Skip navigation

From Fryer to Gruyère

An early onsite kitchen job can provide a world of perspective.

I got my first job in foodservice at Carroll’s, a hamburger chain unit on the Post Road in Norwalk, Connecticut, shortly after I turned 17 years old. I started there in early June and went from being the newest order taker to being the 6 a.m. startup guy in four weeks.

By the end of the summer, I’d learned how to do everything from peeling, washing, cutting and blanching the day’s french-fries to filtering the fryer oil, flushing the milk shake machine, running the short order grill and opening the store (and all for $1.40/hr, the minimum wage at the time). Then, in late August, I went off to my first year of college in University Heights, Ohio.

There, I earned spending money doing odd jobs I found on the school job board. It was a real mashup: babysitting, taking inventory for a drug store chain, manning special event parking lots, waiting tables at class reunion dinners. Nothing lasted more than a day or two. I did know how to touch type—an unusual skill for young men in those days—and typed term papers for other students in our (then) all male school for 15-20 cents a page. Sometimes I negotiated higher rates when I was able to “stretch” papers that otherwise wouldn’t meet word and page count minimums.

All this is preface to explain why landing a weekend job that spring as a dishwasher at Brith Emeth, a Reformed Jewish temple at the end of Shaker Boulevard in Pepper Pike, seemed like a pretty good opportunity. It started out with a single wedding but soon turned into a regular gig that gave me my first real insights into the operation of onsite foodservice in general and the catering business in particular.

There were downsides, to be sure. Chief among these was the fact that Brith Emeth was about a four-mile hike and/or hitch-hike from school; another was that the “busy season” tended to overlap with end-of-semester finals. But the money (and side benefits I’ll mention in a moment) were good. The minimum wage was up to $1.60 an hour by then and I quickly discovered that a reliable dishwasher could get premium pay.

By my third event, Mrs. Cohen (my main contact with the temple) offered a raise to $1.75 an hour if I could guarantee I’d regularly be able to bring another one or two dishwashers with me each time. I knew lots of other students looking for spending money, so that was only a minor challenge, even if recruiting them was sometimes frantic at the last minute.

By then I’d discovered an important side benefit (and recruitment aid) for the job. Since we mostly washed dishes for weddings, bar mitzvahs and other celebratory events, there was almost always a supply of partially empty wine and champagne bottles that came back in the soiled dish tubs by the end of each event. With a little careful husbanding, we usually were able to liberate enough warm Lancer rosé or André champagne to lubricate the hike back to school. Meanwhile, Mrs. Cohen and I formed a solid, symbiotic relationship that carried me well into junior year, when I landed a retail job closer to campus.

Looking back, the period was highly educational. We worked with some of the top caterers in Cleveland, like Harlan Diamond’s Executive Caterers. I watched him demonstrate the art of continual, repeated transitions from his role as a charming, tuxedoed guest relations guy out front to a hands-on, get it perfect, no-time-to-waste production overseer of the kitchen. The contrast between gala affairs out front and the heavy lifting, multi-tasking, rush prep and pot-scrubbing agony in back of the house was an education in itself.

I also became intimately familiar with the quirks of the Hobart dishwasher and developed other “secret” knowledge, like how to roll blintzes, why you don’t use brillo pads on silverplate, and how to keep onion soup hot enough so the gruyère cheese topping stays melted. And as our reliability was recognized by the caterers, we found ourselves hustled off to other events and exposed to other mysteries (from a rich variety of Yiddish expressions of exasperation to the not-so-subtle differences between Reformed and Orthodox kitchen practices).

In all, it was a valuable two years. And when it was over, I no longer saw foodservice as a burger flipping job. I’d learned there was a lot more to it than that.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.