Hugo Ortega can still be found in the kitchen at Xochi most nights.
Hugo Ortega hasn't let a little James Beard fame change him.
Hugo Ortega's Caracol is just part of a self-made restaurant empire.
Dishwasher is the hardest, most thankless and often most underpaid job in any restaurant.
Sign of the Beefcarver served as my own introduction to the world of dishwashing.
The Washington Post food critic went undercover at a top Houston restaurant — and his “expose” is getting a lot of attention. Only Tom Sietsema was was not looking to catch someone using expired fish or reveal that some big-name celebrity chef is really a lout.
Sietsema went to the wrong place for that. He spent time at Caracol, the largest of James Beard Award winner Hugo Ortega‘s five Houston restaurants. Ortega is arguably the most humble celebrity chef in the city. He doesn’t play ego games. But he let one of America’s most powerful critics into his kitchen to let him experience life as a dishwasher.
So Sietsema worked a seven-hour shift alongside two regular Caracol dishwashers and wrote about the experience. If you’ve ever worked as a dishwasher, Sietsema’s article isn’t going to be revelatory. He mostly details with how messy, hard and intense the job is at a busy restaurant. Did he mention it’s really dirty?
Still, it’s nice to see a national food critic to jump on the sudden movement to recognize the overlooked foundational difference makers at America’s best restaurants. The movement’s been powered by some of the the world’s best chefs. Thomas Keller made headlines when his company gave its most prestigious internal award to dishwasher Jaimie Portillo, who went seven years without missing a single day of work.
Rene Redzepi, the chef at Noma — one of the world’s best restaurants — did Keller one better when he made his top dishwasher Ali Sonko a partner in his restaurant. After all, Sonko helped the chef open Noma.
This is quite a time for dishwashers — except for the fact that they still have the hardest, most thankless job in the kitchen by far.
I spent half a year washing dishes at a Sign of the Beefcarver restaurant (a small Michigan chain that specializes in hulking slices of roast beef and dates back to 1957) in high school — and I mostly learned that’s it something I didn’t want to be doing for long. And that some managers are just jerks to be jerks. A small paycheck and the fanciful notion that the glamorous college-aged waitress might just suddenly fall for an incredibly awkward high school dishwasher if he hung around enough kept me there for a little while.
But it’s still the job I was most thankful to leave. I’m not going to claim as publicity magnet Anthony Bourdain does that dishwashing taught me “every important lesson of my life.” I’d certainly never consider myself in the same class as these world class dishwashers either (I had to rewash many a pot). It definitely was an experience though.
Sietsema comes to his dishwashing experience much later in life — with the reality that he already has a sweet full-time gig. Saying he can relate to guys on the line next to him making $20,000 a year is a stretch. Nevertheless, Ortega and Caracol come across favorably in the article. Hugo in particular is as human as ever.
“The main concern for dishwashers is not to get injured by hot pans, broken glass or sharp knives,” Ortega tells the restaurant critic at one point.
In other words, don’t bleed in his kitchen.
All the nice words about dishwashers from Sietsema and the celebrity chefs around the country are great. But I’m betting that most dishwashers would much prefer having the same thing I wanted as a high school dishwasher: more money in the paycheck. Dishwashers were the lowest-paid employees at Sign of the Beefcarver and still are at almost every restaurant today.
These hidden heroes of the kitchen deserve some more green with all this sudden attention.