Leftovers: What’s in a name? Ask Big Dog, Little Dog, Bunny, or Tongs

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It’s time to revisit a misunderstood restaurant nickname.

More than one reader reamed me out for referring to dishwashers as “dish dogs,” interpreting the reference as a snarky put-down. While I agree that a healthy dog should never be put down, this is a different avenue of thought and a different breed of animal altogether.

There is absolutely no one in the kitchen of any restaurant anywhere whose absence is more painfully obvious than that of the dishwasher. While each spoke and cog in the wheel of restaurant operations is crucial, the dishwasher is one of the most underrated, yet valuable positions in the house. These days, we’d correctly label them essential employees of that workplace environment.

When it’s busy in a restaurant 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 the ensuing chain of chaos. Granted, it’s been more than a year for many, but think back to the last time you were in a restaurant and waited impatiently for a steak knife or a side plate. Even if the place was pre-pandemic slammed, chances are good management had accurately scheduled enough staff. Chances are also good a dishwasher was MIA.

As I’ve shared with readers in the past, “dish dog” is an affectionate tag that originated with my 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. Each station and position in both the front and back of the house had a moniker. He called the dishwashers “dish dogs” and it stuck. 

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 and bussers were bunnies (“Hop to it. Hop, hop, hop, people.”) He dubbed the weekend hostess Esther, after Esther Williams, the 1940s legendary synchronized swimmer. (“Move through the dining room like you’re swimming, Esther. You got to glide with grace.”) I later learned Esther Williams could hold her breath underwater for a minute and 45 seconds. Holding your breath is a useful skill for any host bombarded by a tsunami of hungry diners while the phone is ringing and the kitchen is extra slow. 

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 lead bartender, a distinguished older gentleman who spoke with a thick German accent, was Bubbles. As for the pastry chef, he was unoriginally but aptly named Sweetie Pie. 

And me? I was a kid and worked under the table. Literally. 

I’d go in twice a week and remove gum from the bottom of bar stools, the horseshoe-shaped bar itself, 22 dining room tables, and all the upholstered chairs. The Big Cheese would say, “Hey there, Sticky! Good to see you. Table 9 had a bunch of teenagers last night. So start with 9, OK?” How Table 9 had teenagers every Friday night was a mystery but there was always a lot of gross stuff under that big round-top in the far corner of the room. 

Years later, when I became restaurant legal and was working at an upscale place during college, a vaguely familiar face sat at the bar. The woman kept looking at me and finally said, “Hey, sorry to be staring but you look very much like someone I used to work with a long time ago. Are you Sticky?”

Come to find out she was with her son who was touring the campus so many miles and states away from that nutty place with all the nicknames. She couldn’t remember my real name (Big Cheese should have called me Gumby, she said) nor I hers, but when the time came there was no problem saying our goodbyes in the most authentic way.

“Take care, Bunny,” I said. “Good luck to you and your son. This is a great school so hop, hop, hop back in if he ends up here.” Along with a 25 percent tip, she left me the rest of a pack of gum hidden under a cocktail napkin. 

Back to last week. I also answered emails from astute readers about an intentionally tricky Grateful Dead lyric and ignored one from a woman in Westbrook who insisted the pandemic really is a scam and I am a “major libtard” for fueling it. 

Hopefully, that’s one nickname that won’t stick.

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at natalie@portlandphoenix.me.