I did it again. This morning I watched helplessly as the steel cut oats violently erupted up and over the saucepan, splattering a frothy film that seared a hard crust all over the stove. A spectacular mess.
This puzzles me because I’m an accomplished cook, as I should be. As former co-entrepreneur of an all-natural frozen food corporation, and self-assessed foodie, I have practice in the kitchen. One would assume, I would assume, that I would have mastered the art of oatmeal.
But despite my best efforts, I’m a messy cook – and dishwasher, too. My husband calls my dishes “Deene-Clean” because there’s always a little bit of something, somewhere, on everything. Honestly, it’s not for the lack of trying – or maybe it is. I love the creativity of cooking, not the details of cleaning and washing.
Thinking of “Deene-Clean” reminds me of Hector. He was one of the many dishwashers in our commercial food business. Anyone who has ever owned a restaurant or a food production facility knows that good dishwashers are hard to come by. It’s a hot, messy, sweaty, rather boring job that hurts your feet and back from bending over a sink all day long. (We did dishes by hand. We didn’t have the room for a commercial dish washing machine.)
In hierarchical kitchens, dishwashers are at the bottom of the food chain and often treated as such. Food prep, sous chef, chef, servers, bartenders, cashiers, managers –everyone’s job depended upon them for customer satisfaction, yet they’re mostly invisible, facing the wall away from any kitchen chatter, washing, scrubbing, drying, washing, scrubbing, drying. Dish after dish, pot after pot.
Our commercial kitchen was in a rural-suburban area and we were not on the bus line. Few teenagers wanted the work, and if we didn’t have a dishwasher, as owners our 14-hour day morphed into a 17-hour day as we cleaned well into the night. Dishwashers came and went – it was brutal.
And then there was Hector. He was in the prison to work program. Bused to us from low-income housing in Hartford. Our facility was about an hour drive each way for Hector, and we knew his wages were below minimum when he paid for the transportation. I didn’t know his story, how he landed in prison. All I knew was that he was a kind, sensitive, hardworking, family man – and at the bottom of the socio-economic and education ladder.
Hector was with us for almost a year, and a superb dishwasher. He was also just a really good guy, and as a tight team of 12+ people packed together – we relied upon one another. One day it dawned on us – OMG – life before Hector was A LOT harder.
I don’t know who started it, but with scissors and colored-paper, we constructed a macaroni-bejeweled crown. We placed the crown on Hector’s head, and applauded his contributions to our success. He was beaming, we were beaming. It was a great feeling.
Yes, we were all grown-ups and so was he. But this silly ceremony generated so much laughter and goodwill that the crown became our new tradition of recognition and appreciation.
Today, we’d call it psychological safety, where members of high-performing teams receive regular feedback on their significance, competence, value and worth. Today, we’d say experts exist at every level in an organization and it’s our job to listen, recognize and empower them.
And how does this walk down memory lane link back to my messy cooking and cleaning? Clearly, I’ll never wear a crown for my dish washing persistence or precision – that belongs to my husband. And I’m still not sure why I struggle with making steel cut oats. I guess my crown is meant for my creative cooking, Christmas biscotti and anything from the Cooking New York Times blog.
But isn’t that exactly how it’s supposed to be? We’ve all got our unique gifts and contributions. Bring us all together and we have a feast of talents, skills and expertise. Together we’re better, and my kitchen will attest to this.
So, right now, who’s nearly invisible and indispensable to your success? Who’s your Hector today?