BELFAST, Maine — I pulled up the lever, lifting the cover on the industrial slide-through dishwashing machine and releasing a cloud of hot steam in my tiny corner of the kitchen.
After pushing out the rack that was crammed full of pots, pans and dishes that 30 seconds before were caked with residue from other people’s food, I stacked the scalding hot ceramic plates, walked them to the cook’s station — trying and failing to stay out of the wait staff’s way — and lifted them onto a shelf so the cooks had something to put their next orders on.
By the time I got back to my station, more dishes had appeared, adding to the already growing backlog piled next to a sink half filled with dirty water that wouldn’t drain because it was clogged with food debris hidden below the murky surface.
I walked into this assignment expecting to get my hands dirty, not to work up a sweat. Five hours later, I couldn’t decide whether my t-shirt was drenched with perspiration or the dirty dishwater that I’d managed to spray all over myself during my hectic shift as a restaurant kitchen dishwasher.
To spotlight the vital but often little-noticed seasonal work that revs up the midcoast in summertime, my colleague Alex Acquisto and I are taking turns at trying our hands at mucky, sweaty or simply odd jobs for a day.
This job brought me to Front Street Pub and Harborwalk Restaurant, a pair of adjoining eateries that share owners, a building and a kitchen on Belfast’s bustling waterfront. I volunteered to fill in washing dishes on a busy summer night at the height of tourism season.
John Gibbs, one of the businesses’ co-owners and a Belfast police sergeant, met me outside and led me to the kitchen tucked into the back of the Harborwalk side of the building. On the way, Gibbs stopped at a table that a family of tourists had just vacated, and asked me to stack their plates, glasses and silverware.
We brought this load to the back corner of the kitchen, where I found a three-bay sink (two bays were already filled with used pots and large baking sheets), a pre-rinse sprayer, and a commercial steel dishwasher.
Upon learning how the dishwasher worked, I figured this job might not be so tough after all. Just rinse the worst of the residue off the plates with a handheld sprayer, lift the handle to open the washer, push in a tray of dishes, lower the handle and wait about 30 seconds for the high-pressure water — heated to 140 degrees — to do the hard work for you. Then repeat.
I underestimated the difficulty.
Any remaining residue — a speck of congealed cheese or a smear of soot from the bottom of one of the cooking pans — and the dish has to go back into the rack to be washed again. Rinse, wash, repeat, stack. Over and over. Peskier dishes had to be scrubbed with a scouring pad in the sink.
With every trip to the kitchen to stack freshly cleaned dishes, I checked a tray in the entryway to see whether the wait staff had dropped off new work for me. There were always more. Wait staff brought the dishes in from the table, dumped most of the leftover food scraps into a trash bin, and either left the dishes on a tray near the kitchen entry for me to pick up or, if they weren’t rushed, brought them to me.
Whenever a load of glasses was finished, I had to take the glasses to their respective places. This meant a lot of walking back and forth, especially since I had no idea where each type of glass belonged — pint glasses went to the bar, but what about the mugs with the bubbly surface or the plastic ones meant for water and soft drinks? Thankfully, the staff who knew what they were doing were kind enough to point me in the right direction when I was stumped.
Silverware was all washed together in big batches, which had to run through the machine at least three times to ensure they were as clean as possible. Nothing worse than a smudge of something suspicious left on a fork.
After a couple dozen loads, I decided to keep a tally of how many times I ran the washer on a piece of cardboard pinned to the wall. I abandoned the count sometime after 75 loads because things had become surprisingly hectic. By the end of the night, it easily surpassed 125 runs.
I soon learned that if I didn’t do my job right, things could start to go downhill for everyone else. The wait staff would run out of places to put dirty dishes or glasses to fill, the cooks could reach up for a soup bowl only to come up empty and have nothing to serve the food in. There’s a rhythm to washing a high volume of dishes in an efficient way. I never found it.
“That’s the thing about a kitchen, if one aspect falls behind, then the whole operation slows down and starts to fall apart,” Gibbs said. No pressure.
At one point, the cooks had one remaining clean salad plate in front of them, and at least five salad orders on waiting tickets. I dug through the stack of dishes to find the right plates and prioritize them for the next cleaning rack.
I checked the time around 7:30 p.m., thinking I might be able to head home soon, as it seemed things were slowing down and I had enough to write about. Then, two big groups, one with eight people and the other with 11, arrived looking for a good meal and drinks after a long walk, setting off a minor panic among the crew.
The kitchen kicked into overdrive, and the cooks and wait staff who had been steadily busy all day braced themselves for what seemed like an unexpected late-evening rush. A table of seven showed up a couple minutes later, along with several smaller parties.
Having never worked in the restaurant industry before, I was impressed to see how people who a few minutes ago were winding down their workday rallied to ramp up and respond to the rush.
Around 9 p.m., the dishes from some of these larger parties were flooding in. I walked into the Harborwalk dining area on my way to drop off a load of pint glasses at the Front Street bar. I was stunned to see people still eating at nearly every table.
“Who eats this late?” I wondered.
Looking around, I saw families and friends chatting and laughing while picking away at their meals or polishing off their drinks. What I noticed more than anything else were all the dishes, glasses, bowls and utensils sitting in front of them. Soon, those would descend on my station.
I dropped off the glasses, and turned back for my station knowing my pruned-up hands and aching back were about to be put through the wringer again.
About five hours after my shift started, I walked home and warmed up some leftovers. I brought the empty plate to my kitchen sink, which was filled with dishes from the previous night’s dinner. I stared at them for a few moments, and then glanced at the dish soap bottle at the back of the sink.
“No,” I said, before walking to my couch and picking up a book.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.