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Every restaurant's unsung hero

By Kat Kinsman, CNN
updated 3:16 PM EDT, Wed September 3, 2014
Dishwashers are often the lowest-paid yet hardest-working restaurant employees.
Dishwashers are often the lowest-paid yet hardest-working restaurant employees.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Restaurant diners probably never see or think about the people who wash their dishes
  • According to restaurant workers, dishwashers are the MVPs of the kitchen
  • It's low-paying, backbreaking work for over 368,000 people across the U.S.
  • "The panic that will occur when they call out or quit is felt throughout the entire restaurant"

Editor's note: In this ongoing series, we pay homage to the often invisible workforce behind our restaurant meals.

(CNN) -- They don't share in the tip pool. Their picture won't appear in any cookbooks. They'll never get their own Food Network competition show. Most diners will never see them or know their names.

And if they didn't show up for work, the whole place would go up in smoke.

All hail the dishwashers of the world.

They're the invisible, unsung and underpaid heroes of the restaurant industry. Though they're almost inevitably hidden from customers' view, other staff members say that a good dishwasher's contribution is the secret sauce behind any successful night of service.

Getting a restaurant ready for the day entails an intricate web of tasks, and everyone has a role. Matthew Stinton worked as the beverage director of New York's Hearth restaurant and Terroir wine bars for many years and acknowledges that everyone in the restaurant has a part in how the day goes.

"It is a theatrical production that is created every morning and broken down every evening," Stinton said in an email. "From the person taking the reservation at 10 a.m. to the person who is receiving the fish, ordering light bulbs, making pork, taking orders, steeping tea and clearing the table -- there should be no person who does not believe in what they are doing, or think that their role in the performance is insignificant.

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A taste of Las Vegas
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Table these fashion and hygiene taboos
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Customer leaves waitresses $5,000 each
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"However," Stinton continued, "the worst days of service that I have had, both as hourly employee and as manager, have been when there was no dishwasher. Not having a dishwasher will f*** your world up and make you rethink the way you do things."

Can restaurant work make you nicer?

Dishwashing in a restaurant kitchen is filthy, soggy, physically demanding work. The people who do it are usually the first to arrive and the last to leave, and they're usually paid the least of anyone on the staff.

According to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 368,230 people nationwide were employed as restaurant dishwashers, making an hourly $8.97 mean wage and $18,660 annually -- well under the national mean of $46,440. This is above the federal minimum hourly wage of $7.25 but below the $10.10 President Obama advocated for in a Labor Day speech at Milwaukee's LaborFest.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, dishwashers (along with cooks, chefs and janitors) are not legally allowed to share in pooled tips from servers, bussers and bartenders, even if they want to share the wealth.

The state of California boasted the greatest number of employed dishwashers: 30,000 more than the second biggest employer, Florida. But a dishwasher looking to make a bigger cash splash would do well to head to Las Vegas, where the national mean wage tops the country at $12.59.

Darron Cardosa blogs and performs as The Bitchy Waiter. He complains a lot about the job as part of his act, but he'd never think about impugning the work of the dishwashers.

"Washing dishes is only one part of what they do for a restaurant," Cardosa said. "Yes, they make sure the plates, glasses and silverware are clean, but many times they do a lot of the grunt work too, like taking out the garbage, carrying out the recycling, cleaning the grossest part of the kitchen. When the garbage cans get that layer of perpetual filth and grime on them, they are the ones who scrub them clean. At my job, our dishwasher even regularly cleans out the mop bucket."

Get on the bus! Meet the folks who clean up your restaurant mess

Stinton ran down the menu of tasks that dishwashers are expected to undertake in the course of an average shift: "These are people who wear rubber shoes and garbage bags on their feet because they are in contact with so much water. They clear half eaten food off of plates and when a toilet clogs up at 8:30 on a Friday night. They are the people who are asked to (gulp) unclog it. No guest, in my opinion, will ever know the importance of this person."

Scott Tyree, a wine consultant and sommelier who has worked at some of the most revered fine dining restaurants across the country, admits to "awe" for the dish crew.

"Most people have no idea what it takes to pull things off seamlessly," Tyree said in an email. "We all know the dish crew is responsible for washing, drying and polishing every piece of fine china, cutlery and crystal stemware that makes it to a table, but they are also responsible for replenishing cooking vessels, utensils and tools that the chef's brigade need during service.

"Most diners probably don't even think of how a well-oiled dish crew enhances their meal. One out of sync dishwasher (or a broken machine) can throw off the timing of an entire kitchen."

"The panic that will occur when they call out or quit is felt throughout the entire restaurant," agreed Stinton.

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Writer, cook and "Parts Unknown" host Anthony Bourdain once credited a position as a dishwasher with saving his life, telling Lynne Rossetto Kasper of The Splendid Table, "It was the first time that I went home respecting myself, respecting others, with anything to feel proud of."

He pays back the karmic debt when he can. In a 2012 Eatocracy opinion piece after Superstorm Sandy pounded down on the East Coast, effectively shutting down many New York restaurants for days, weeks or even months, Bourdain advised the restaurant-going public to think of the invisible force behind the meals they were finally able to enjoy: "(M)aybe send a $20 back to the dishwasher," he wrote. "That's not charity. It's just neighborly."

And whenever he can, Tyree tries to express his appreciation for the men and women who orchestrate this sodden, steamy, stinky ballet -- but he can't always find them. "Whenever I've been given a kitchen tour at a fancy joint, I always try to say thanks to the dishwashers and polishers. Unfortunately, the dish area is usually tucked away out of sight."

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