Dishin' That: Dogs and bunnies and swimmers (oh my)

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The stinging snap of a wet bar towel came my way via email this past weekend. It was signed by the first lady of a Portland restaurant dynasty:

“In the Peas & Q’s section last week (‘Get Ready for the annual Valentine’s Day massacre‘) you made a reference to a ‘dish dog.’ I’ve grown up in a restaurant, but I’ve never heard this term. Even though I haven’t, from the context it feels like a derogatory term. It seems that you are insinuating a ‘dish dog’ might have stolen this scarf and ‘gifted’ it to the hostess. This seems like disrespectful and an oxymoron for the author of a hospitality column.”

In response I gave her the short version of the history of the nickname. Here’s more detail about that one, and others I’ve mentioned in the past.

Dish dog is a name I’ve been using for dishwashers since I started writing this column in 2010, and before. It’s an affectionate nickname originating with my very first restaurant job at the under-the-table age of 13.

Although the owner was a generous and kind person, he was a newbie restaurateur considered eccentric by all. Every station and position had a moniker. He called the dishwashers “dish dogs” and it stuck with me.

The day guy was Big Dog and the full-time night guy, who was at least 6 feet tall, was Little Dog. The Big Cheese (self-named) always alluded to cliches, and in the case of the indispensable dishwasher position, “Dog is a man’s best friend.”

Regardless of gender, servers were bunnies (“Hop to it. Hop, hop, hop, people.”) He dubbed the weekend hostess Esther, after Esther Williams, the legendary synchronized swimmer. (“Move through the dining room like you’re swimming, Esther. You got to glide with grace.”) Our garde manager (French for “keeper of the food”) was Tongs, for the multitude of utensils and kitchen gadgets he kept at his station. The bartender, an older gentleman who spoke with a thick German accent, was called Bubbles.

Every restaurant has it’s own special kind of crazy, and this place was no exception. Somehow, those nicknames were never perceived as derogatory or offensive.

All that aside, I’m still hurting from the perception that I would belittle the dish dog position (individual dish dogs and their shenanigans over the years is a different story). While each peg and cog in the restaurant operations wheel is crucial, the dishwasher is one of the most valuable positions in the house.

When it’s busy and you’re down a dog, you’re in trouble. Big trouble. Most people outside the industry, who have never been elbows deep in stacked saute pans and grimy tubs of silverware, can’t imagine. Think back to the last time you were in a restaurant and were waiting impatiently for a steak knife, or a side plate. Even if the place was slammed, chances are good management had scheduled enough staff; chances are also good a dishwasher was MIA.

Lastly, the hypothetical scenario of the dish dog gifting a missing scarf to the hostess was just one of a million things that probably didn’t happen. What I should have said was, “Keep your eye on your own stuff.” However, I’m sure the guy who sent in the question didn’t need to hear that from me.

When it comes to nicknames, the Bard said it best: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Just not after he’s taken out the trash.

Peas and Q’s

Q — In this town full of great local craft and artisan beers, why do you drink Miller Lite? That doesn’t seem very fitting of someone who professes to know so much about the food and beverage trends. — Alex K., Portland.

A — I drink Miller Lite because I like it. What I profess to know is based on past and current experience, my active and far-reaching restaurant grapevine, and extensive field marketing research. Commentary found here is more about human nature in the industry, rather than specific edibles and libations.

And Alex, being a beer snob (or any kind of food/beverage snob) doesn’t exactly qualify you to be a Michelin Red Guide inspector, either.

Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to nladd@theforecaster.net, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @Nhladd.

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