"Dishwasher Confidential" Contains adult themes, graphic depictions, and is not suitable for some readers... This Rant also contains an insider's view of Restaurant Kitchens and lesser-known facts about working holidays that you might rather not know. Reader's discretion advised

Dishwasher Confidential: New Year's Special

Eric Renderking Fisk - December 30th, 2007 Bookmark and Share

Life's Lessons

Ren's Rants 2007Again, one of the reasons why I started The Fedora Chronicles is that I love to write. I also enjoy the idea of sharing aspects of my life with all of you (some I've known for years, others just found us and have remained anonymous,) in the hopes that we can all help each other find meaning in the confusing parts of our lives. Part of that "finding meaning" is trying to teach you and hope that you learn from my mistakes.

Lesson Number one in the Text book of "Life Lessons From Ren" is that most of the really bad mistakes I made have something to do with my hot blooded anger and my urge to do something on impulse and a spur of the moment. All of my bad mistakes were emotional responses. Don't do like I did.  If you have the need to do something such as go for someone's throat and sever an artery because you have a momentary thirst for blood and hunger for revenge, don't. Go somewhere and cool down. I'm lucky to have been in the possession of being too well liked, or too needed because I filled a niche that nobody wanted and never got fired or killed.

Lesson Number Two: Don't drink too much, don't smoke, don't touch drugs or hang with people who do. Don't impair your judgment using artificial courage that comes in a bottle, a needle, a joint or a pill. Don't allow yourself to be used when you're in a stupor, if you're high or drunk you'll be more likely to say "yes" to things you know you should refuse. For example, agreeing to work New Year's Eve...

Lesson Number Three: Dare to Be Something More Then What You Are Now. Don't become complacent and don't every confuse contentment with happiness.  Strive to be better then what you are. That includes going for some form of education after graduating High School. That means that you should always be working your way through a non-fiction book, or taking classes, or going to some form of schooling full or part time. That also includes writing of some kind, and writing consistently.

As an amendment to Lesson Number Three: Anyone who stands in your way of this form of self improvement should be cut out of your life like cancer. Because that's what they are. They are a malignant tumor that will drain your spirit and your future. Anyone who tries to encourage you not to do better for yourself is just doing that because they're either using you or holding you back because it makes them feel better to have someone else to wallow in their stagnation.

This is where my bitterness REALLY comes out: Anyone who tells you "Just wait a little while longer, things will get better soon," deserves to be abandoned. Get as far away from that person as you can. That person is The Walking, Waking Dead.

Lesson Number Four: Spend a little more and buy a fedora that's going to last...

These Four Major Life Lessons are written on the back of my honorary degree from The University Of Hard Knocks. Those are lessons I learned the hard way! I'm sharing them with you in the hopes you can pick up where I leave off and excel forward.

Which brings me to this new series for The Fedora Chronicles I'm doing, "Dishwasher Confidential."

I was inspired to start this series while listening to The Phantom Gourmet on WTKK 96.6FM Talk. The two hosts were talking about why New Year's Eve is either the best or the worst night to go out to eat. One of the hosts said that it's a disaster for the employees because they don't want to be there, they would rather be out like normal people that night, and the owners get crazy ideas about special menus.

The memories came flooding back. I dialed up and I told the call screener that one of the hosts was right: New Year's is hit or miss for customers and a mess for those who work. And on top of that, the New Year's that I worked turned out to be the greatest disasters of my working career.

Working on New Year's for the particular restaurant I write about was one of the worst things that I've ever had to endure since I started to draw a pay check for slave's wages. I hated it. More then 15 years have passed, and when I look back on it I'm filled with this fond bitter-sweetness.

No kidding, it was these nights that I learned that The United States does have a Caste System that's determined by a strange meritocracy, The haves and the have-nots are separated by who could go out and party and those who had to work, separated by who was paying the bill and who was doing the cooking, cleaning and serving.

And trust me... it's far better to be the one paying the bill and being served then it is to be the one cooking, cleaning and serving... even if you and the rest of the staff are getting drunk on other people's half finished bottles of champagne and throwing up in close proximity to other peoples meals.

Before I can go any further, let me just add this. The other inspiration for doing this series was from Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential. If you really want to know what it's like to work and live within the restaurant industry, read this book. If you were to buy this book and not read my rants on this subject, I wouldn't mind a bit, (as long as you've read the first part with my 'Life Lessons.') Sorry for the brief commercial. With that said, on to my rant...

It's All About The Owner

To Paraphrase Charles Dickens, the owner of the restaurant can make the burden of his or her employees heavy or light.

The best example of this is was my very first job at the Via Condotti.  Imagine a 1930's Italian restaurant in the middle of a small Vermont city street during the 1980's. Simple enough, right? The owner, Jay, was one of the best bosses that I ever had. He was fair to me, and despite the usual complaints from my fellow co-workers I thought that he could do no wrong. He taught me a lot about myself; that I was tougher then I thought, I had the ability to work with people I didn't like or liked too much for the wrong reasons... and that a boss can get more done with a kind word and the threat of being fired then just a kind word (with a nod to the writers of 'The Untouchables.")

He was fair to me, more so then I deserved.  He gave me an occasional raise because I didn't quit or get fired. He cut me down to the size of a whimpering 4 year old when I acted like it, and built me up as one of the team when I deserved it.

Even though I was already a few inches taller then he was, he was (and I assume still is) a giant. I have only 5 major regrets about my life. Top of that list is not staying there and working through the rest of High School and then on to some college. That's what he wanted for me, learn how to make pizza's and work my way though college and protect me from the perils of the college party life. He treated me like a second son and when I look back at how I quit to be with my dad in the Boston area, I want to just drive the biggest knife through my own heart. It's far less painful than that guilt.

The other extreme was the owner of "The Valdez Fields." [Not it's real name...]

"The Valdez Fields" was like The Via Condotti in a few ways.  It had a vintage atmosphere because many of the fixtures dated back decades. It was (and again, I assume it still does) a Victorian building and I can picture it being used as a speakeasy during Prohibition and a market during the 1940's and 1950's.

One night during the early to mid-1980's, "The Valdez Fields" building was burning. A drunk, spoiled college drop out bought the building from the owner while it was on fire. This was literally a firehouse sale.  As the legend goes, this spoiled college drop out took the money he was left with after his parents died, and poured it into the basement and the first floor of this building in an efforts to create an upscale restaurant, then ruined it by turning it into a beer hall a few nights out of the week.

That was to be expected from this type of character. Imagine Elvis Presley and Bill Clinton had a cousin who's success in life came from owning a head shop (where drug paraphernalia was sold in the front, drugs were sold in back) and bought other properties with the money his parents left him after they died unexpectedly.

I often wondered what this guy would have been like had his parents not died. How much better would the town have been if they had lived. I digress... this has nothing to do with why you shouldn't dine out at most restaurants on New Year's. I'm too hooked on telling the narrative...

But, let me just add that at the time I thought this guy was the most reprehensible person I had ever known. He used people. He would find out what your goals and dreams were and he would use them to his advantage. He would either use them to urge you on to do something for him, or he would urge you to forget about them to get you to do something... you get the picture, he was a user. He would also use the fact that he was an orphan to his advantage. He was immune to criticism.

That was my perception of the man back then, and with time my view of Hazelwood has mellowed. Maybe it's because I'm nearing the age he was back then, or that I've met other characters that were just as manipulative and the edge of that's warn down.

Restaurant owners come in those extremes, some are close to the side of good, or close to the other side: Evil. I have yet to meet anyone in between. There are those that you want to remember and there are those who you try to forget.

If you have to work on New Year's, you want to work for the type you want to remember...

Which brings us to New Year's...

When New Year's came around, Billy Presley Hazelwood (not his real name, the moniker is one I've given to him in reference to what another Hazelwood did to Alaska while also drunk...) came up with this idea of doing this marvelous menu for the locals. The concept was to present his regular customers (who weren't college students, I mean the actual residents of the area) with a fabulous meal with a wonderful environment.

Any owner of any business should be applauded for doing something so ambitious. The problem from beginning to end was that this was Billy Hazelwood. He had brilliant ideas from other restaurateurs that he had stolen or read about in one of the countless restaurant magazines. The only creative spark he had was when he found new restaurants with menus to pilfer. He was handicapped by being an active alcoholic and narcissist, at the same time being absent in either body or mind. His ambitions were beyond his talent and commitment.

He would be vacationing elsewhere, like Manhattan, while a few hundred miles away his employees were implementing his "dream," which was our nightmare.

This brought some unexpected results in attitudes from his employees. Those of who were married with families and tried to have lives out side of "The Valdez Fields" resented the fact that they had to be there, since the rest of the staff were college students and had gone for the holidays...

Those who lived in the area and didn't have any family close by loved the notion that we were getting paid for working while drunk. That's the long and the short of it.  We were going to drink while we work and keep our jobs. We still hated the fact that we had to work, but our heated loathing was quenched with one of the waitresses coming down with a tray of drinks mixed by an equally frustrated bar tender who treated us with a consistent hand into the top shelf stuff.

A heavy hand is a bad thing when it's the bosses, a heavy hand is a good thing when it's the bar-tenders. Same words, different meanings.

Let me also add here that I was 21 when I was there working drunk. I wasn't the only 'dishwasher,' either. I was working with someone who was 6 years younger who was keeping pace with me, drink for drink. If only the authorities knew then what I did... and I think in part there was a conscious effort to get this restaurant shut down, (again, and this time for good.)

Getting The Actual Work Done...

To be fair and honest, some were working professionals and got a lot of good looking plates out there for the customers. Not all of us were too drunk to stand much less work, and we were kept in line by the head cook, (there were no chef's in that kitchen.)

Mary was a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America. There were two sides to her, the stern, angry and frustrated professional who was underpaid and under utilized - and side that remembered when she was younger what it was like when she had to work and wanted to party. The sides of Mary flipped like a switch on the wall, and she wasn't a push over. She wasn't overly mean, either, never taking her frustrations out on any of us. She saved it for her boyfriend's after work and would eventually leave behind her a string of men who felt just as used as she did. Her boyfriend was this guy named Turtle, who she used to abuse in front of everyone.

But then, everyone abused Turtle, and he asked for it. He was of the school that abuse is still a form of attention. And he thrived on attention.

There were handfuls of us who worked who had reputations to hold on to and maintain. That was made harder when the menu was overly ambitious and the supplies on hand weren't adequate enough.

Plates went, not looking as good as they would have on other nights because of a disgruntled staff. They came back in various states of completion. Through out the night I remember there being some words spoken from one waitress about how some of us would be lucky if we still had jobs on January 2nd. Her angst was quickly quenched with a Champane Coctatail made for her by the bartender...

In restaurants, there is hardly a single employee problem that can't be solved with free booze.

To be blunt, and I'm only speaking for myself and some of the people who shared this sentiment: who really cares if you get fired when you're working on the biggest party night of the year and when you're young.   Everyone else is having fun but you.

The place was packed with locals and visiting family and friends.   People dressed in their best clothing dining in what had been and what was going to become a sewer covered in spilled beer, chicken wing parts with smeared bleu cheese dressing and paper napkins matted and dried into grotesque paper-mache' figures. Regardless of the fact that they couldn't have had as much fun as we were having in the basement kitchen, I couldn't help feeling that I was being treated like a second or third class citizen.

Despite the perks of working there, such as eating what ever you could get my hands on before it reached a customers plate or drinking what ever came down whether it was on a tray meant for me or a bottle of anything that wasn't finished by a customer... I didn't want to be there. I wanted to be away from there, or at least be with the people who were making the noise that was so loud that you could say anything obnoxious and none of the management nor paying customers could hear.

I was also there under duress, told that I had to work there that night since the restaurant was short staffed as it was. I wasn't there for the money, I was there to keep the job. And there's a difference few can understand. I resented being there. Or, I resented being there for the wrong reason.

Again, I was there, and the owner wasn't. I hated him, the people who I worked with hated him. And again, that's why we probably drank his profits. Or we even drank him into red ink.

The rest of the night was a rush to finish before midnight. Nobody wants to be counting down the New Year with out notice. For me, I didn't want to be up to my elbows in dirty dishes wearing a wet pair of pants soaked thought to my jockey's smelling like the yeast in rising bread. Ringing in the New Year wearing a filthy apron while handling hot clean dishes and a white poly-blend t-shirt that looks like a murder scene in a sewer isn't a touch of class. The warn-down fedora I wore at the time that was bought at a local shop ages ago was a plus, but it's not something you want to wear near a machine that has chemicals like bleach and Jet-Dry in the steam it emits as part of it's regular operation.

Nobody wants to be there. Nobody. The push was to get done early enough to join the party, and I'm sure the service suffered.

The Real Reason Why You're Reading This Article...

The question you should be asking now is, "Should I be eating out on New Year's Eve?"

There are answers to that question that are pretty simple. The first part is simple, where's the owner? Answer that question and you'll have part of the equation solved: If the owner of the establishment has required people to work on New Year's Eve while he's at home or partying somewhere else then you should also be a no-show. I don't care how great the staff is, I don't care how competent the management is. I don't even care how well the staff is getting paid. The service is going to be lacking something.

Second, what about the menu? Often the owner or the senior manager comes up with an idea to do a special menu. If this menu is imposed on the cooks or chefs, and there's some resentment on the cooks part, this isn't going to be the best meal you ever had unless those are some real dedicated and disciplined people in the kitchen.

You're also dealing with an aspect of human nature that's hard to over come.   Nobody wants to be serving other people during the biggest party of the year unless they really love their jobs.

Twice I went out on New Year's to a place called "Charity's" in Killington, Vermont. First time was during New Year's of 1988-1989 and then again the night I proposed to my then-girlfriend now wife on New Year's 1997-1998. Both times I had a great experience, the second night was one night that I'll never forget and remember forever. Do you really want to trust special memories to just any restaurant? I wouldn't have taken the Future Mrs. Fisk to "The Valdez Fields," to be sure...

So, my advice is this... when you make reservations, ask a few questions. You should know what they are after reading this. If you don't know the restaurant's reputation, then don't go. It's great to try something new on New Year's, but a new restaurant isn't one of them.

So, do what I do every New Year's since my wife and I got married and moved into our home, stay in. The two best cooks I've ever known personally live under this roof. It's best for us to take the money that would have been spent eating out and buy bottles of wine and groceries. We cook an elaborate meals and drink well with in the limits of moderation. It's time we spend with our favorite people, each other and our sons. And, after other New Year's I've endured... that's the least I deserve.

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