A grease trap is probably the best place to start in the restaurant business if you plan on moving from the bottom up. I was first introduced to a grease trap by the owner of the mighty three-unit Broken Egg chain. Mr. Hutchinson, with an artificial enthusiasm in his body language rolled up his sleeves to demonstrate for me the exciting and important job of grease trap maintenance. I was honored. The grease trap is a heavy steel container that intercepts kitchen drainage before it exits the building for the municipal sewer. Municipalities will not accept grease in their sewer systems and they require restaurants to separate it from wastewater and dispose of it themselves. There are no high-tech signals to tell you when a fifty-gallon grease trap is full. Perhaps a description of a typical cleaning is in order.
One likely sign that it’s time to clean the Grease Trap is the smell of rotten eggs that will suddenly fill the restaurant. Another no less certain but more tangible sign is a slick of viscous amber ooze welling up from the floor under the dish sink and spreading slowly outward into the main kitchen traffic aisles. As a rule the probability of an overflow is higher on busy weekend mornings.
Picture a full dining room about ten am on a Sunday morning. Families of five or six are dressed up for church and small groups of friends in cycling apparel or pre-beach ware wait for a table. The customer can barely hear “I can seat you now” from the hostess over the din of chatter, utensils clanging, waitresses and cooks calling out to each other and the usual audio abuse of painful music coming from the kitchen’s sticky ghetto blaster. The pimply dishwasher is washing off half full plates of omelet remnants, cheese goo and fruit garnish’s and stuffing them into the dish machine as fast as he can. A cook might be standing at the other end of the machine waiting for the clean dishes to come out the other end because he’s got omelets finished and no plates to put them on. The cook and the dishwasher notice a new foul smell and look down at their feet to find themselves standing in a spreading puddle of grease that only a solvent as powerful as jet fuel can cut. In unison they yell, “Tom please!” over the cacophony of the rush. “Please” being the required tail to any sentence spoken within the confines of the Hutchinson workplace. I calmly finish explaining to the needy customer in front of me why their omelet will be just another minute or so and walk to the next crisis. Ah yes, it’s The Grease Trap Overflowing During the Breakfast Rush Crisis. Everyone on shift knows two things at this point. Keep working and let that sucker for a job title, the assistant manager handle it.
That reluctant but driven restaurant man first grabs a warm stinking pile of wet napkins, table cloths and kitchen towels in the dirty linen bag, a few four gallon plastic mayonnaise buckets, a screw driver, a pair of gloves and a small sauce pot. He snaps on the latex gloves and sops up all the grease and slime on the outside of the trap with the pile of dirty linen. This usually results in a damaged linen fee from the linen company but it’s a small price to pay for a quick fix on a kitchen oil slick. Next he removes the screws holding down the steel lid and lifts it up off the vat. Breathing through his mouth he avoids vomiting at the odors rushing off the bubbling raft of coagulated effluent. It’s a mix of egg and cheese protein, frill picks, peas and a wide range of green and black textured molds. Inserting a gloved hand and the sauce pot he pushes into the raft and gently lifts warm soft globs of it into the waiting bucket.
Try as he might to keep from getting splashed a piece of one of the blobs will invariably calve off and fall back into the evil stew. As if in slow motion a drop of slime will lift off and sail up toward him to land on the shirt or worse yet onto the cheek. No time to dwell on the possibility of contracting some rare wasting disease from the spatter. He carefully scoops out all the grease and gray water and last but not least the sludge at the bottom consisting of coffee grounds, nuts and seeds all encased in slime the texture of loose fecal matter.
With any luck he can get all this into the buckets and seal them in under thirty minutes. He’ll give everything a final wipe, spray the area liberally with Lysol, scatter salt all over the floor to prevent slipping and go wash up in order to get back on the floor and help bus tables.
That’s it. That’s as bad as it can get. From the perspective of being hunched under a sink digging with your hands into a reeking grease trap the rest of the job seems sweet. Dave and I learned this together and these many years later he was the person we wanted with us in the trenches of our expanding culinary conflict.