Former Vancouver dishwashers turned chefs share lessons from the pit

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      Oh, the glory of being a chef: the access to fine ingredients, the creativity, the ability to make people swoon… Then there is all the hard work involved. Those who dedicate their nights and days to leading a kitchen have a long road of learning behind them. For many cooks, their initial exposure to the food industry is not at a restaurant’s prep station but in the dish pit—the slimy, sloppy, chaotic, noisy, slippery dish pit.

      Many of Metro Vancouver’s best chefs started out as dishwashers. Read on to hear about a few local talents’ intro to restaurant work and what it’s really like in the back while you’re sitting down for a freshly cooked meal.

      William Lew, Notch8 Restaurant and Bar

      (Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, 900 West Georgia Street)

      Lew washed dishes at Glowbal in 2005. Wearing his best suit, the UBC animal-biology student went in to simply drop off his résumé, and the chef asked if he could start right then and there. He enjoyed it so much he didn’t even realize that his shift had ended at 4 a.m.

      Best part of the job: “From the dish pit, we had a clear and audible perspective toward the open kitchen, and I remember watching the cooks, so inspired and in awe of what they could create and all the pressure and responsibility they carried. It was the most inspiring, motivating, and exciting environment I had ever experienced. That one evening changed the course of my professional and creative life forever.”

      Worst part of the job: “Nothing. I washed dishes for two years while finishing my university degree. I grew stronger as a person, gained confidence, and figured out that adaptability was a key to being successful.”

      Life lessons from the dish pit: “It taught me the value of hard work and what you can accomplish through putting in full, passionate effort to pursue and achieve a dream. It taught me patience, tolerance, and resilience.”


      Terroir Kitchen’s Faizal Kassam.
      Tobin Smith

      Faizal Kassam, Terroir Kitchen

      (2232 Marine Drive, West Vancouver)

      Kassam washed dishes at La Régalade (the same spot where his own resto now sits) in 2003. He applied for the job because he was fascinated by restaurants and French cuisine.

      Best part of the job: “I knew that I wanted to go into classic French cuisine after about two days. Once I was comfortable with the responsibilities and fully oriented, I was able to witness the inner dynamics of a fast-paced, busy kitchen. We would all sit down for a staff meal at the end of the night. It was my first taste of French food, and boy, was it good. The actual act of hand-washing dishes is very Zen-like for me. I felt at ease and at peace when working with hot, soapy water.”

      Worst part of the job: “The smell after you were done your shift; witnessing the amount of food being thrown out (back then, there was no organic recycling program); and taking out the trash. Also, I wasn’t very dry often. Wet shoes, shirt, and pants are usually quite uncomfortable to work in.”

      Life lessons from the dish pit: “Treat your dishwashers fairly. It’s a dirty job that almost nobody wants to do. If you respect your dishwashers, your dishes will be clean.”


      Jeff Koop of Mamie Taylor’s.

      Jeff Koop, Mamie Taylor's

      (251 East Georgia Street)

      Koop washed dishes at Earls in White Rock in 2004. He was into skateboarding at the time, and one day his parents decided to stop paying for all of the skateboard decks and shoes he kept destroying. That was when he decided it was time to get a job.

      Best part of the job: “Sometimes the cooks would give me free food. They weren’t supposed to, but they would anyways. That’s the only highlight I can think of.”

      Worst part of the job: “Taking out the garbage. You had to haul all the garbage and broken glass on a trolley to a giant trash compactor a block away at 1:30 a.m. The cooks would always overstuff the garbage bags so they’d rip when you tried to throw them in, and garbage would spill everywhere. Then you had to go back to the restaurant for cleaning supplies. It sucked.”

      Life lessons from the dish pit: “The job taught me how to work quickly and efficiently, how to be organized and thorough, and how to be a team player. Being a teenager working alongside very good-looking servers even taught me how to talk to women who are completely out of my league. It’s always difficult to start at the bottom of any hierarchy. It requires humility, patience, and tolerance. Those are exactly the qualities that have best served me in my career.”


      Wild Rice’s Jericho Garcia.

      Jericho Garcia, Wild Rice

      (810 Quayside Drive, New Westminster)

      Garcia washed dishes at Earls Bridge Park in 2012 while going to BCIT.

      Best part of the job: “I started dishwashing when I was 20. I didn’t really know what to do with my future. I had no goals. That is where I started to fall in love with what I do. I was so eager to jump on line. I observed all the tools I washed and learned how to use them. When they [the waiters] sent back the bowls, I would smell the marinades and the sauces, trying to figure out the ingredients. When I got home I’d try to re-create those recipes with only the guidance of my sense of smell. I found my purpose in life.”

      Worst part of the job: “Going home. I remember catching the last SkyTrain or, even worse, night buses late at night with wet socks, or wet pants if I forgot to bring extra. And the thing that dishwashers hate the most is when the servers won’t sort out the dishes—like, bowls on top of plates when they all know they should stack them; pieces of food left on the plate that should have been discarded.”

      Life lessons from the dish pit: “It’s grunt work, I know, but we all gotta start somewhere. That decision changed my life. It transformed a 20-year-old Filipino immigrant with no plans and no money into the kind of fine chef I keep trying to be every day.”


      David Mueller of Bauhaus.

      David Mueller, Bauhaus

      (1 West Cordova Street)

      Mueller washed dishes at Joey in Kelowna in 2006, starting during the winter break in his first year of engineering at UBC Okanagan. A friend, who was a server, said he would help Mueller get a job in the kitchen so he could save some money for the upcoming semester. Mueller did not know it was going to be a dishwashing position.

      Best part of the job: “I can’t elaborate on what the best thing about being a dishwasher was but rather the industry in general. My favourite things are the people I’ve met. I met my wife in the industry; I’ve met great friends in the industry. There is a certain level of camaraderie and respect that makes this industry special.”

      Worst part of the job: “The disorganization of the plates and equipment when servers, bussers, managers, and cooks brought them to the dish area. I like to keep my work environment clean and organized.”

      Life lessons from the dish pit: “Being a dishwasher taught me that when starting at the bottom, hard work and dedication to the task at hand can lead to upward movement within the kitchen. I was only a dishwasher for two days before the chef asked me if I would like to learn the salad station. When it’s needed, I like to go back into the dish area and help out my dishwashers. I help them reorganize the clutter and get caught up. I find this goes a long way to boost their morale. I also like to promote my dishwashers to the line when they show that they have motivation to learn, because I would not be where I am today if the chef at Joey hadn’t done the same for me.”


      The Dirty Apron’s David Robertson.
      Kevin Frederick Clark

      David Robertson, The Dirty Apron

      (540 Beatty Street)

      Robertson washed dishes at Red Robin on Marine Drive in North Vancouver in 1989. He was in high school, and his parents told him it was time for him to start making some money and began charging him rent.

      Best part of the job: “I loved all the moving parts of the kitchen, the camaraderie, how it was so fast-paced, and how you got staff meals. I always liked the energy of the restaurant business, the access to fine ingredients. I’d see how long I could keep my surface area clean. I made it a game. The servers loved you for that.”

      Worst part of the job: “How your hands got all wrinkly and how you’d smell like detergent. I didn’t like the tip structure. You got the least amount of money but had the dirtiest job.”

      Life lessons from the dish pit: “It taught me organization and cleanliness and structure. I never take it for granted; the dishwasher is just as important as the chef. We all work together. Tell people to tip the dishwasher or buy the dishwasher a beer.”


      Gooseneck Hospitality’s Alessandro Vianello.

      Alessandro Vianello, Goose-Neck Hospitality

      (various locations)

      Vianello—who’s the development chef for Wildebeest, Bufala, Lucky Taco, and the forthcoming Bells and Whistles—washed dishes at White Spot on Lonsdale in North Vancouver in 2000. Having wanted to be a chef since he was four, he saw it as a chance to get his foot in the door.

      Best part of the job: “I didn’t enjoy the job all that much, to be honest. Looking back, I think the best part was not having to talk too much during service; everyone else in the kitchen would just leave me alone and let me get on with it.”

      Worst part of the job: “Being wet all the time.”

      Life lessons from the dish pit: “Working as a dishwasher taught me a few very important skills, including organization, discipline, efficiency, and how to be quiet in a kitchen. I think all the best chefs start out as dishwashers.”

      Follow Gail Johnson on Twitter @gailjohnsonwork.