July 23, 2012
une petite pomme de terre
(a small potato)
As he briskly walked by, the guy in slick, dark suit motioned for me to follow him. I’d never seen him in the kitchen before, but that wasn’t unusual. I had only been working there a few weekends, and each shift I saw new guys dressed in a similar manner. He entered via the swinging doors that the busboys brought the trays of dirty dishes through to my station in the dish pit. Usually these dark‑suited guys entered the kitchen by way of the doors near the bar end of the restaurant.
I removed my plastic apron, hung it on the edge of the station, and quickly followed him downstairs to the cage in the back of the basement. He didn’t say anything, and I knew better than to ask what he wanted me for. His dark suit was finely tailored and cut to the current fashion of 1972. He wore it over a dark shirt that was adorned at the neck with a silver‑gray tie and at the end of each sleeve with a large silver cufflink. His hair was slicked back without looking greasy.
When we got to the large, liquor‑storage cage, he unlocked a padlock on the door and went inside. I stood in the doorway so I wouldn’t crowd him. He grabbed an empty cardboard box with dividers designed to protect the individual bottles, and proceeded to slip a different bottle into each space. When he was done, he motioned for me to pickup the box and move out of the cage so he could lock it. I followed him back up the stairs into the kitchen, and from there out to a large, flashy car in the parking lot. He unlocked the trunk, and I placed the box into it. He indicated that he was through with me, and I returned to my plastic apron and dirty dishes. I later learned that since I was the only dishwasher that was not spending my nights in a halfway house for recent parolees or a live‑in facility for metal patients, there would be certain duties in the kitchen that, when it was my shift, would be saved for me to do.
I had gotten my job at Runds Restaurant on State Route 15, just south of Rochester, New York, quite by accident. Within minutes of driving into Henrietta, the town where Rochester Institute of Technology was now located, I pulled into a parking lot to check a phonebook hanging in a phone booth. I ran into a fellow student who had just completed his masters degree and was getting ready to move back to Connecticut. He offered me a spot on an old bed in his basement, and later his dishwashing job.
I had returned to RIT to restart my education after a three‑year hiatus in which I got married, was drafted but not inducted, opened and then closed a photography business, and generally tried to find myself while enjoying the various drugs and alcoholic temptations of the period. The summer hours would be filled with a refresher class five days a week from eight to five. The offer of a part‑time job where I could work Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday lunch was another serendipitous event of that parking lot encounter.
After clearing the personnel transition with the chef, my friend simply brought me in back door, introduced me, and faded away. By then my wife had arrived, and we had moved into our own place. I think he was gone the next day, and I never saw or spoke to him again.
After grunting a hello, the chef directed me to the head dishwasher who directed me down the stairs to the employee changing area. The changing area was a curtained off part of the basement with a few lockers for the cooks and a clothes rack holding the various costumes that the help were required to wear. I changed into a pair of black and white‑checked cook’s pants and a short‑sleeve white shirt with snap closures. My Marlboros went into the pocket of the shirt and my wallet, Zippo, and keys into the one pocket in the pants. (Each night I worked that summer, when I returned to my street clothes at the end of my shift, at least one of my pockets would be partially turned out as if someone had gone through my clothes while I was upstairs.)
My main job was to stand during service with another dishwasher at the start of the dishwashing line. The busboys would crash backwards through the swinging doors with large Bakelite trays full of dirty dishes. If you backed up from the station, you’d be hit by the doors. More than one dishwasher had attempted in retaliation of being hit to block the doors so the busboys would drop their trays. If they were successful, the offending dishwasher would be fired for creating a mêlée in the dining room. If they were unsuccessful, the busboys would pile garbage in an unstable manner on the trays to sabotage the dishwashers.
As the trays came in, dinner rolls that were still in their serving basket and looked untouched were tossed into a plastic bucket. (The rolls, which were all the size of small, round loaves of bread, would go through the Fresh‑O‑Matic and be served to other guests.) The basket was tossed in a pile to our right. Any linen, including the napkins lining the baskets, was separated from the trays and thrown into a hanging sack. Pats of butter that appeared clean were thrown into a one‑quart steam‑table insert. (The butter would be melted down and strained from the paper. The melted butter would be served with lobster tails as drawn butter.) It seemed very popular some nights for people to snuff out their cigarettes on the butter, and our recycling rate became low. The flatware was thrown into a flat‑bottomed dishwasher rack on a high shelf between us and the dishwasher. Glasses were inserted into a multi‑compartment glass‑washing rack. Garbage that would slide off the plates was dropped into a 40‑gallon garbage can lined with a heavy plastic bag. The now‑empty plates were placed on the apron of the dishwashing machine to be rinsed and inserted into racks by the head dishwasher.
The head dishwasher was a guy in his forties that was one of the few longtime employees in the kitchen. Any partially eaten steak that didn’t have a cigarette snuffed out in it was set aside for his dog. This was one well‑fed dog, and I suspected that he was really taking the meat home for him and his wife to eat. Whenever he didn’t like the way we stacked the plates, which was most of the time, he would yell at us. When the soap in the machine would stop working, one of us would be sent to an outside shed to grab another sack of soap. The sacks were often broken, and we’d get the corrosive soap all over our hands in the process of carrying the sack to the kitchen. The soap was designed to dissolve food, and it did that very well. It also dissolved flatware that fell into the bottom of the machine, and our hands when we handled it.
Besides rinsing and stuffing dishes into the machine, the head dishwasher would also empty the machine on the other end. He’d stack the clean dishes and distribute them to their various staging areas. He’d dump the flatware racks onto an empty table and call for one of us to separate the flatware into totes for each type of knife, fork, or spoon. Right out of the machine, the flatware was very hot. I often thought his urgency for it to be separated was his way of torturing us rather than necessity.
I soon learned that I would have the pleasure of spending the hours when the dishwashing line wasn’t slammed, in the basement washing pots, cleaning the sump pump, or emptying the grease trap. My four‑o’clock shift always started with washing the pots left from lunch or from the afternoon mise en place. It wasn’t until I emptied the pot sinks that would I find out that the sump pump was jammed with strings from a floor mop. The mop buckets were supposed to be emptied in the floor sink just off the kitchen on the first floor. That would mean carrying a large bucket of dirty water upstairs, so instead it would be emptied into the well under the pot sink. (Like most industrial sinks, the drain line from the sinks emptied into a floor sink. Since this one was in a basement and below the sewer line, the floor sink was actually a sump with a pump. There is a large gap at the end of the drain pipe so water couldn’t back up into the sink should the sewer line become clogged.) At least once a week, I’d have to unwind mop strings from the pump impeller. I learned that this was another job that I was the only dishwasher trusted to do. When I wasn’t there, one of the line cooks pulled off the strings.
Another job that was left for me was to wash the chef’s knives. The chef was tall, slim, white guy with a buzz top and tenor voice that could easily be heard over the clamor of the kitchen. Except for the heavy periods of dinner service, when he would occupy the space in front of the pass and expedite orders, he could usually be found in his office in the basement. I don’t recall ever seeing him cook anything. He was the only person who cut primals into steaks. The primals would always show up wrapped in butcher paper and in the arms of one of the guys in suits.
There was a work station just outside his office where each night he cut the steaks for service. When he was done, as he would walk past me at the pot sink, he would indicate for me to collect his knives, wash them, and place the clean knives on his desk. There were only two knives, a 12‑inch cemiter and a 12‑inch chef’s. Both were industrial knifes with orange plastic handles. It felt good to be trusted.
The menu was unchanged the entire three months I worked at Runds. The portions were large, and lobster tails were often the night’s special. The chef told me one day that they never made any money on the food. It was just there to help sell drinks, and that on a good Friday or Saturday night, sales would approach $50,000 worth of liquor. (Later in the evening, as dinner service wound down, there was a band with a busty, blond lead singer who always wore cleavage enhancing, sequined dresses.)
One day I noticed that the always‑present baked potatoes were absent. The chef informed me that they couldn’t get any of the appropriate weight, and so none would be sold. There was a lot of discussion between the guys in dark suits and the chef, but he wouldn’t budge. He would only serve Idaho baking potatoes that weighed at least one pound (450 g). These were huge potatoes with a long, cylindrical shape. Most came back untouched or just barely eaten. A normal person could have made an entire meal from a single specimen.
One day at the farmer’s market, when I saw some very small purple potatoes, my mind flashed back nearly forty years to the chef and his demand for one‑pound potatoes. Even though the potatoes I was now holding were one‑ounce not one‑pound, from Pescadero not Idaho, purple not white, and waxy not russets, he still flashed in my mind. So my potato amuse‑bouche is an homage to a chef who’s name I no longer remember but who trusted me to wash his knives. (I also learned how to make a roux from him.)
4 very small, about 21⁄2‑cm (1‑in) long
1 thick slice
smoky bacon, cut into 3‑mm (1⁄8‑in) dice
finely diced green onion
50 g (12⁄3 oz)
raclette, or other good melting cheese, grated
1. Place the potatoes in a small saucepan, and cover with water. Place the saucepan over high heat, bring to a boil, reduce the heat to simmer, and cover the saucepan. Cook the potatoes until the tip of a sharp knife can freely pierce a potato, but not to the point where the skins split or the potatoes become mushy.
2. Preheat your broiler.
3. Fry the bacon cubes in a small, dry, nonstick frying pan until crisp. Drain them on a piece of absorbent paper.
4. Slice a small strip off the side of each potato so they will sit without rolling around. Cut the potato about a third of the distance from the opposite side to create a wide flat area parallel to the initial cut. The cut off pieces can be munched on or discarded.
5. Arrange the potatoes on a small baking sheet with larger cut area up. If they seem unstable, place each potato in a small nest made from waded up cooking foil. Top each potato with enough cheese to make a thick layer. Press the cheese into place. Divide the cooked bacon and green onion over the cheese. You may not need all the cheese, onion, or bacon.
6. Place the sheet pan under the broiler. When the cheese is melted, remove the potatoes from the broiler and serve.
Yield: 4 servings.