Friday, March 11, 2011

Is washing your own dishes a good thing?

Maybe I'll do these tomorrow...
Photo credit: Imelda (Creative Commons)
When I was washing my own dishes in the lab yesterday, I thought of this passage. From the Anthony Bourdain travelogue "A Cook's Tour", on Thomas Keller's French Laundry:
Maybe you've heard some of the stories. That he used to make his cooks climb up into the range hoods each day to scrub out the grease personally. How he stores his fish belly-down, in the swimming position. That every fava bean in his kitchen is peeled raw (never soaked). How his mise-en-place, his station prep, is always at an absolute minimum - everything made fresh.
When I worked at a much, much larger pharmaceutical company, there was a nice young man who would take my dirty glassware away and a day or two later, he would return with them sparkling clean. While I loved it (I had just left graduate school -- getting your dishes washed is the greatest perk a young chemist could want), I always felt a little guilty, as if it was slightly decadent.

There is certainly a good negative feedback loop in washing your own dishes -- if you're a chemist who loves to use a lot of new glassware to do each operation, you're building yourself quite a pile at the end of the day. Foisting these dishes on someone else is externalizing these consequences. Of course, there is the productivity argument, too. If (relatively) high salaried chemists are spending an hour doing dishes, that's an hour they're not actually working.

I'm not quite sure that there's a moral lesson to be learned here (as Bourdain seems to be implying about Keller.) Washing your own dishes isn't great fun, but sometimes, it can be humbling.


  1. You know, I never asked my undergrads to wash my dishes. I don't know why.

  2. My undergraduate boss told me that if he just wanted dishes washed he'd have bought a dishwasher.

    Undergraduates in lab should be thought of as prospective graduate students, not servants.

  3. as prospective graduate students, not servants.

    And the difference is...? (kidding! kidding!)

  4. I made my UG's prep dishes for the dishwasher (although, as a biologist, I imagine it's slightly different system), and I wasn't treating them as a slave.
    My scheme was I give you a minimum of 'important' work to start, and then gradually, you 'graduate' to making reagents (after you pass a test and gain my trust that you'll tell me if you think you screwed something up). Everyone does a turn at dishes.
    At the institutes that I went to, the dishwashers/autoclave people were usually special needs people (i.e. developmentally challenged or didn't speak any english, and yes those are both 'special needs'), so I didn't feel like I was giving them crap work, I was giving them a purpose.

  5. I interned at a biotech that had a guy come by every other day and take your glassware bin to a dishwasher, but all it did was bake the organic crud onto the glass. It was easier to just clean it yourself the first time.

  6. Everyone should wash dishes when they start out.

  7. You do your own dishes so that you know that they're clean.

  8. ....and so you know where they are when you need to set that next thing up...

  9. Even though was we had a glass washing service at AZ I always, always, always washed my own glassware, so the good luck would no be washed off by those unskilled in the art. Are chemists superstitious? Um, maybe a little.

  10. @geernst

    I totally agree with you about the luck thing. If you get a hood previously occupied by an unskilled chemist, reactions just never work the same as a good karma hood.

  11. I always felt washing glassware to be a great example of the lack of respect most biotechs have for chemists. 4 years UG, 4-6 years grad school, 0-2+ years as a pdf, and you're cleaning dishes like a totally unskilled high school dropout (yes, fine, some if it is delicate and expensive, but so are the crystal cabernet glasses where I ate last night). Whenever I get wistful for those days back in the lab, I just think of that (well, along with many other things) and am sooooooooooooooooooooooo thankful to be out of biotech.

  12. Washing your own glassware is not necessarily a waste of highly-paid research time. You can be thinking over a problem while you do it.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20