Juan Venegas

Juan Venegas of Per Se in New York.
Photo: Kristine Keefer

As Thomas Keller prepared to open Per Se last February, he thought of everything (except, perhaps, buying extra fire insurance). He even flew in ten-year French Laundry veteran Juan Venegas to teach the Per Se staff how to wash dishes the Keller way.

What’s special about washing dishes at Per Se?
At Per Se, it’s very high-quality work. You have to be very clean, very responsible. At other dishwashing jobs, you can basically do whatever you like.

What’s your particular talent?
Being able to work at an extremely fast pace and never letting the dishes accumulate. Only one out of five dishwashers we try out can do it.

Is there a way to tell who will be a good dishwasher and who won’t?
The people who have agile-looking bodies, I can tell that they might be good workers.

How many dishes do you wash per night?
Around 5,000.

What’s your salary?
$13 an hour.

What does your staff get paid?
In California, $8.50 an hour, less in New York, but I’m not sure how much.

Any secret techniques?
We have two different kinds of machines: one for dishes, one for wineglasses. But most of the dishes are special dishes that we can’t put in the machine because they’re too big or they don’t fit properly, and we have to wash them one at a time with a sponge (it takes about a minute each), and then we have to towel-dry them. We use a vacuum to dry the wineglasses.

Ever broken a special dish?
On very few occasions.

Who does the dishes at your house?
Oh, my wife. She’s not as good as me, but after work, I’m exhausted.

Juan Venegas