The unsung heroes of Auckland's restaurant kitchens

Thank the dishy

The champions of Auckland’s restaurant kitchens are washing up out the back.

René Redzepi of Copenhagen’s Noma made headlines earlier this year when he made one of the fine-diner’s longest-serving dishwashers, Ali Sonko, a restaurant partner. The headlines underscored how the most important job in any restaurant kitchen – the dish hand or kitchen porter, aka KP – is often the most overlooked. It’s long, backbreaking work based on the understanding that you will often be the first to arrive and the last to leave. Here, Paperboy talks to some of the hardest workers in Auckland’s restaurant kitchens about how they see their roles.

Tina Maholi Tutu’u Jones 

Kitchen porter at The French Cafe

How long have you been working here?
No idea! I think it’s nearly five years.

What do you enjoy most about your job?
Mostly I like just doing my job and I love meeting different people, especially chefs. The main thing that I love about being here is Simon [Wright, co-owner and executive chef] and Creghan [Molloy-Wright, co-owner and manager] – their personalities. They look after me, but mostly I just love doing the job.

Are you a tidy person?
Not really, at home it’s different [laughs] but I think I like to be organised – especially when I’m doing this job, it has to be perfect.

What are the challenges?
The hardest thing is when everyone goes home. I can’t explain – it’s like when you miss someone.

Is your job important?
Yep! I think so because I’m here first and I have to start everything by getting the plates ready. Without the plates there can’t be any food. It’s really important.

What does it mean to you to work here?
It’s a blessing for me. Before I started here I knew of Simon from my husband after we got married in 2002. I was at school at the time and I thought, ‘how can I work with Simon?’ But I didn’t want to knock on the door for a job so I was waiting and waiting.

How did you get the job here?
I think I was in the Mount Albert library – I think I’d come from Unitec at the time. I’d graduated but was still doing some work. My husband rang me from work and said, “I saw French Cafe is looking for someone to do the dishes”, and that’s how I found it. It’s so cool.

What do you like to do outside of work?
Mostly watching my daughter’s netball games and training – they came third this season, Epsom Girls, year nine girls. I also spend time with my family.

Sandeep (Sandy) Kaur

Commis chef and former kitchen porter at Cibo

How long have you been working here?
Nearly about three years. I got promoted from KP to commis chef about two years ago. I was always asking to learn something new, always asking, “can I trim the lamb, can I try this one?” I’d always try to finish my work quickly so I can watch the chefs and learn new things. They’d say, “do you want to learn?” and I’d say “yes!” So after about seven or eight months they knew I was getting good and learning all the things and during that time I was doing my KP job and trying to learn to become a chef.

What do you enjoy most about your job?
From my childhood I loved being in kitchens. I’m an international student here, from India, so in my home country I was always cooking traditional dishes but adding something new. Here I am very happy to learn something new because it’s very different to my home country. The western food is very different to my home country. I love this workplace a lot.

What are the challenges of being a KP?
My background is in cookery so they know I can learn things. Trying to keep up with everything is difficult for me. Because this is one of the best restaurants in Auckland, when it’s busy it can be hard to keep up.

Jasmeet (Jase) Singh

Kitchen porter at The Grounds

How long have you been working here?
Over one year now, and I study part-time at NSIA [North Shore International Academy, a culinary school]. I’m in my second year there.

Describe your role.
My job is to wash all the dishes, and also to see what the chef needs, and do any prep like making muffin mix, putting bacon on trays, things like that. The chefs stack the dishes over there [on the bench] and we wash them. In the busy times we help the chefs. Our job is to make it easier for them.

What does an average day look like?
At the end of lunch we come in and clean down the whole kitchen – so take out the rubbish, take out the mats, wash the floors then do all the dishes.

What do you enjoy most about your job?
We do the dishes mostly, but I like to do the prep. I feel like I’m going up when I do prep, like I’m learning from the chefs.

What are the challenges?
It’s not too difficult. We can do everything we have to.

Is your job important?
It’s important because if we don’t clean the dishes then we can’t cook the food. Yeah, it’s very important.

Josh Mazciritis

Kitchen Porter at Coco’s Cantina

How long have you been working here?
Since October last year. [Mazciritis had been on a two-month hiatus after breaking his arm in a skateboarding accident. He was back doing prep shifts when we met, as a form of rehab].

Describe your role.
Once you learn how to act in a kitchen, it’s a breeze. It’s a role of subordination, really. Keeping watch of your domain and listening out for everyone else, what people need and what they want you to do.

What does any average day look like?
Show up at five, clear a massive load of dishes because the bench will be monstrous. Then do extra jobs, try to make it easier for the chefs. Then eventually it’ll get so busy that you’ll have to roll ravs [raviolis] or something like that, and then get another huge stack of dishes and then just packing down.

What do you enjoy most about your job?
Sounds stupid, but the people. It’s a lovely environment.

Who’s your favourite?
No, I can’t say!

What are the challenges?
Maybe the sore hands, wet clothes. You get permanent stains and mould on your clothes, ‘cause they get wet and don’t get washed straight away. But it’s good, I like it.  

Is your job important?
Somewhat, but while I can be good at my job really anyone could do it as long as they’re trying to do it, if you know what I mean. So I guess being good at it helps other people but you don’t need to be good, if that’s a good way to quantify it.

If you were going to quit and someone was going to start, what would you tell them?
Honestly, the most important thing is keeping watch. It all stems from there.

What are you into outside of work?
Lots of things. I mean skateboarding, obviously [points at arm], but I’m not very good. Film, art, writing, things like that. Reading.

Alexandre Pires

Kitchen porter at Siostra

How long have you been working here?
Six months. I used to be an audio-visual producer but I don’t have enough English for that here – it’s a dream [to be an AV producer again].

Describe your role.
It’s a little bit difficult because I don’t have the vocabulary, but my job starts before I even get here, because prep has started, so there are dishes. If I miss the bus, everything will be a mess for me here. When I arrive, I check off the rubbish then look at what I need to wash first – sometimes I need to wash the pans first, sometimes the bowls. I have some methods. It’s a very mechanical job and very hard but I like it.

What do you enjoy most about your job?
I make it into a competition, so I have to wash fast to help my team to win this competition. Sometimes I am lazy, saying, “oh gosh there’s a lot of pans to wash,” so I say “no. OK. You need to wash everything now because your team needs you.” But sometimes I am very focussed on washing the dishes and my boss will speak to me in Portuguese and I’m like what “where am I!?” They say “valeu cara” [cheers mate] to me, and I can’t believe it. I like it when I can predict things. Like when the chef asks me for cutlery but I’ve seen he needs it and it will already be in the machine – that’s perfect for me. Sometimes they ask me for pans and I say, “I’m washing it now chef.” I hate it when there are big piles of pans and they need them.

Is your job important?
Yeah. Sometimes I think if you don’t have the dishwasher, the restaurant will be broken. It’s the base. My team needs me.