What's it really like?
Jonathan Barker is a student who washes up part time on top of his university course. It is not a career for him, just a way of making extra cash whilst at university.
“I love the buzz of working in a busy atmosphere. Polishing cutlery gives me a real sense of satisfaction that I'm taking the time to do something that will make a difference to somebody's evening. A bit of vinegar in the water really makes the difference. Not a lot of people know about that one.”
He says, perhaps with some irony; “I Love the feel of hot crockery as it makes you really push yourself to get the stuff out the machines as soon as possible and stacked so everyone can get home. It's a bit annoying being spotty and really hot all the time, especially when the good looking waitresses come in.”
His advice for anyone considering it would be to “make sure you have a thick skin and know how to get on the right side of the Chefs as soon as possible. It's all part of the working dynamic to have good spatial awareness and this involves knowing how people work and what makes them tick, and being able to judge their mood and give them space accordingly.” Jon gets paid £5.50 an hour.
The Kitchen Porter carries out all the most menial and straight-forward tasks in a working kitchen. Primary duties are washing up, cleaning and some basic food preparation duties.
The purpose of the kitchen porter is to ensure that all the basic cleaning jobs are carried out as quickly and efficiently as possible, to ensure a safe and swift running of the kitchen. The main duties are collecting and washing up of pots and pans that have been used for cooking, cleaning food preparation areas and equipment and collecting and cleaning crockery and cutlery. The correct use and sanitation of the cooking equipment is the responsibility of the cooking staff, but is often left to the kitchen porters. According to health and safety laws, the cooks should clean all items such as knives, chopping boards and anything that is capable of contaminating food. In practice, however, many of these items are either given to the kitchen porters to wash themselves, or put in the dishwasher and put away by kitchen porters.
In terms of the bigger picture, there are two important elements of the role of a kitchen porter. These are efficiency and sanitation. All kitchens must operate on a limited amount of equipment. The optimum is where the required items are available most of the time but the space is not cluttered. Some kitchens cater to a known number of people, for example in college or staff canteens for events. Others can be much more unpredictable, such as private restaurants or cafés. All kitchens will have busy periods, when the number of required pans exceeds what the kitchen usually works with. It is situations such as this when the kitchen porter will be under serious pressure to get the pans clean and back into use as quickly as possible. This situation can often be made worse by huge pressure from the cooks and waiting staff, who will inevitably receive more abuse from customers if they are kept waiting.
In the case of hand washing pots, the speed does depend on human work rate, so you will be expected to work as quickly as possible to get things done. It is of course reasonable to expect the kitchen porters to wash faster in these situations, as everyone is trying pull together to get the food out as soon as possible. It is perhaps advisable to work at about 70% of your maximum speed for the most part, to allow for some increase that will be noticeable by others when it gets busy.
Crockery and cutlery are usually cleaned in a machine. Even small restaurants will usually have a miniature washer where a tray of items is placed in a machine that runs a cycle to wash the contents. Larger machines will have a ratcheted conveyor system that pushes the tray through the machine. All that is required here is taking the items on and off the trays and putting them away. The components of the machine should be rinsed at the end of each shift, and the machine receive a weekly deep clean. This can be quite taxing, and can require you almost to climb inside the wash chambers. In terms of working within the pace of the kitchen, there is a limited amount that the kitchen porter can do to speed things up with the machine. The machine washes things at a set speed, and it is unhygienic to pull things out before the wash cycle is complete although it may be tempting to do so.
The job is well balanced in terms of gender. However, in schools it has traditionally been done by women, hence the phrase “dinner ladies”. The hours depend entirely on the nature of the kitchen. Somewhere that has set meal times will usually have a shift pattern, which can involve working evenings and weekends. Restaurants will obviously have later working hours, and again involve weekend shifts. Most kitchens are flexible on the shift pattern that each person might work as the most important thing is to have someone there for each shift.
It is a relatively safe job. Being in a kitchen, there is obviously a risk of being burnt by a hot pan or cutting yourself whilst washing a knife. Minor burns are not uncommon, but this is usually down to lack of concentration or rushing. The equipment can be dangerous if safety precautions are not adhered to. Modern equipment such as waste disposal units (or "gobblers" as they are sometimes known) have auto cutoff measures to prevent people getting caught in any moving parts.
The nature of the job means that pay is almost universally calculated per hour. Most kitchens will pay the minimum wage. Overtime of time and a half for weekends is the norm for institutions such as colleges or if working through an agency. Restaurants and pubs will expect people to work these hours and rarely pay unsocial hours benefits. It is becoming increasingly common, especially in London, for the tips to be shared among the kitchen and floor staff.
A typical shift involves washing up anything left over from the last shift. Then work begins on washing and cleaning anything as and when needed. This could be pots and pans or a “brack-pan” (a large pan used to cook large volumes of vegetables) or the inside of a walk-in fridge. Some food preparation may be involved, which could be peeling potatoes in a “rumbler” (a contraption with a rough interior that spins potatoes round with water to remove the skin) or taking paninis from their packets and placing them in cooking trays. At the end of each shift, the floors must be swept and washed and all cooking and washing surfaces disinfected.
The job requires no qualifications whatsoever. Speaking English is not expected, and language preference and requirement will depend on the nationality of the rest of the kitchen staff.
Long term placements may require staff to take a basic health and safety or first aid course, but this is not compulsory.
The main skill is to be able to work safely in a busy environment. It is preferred that kitchen porters are physically able to wash up and carry larger items safely. The job is not ideal for people who dislike getting their hands and arms dirty.
As described above, working in a kitchen can be dangerous. Washing up for hours on end will also not be ideal for people with back problems. Sinks are obviously not height adjustable, so anyone over 6 foot tall will find themselves stooping to use them. Kitchens can get quite hot, and working over a sink full of hot water can require endurance.
No experience is required to become a kitchen porter.
One of the largest employers of kitchen porters is probably the NHS, although catering is slowly being given through private contracts. Jobs in the NHS can be found on the NHS Jobs Website Housekeepers in hospitals also cover some of the duties described above. Schools, colleges and universities employ people long term for kitchen porter posts. Employment agencies offer kitchen porter work as the first job for people without any other experience.
The job immediately senior to kitchen porter is kitchen assistant. The two roles overlap a great deal, although Kitchen Assistant deals more with vegetable preparation and taking deliveries. It is not necessary to have worked as a kitchen porter to train as a chef.