly difficult, because Roshan only knows the rudimentary basics of sign language.

We’ve managed to understand that he had problems getting legal papers, but we never quite understood what the problems were in detail. We knew that even during his vacation period he refused to leave Paris because he was afraid of being detained. Since we’ve known him, Roshan has told us over and over that his legal situation was close to being resolved. Time and time again, he would take his little box of documents and go to see his lawyer, and every time he would come back a little more defeated, asking for more documents and more signatures from the boss.

With regular documents, the dishwashers are entitled to the same social protections as other workers in France: five weeks minimum vacation, regulated types of contracts, contributions towards retirement, and so on. But since many barely speak and read French properly, they often find their rights ignored. They trust friends and “cousins” who allegedly know a bit more, but in fact they live in a cloudy world of suspicion, rumor, and fear. And over the years they develop their own magical thinking about “The Bureaucracy.”

Roshan’s greatest desire was to leave for two months to see his family again. His smallest desire would be to go to Lourdes, to see the shrine to Our Lady, the Virgin Mary. He loves horse races, and from time to time he bets a bit of money on them. He’s 46 years old. Before, in Sri Lanka, he was a photographer. Last month, when I went to say goodbye to my former colleagues, including Roshan, he pulled out his wallet and showed me his driver’s license—a sign that he has his papers in order now. This year he finally got to spend Christmas with his family.

 
 
 
...what he understood to be ‘peppers’
are actually fresh broad beans,
which, in the meantime,
he has carefully shelled.
It’s too late to get peppers,
so I change the menu.
 

 
 

I know that you would love to hear that we chefs, and the kitchens we run, are being changed and influenced by the culture of our (mostly) Bangladeshi dishwashers. You would love for me to tell you that half of them have become line cooks, and from there, eventually chefs like me. That would be a beautiful story, and one I would love to be able to tell you. I would love to live that. But no, the reality is more that we change the way we work not because of the knowledge they bring, but because the language barrier forces us to.

Let’s say I ask Roshan to go get peppers, and then focus on something else for a while. When I’ve finished my task, I ask him for the peppers, supposing that in the meantime he has washed and cleaned them. But despite the fact that he has been in France for years, it turns out that what he understood to be “peppers” are actually fresh broad beans, which, in the meantime, he has carefully shelled. It’s too late to get peppers, so I change the menu.

Within the limits of what’s possible, I try to have my dishwashers cook with me. Yes, I make them do all the shitty things that I don’t want to do myself, but I also try to teach what I can. After years of steak cooked too well done and massacred fish filets, I’ve more or less found my way: starches. Pasta, rice, and in general everything that’s made from some type of grain. So, when we get an order, Dulal drops the pasta into boiling water, he sets a timer, and when it rings he tastes the pasta, then tosses it in a hot pan for one or two minutes. Then he passes the pan to me and I plate the food.

But sometimes I have too much to do, and so Dulal tries to plate for me. He’s seen me do it hundreds of times, and once he tried doing it by himself when we didn’t have much to do, with me giving tips at his side. It was good, so we kept going with it.

Before plating, every single time, he asks for my permission.

“Chef, me decorate?” he says, in a literal translation of his French.

“Yes Dulal, you!” I say back.

Even though in French we say dresser, he is completely right when he says décorer. That’s what we chefs do all the time. We try to give the food a more refined air, to make it more interesting, more ornate. We all know that it doesn’t change how the food tastes very much. In French, dresser is the verb you use when you say “set the table.” English and Italian are relatively similar, with impiattare and “plating,” which both mean to arrange things on a plate.

In southern India, tradition is often to serve food on on banana leaves, or on platters covered with banana leaves. One pours the contents of a pot, and then everyone eats with their hands (in the north of India, on the other hand, thaali is a well-known type of plating). I’ve talked about this with Roshan, who explained to me that in Tamil, “plating” is parimāravum. From the little that I understand, the root of that word has something to do with the verb “move,” as well as the verbs “enlarge” and “relax.” If you were to pour out the contents of a pot even just once, I’m sure you would understand how perfect this etymology is.

 
 
 
We’re all just people, and this is how we live,
chefs and dishwashers,
together.
 

 
 

Subroto was very slow, and a shambles about almost everything. He hated getting himself dirty: when we had a serious leak in the dishwashing machine, he almost cried with disgust. Once, we had a potato crusted fish filet on the menu; it’s not very easy to wrap a filet of fish in thin slices of potato. You have to stick them to each other using just salt and the natural starches of the potato. I don’t know why I was hardheaded enough to attempt to serve this, but I was not succeeding at it. I didn’t have enough time and I was doing it poorly, and the crust wasn’t cooking well— everything was going wrong. Ça partait dans tous les sens, as you would say in French. It was a catastrophe.

When I had blown up and left the kitchen to go smoke, Subroto timidly intervened with the fish I had left on a cutting board. When I came back, he had made four encrusted filets, perfect and beautiful. He was thus immediately crowned supreme authority of potato crusted things. We even posted pictures on Instagram to commemorate.

***

A few years ago, everybody in the food business was talking about the dishwasher at Noma, the multiple- award winning restaurant in Copenhagen that invented contemporary Nordic cuisine, and was named the “Best Restaurant in the World” four different times. When he reopened it as an urban farm, the chef-owner, Rene Redzepi, announced to the world that his dishwasher was, by that point, his business associate and co-owner of the restaurant. Ali Sonko, a 62-year-old man born in Gambia, has been working at Noma since 2003, and is the father of 12 children.

All of this was very cool and touching. Ali was described as a “heart and soul” guy, and Redzepi remarked that having him as co-owner was the happiest day of his career as a chef, because, among other reasons, his own father (also named Ali) had come to Denmark as an immigrant from Macedonia and had worked as... a dishwasher.

Does his promotion feel patronizing, paternalistic, and maybe even a bit colonialist, besides being an undeniably good thing for Ali Sonko?

***

“Dishwashing saved my life. It was the first time I went home respecting myself, respecting others, with anything to feel proud of. Even now the business attracts certain personality types who sense in themselves a need for immediate gratification, quantifiable success or failure, and a general discomfort with the regular 9 to 5 job.”

That’s not Orwell, it’s Anthony Bourdain.

Here’s the difference: writers do “humiliating” jobs, usually hating them and waiting for success and consecration.

Bourdain was a chef before he was a writer. He knew that washing dishes and scraping pans is precisely what we are used to considering a shit job. It’s back-breaking, with no chances for increasing your pay, requires few skills, and offers a dirty environment and little consideration from the other members of your team. At the same time, it’s not a bullshit job—you will never feel like what you do is pointless. You are important. Of course the boss can find someone else if you leave. But that takes time, and time is money. If you don’t wash the dirty plates, the rest of the kitchen has a problem, and you feel that while you’re washing.

According to David Graeber, a professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics and author of Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, almost half of all workers in Europe and the United States can’t share that feeling of being indispensable.

“Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited,” writes Graeber. “The remainder are divided between a terrorized stratum of the unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc.) but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value.”

***

Once, Gopal needed a few months off. His father had been hospitalized in Calcutta, he told us. “My dad, beaucoup problèmes.”

During these two months, my Facebook wall was filled with pictures of Gopal hiking with his girlfriend, having parties in colorful traditional clothes, riding elephants, fishing for carp...

The restaurant’s owners had no social media accounts, so I stuck with “beaucoup problèmes” until the end. I’m telling you this not just because it’s kind of funny, but because we’re all just people, and this is how we live, chefs and dishwashers, together.

— This article appears in
Are We Europe #3: Uprooted

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