Award-winning Québécois novel Le Plongeur is now available in an English translation.
Written by Longueuil native-turned-Montrealer Stéphane Larue, published in French in 2016, and now translated by Pablo Strauss, it’s a coming of age story of a dishwasher on the cusp of his 20s, living and working on the Plateau in 2002. After digging himself into a financial hole with an online gambling habit, the main character (also the book’s narrator) takes a job washing dishes at a high-end restaurant.
With a strong sense of realism, the book — renamed The Dishwasher for its English release — details the at time overwhelming life of the restaurant in formidable detail as the chaotic winter holiday season approaches. The Dishwasher centres some dark themes like alcoholism and drug use in the kitchen, drawing inevitable comparisons to Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential.
The book isn’t autobiographical, but draws on Larue’s own experiences in restaurants: He worked as a dishwasher in the early 2000s, and while he left the dish pit behind long ago, he’s still in the industry, as an owner of Mile End bar La Taverne du Pélican. With the release of The Dishwasher in English, he sat down with Eater Montreal to discuss the novel, his life in restaurants, the translation process, and more.
Out of all the positions in a restaurant, why write about a dishwasher?
Stéphane Larue (SL): I worked in pretty much every position in a restaurant from dishwasher to manager, and I was wondering what would be the most interesting to write about. Everybody depends on the dishwasher; with no dishwasher, no dish gets cleaned and the restaurant stops functioning — and he has that fly on a wall insight into the restaurant.
How much of The Dishwasher draws on your own experiences?
Writing the first 40, 80 pages, naturally, I used material that came from my early days in the business. Initially, I was working on another novel, I was stuck and my publisher said to take a break, go write about something closer to [myself]. So I was thinking about writing a short a chronicle where the main character would be a cook, and the narrator would be the dishwasher.
That became a way bigger book and changed from non fiction to a novel — I saw the potential for a novel, that wasn’t only about kitchen life, but about Montreal, nightlife, and a coming of age novel. It’s set at a time when I discovered Montreal nightlife, so I wanted to speak about that Montreal, and specifically, the Plateau in that very time. That [version of the] Plateau doesn’t exist anymore, the bars [I drew upon for the book] are closed, the restaurants are closed — but it was very important for me catch that vibe of the early 2000s.
Hochelaga is in there too, back from when Ontario [Street] had those taverns that opened at 8 a.m., and pawn shops. I’m trying to be honest about what it looked like back then; I got so many comments about the French edition saying “oh man, you just you awoke all this [nostalgia] for the Plateau that I used to hang out in”.
People have commented on the realism of your writing in The Dishwasher — how realistic do you think it is?
What The Dishwasher got me into was a kind of realism that I didn’t write before. It taught me was that I could write about people I know, about myself. What’s happening in The Dishwasher is that I’m depicting a class of workers that you don’t see much. Being a kitchen employee in the 2000s wasn’t jet-set at all, it was proletarian work, so I tried to give a good, honest portrait of all these people that we don’t see upfront.
How do you feel about Montreal now, versus the Montreal that you describe in the book?
What’s happening to every great city is gentrification. Different neighborhoods have enriched themselves with cafés and restaurants. People tend to go out in their own neighbourhoods, and they don’t go to the [city] centre for a night out. 15 years ago, neighborhoods like Verdun, Rosemont, and Hochelaga, just didn’t have places to go out.
But also, The Dishwasher happens before the 2008 crisis, which changed the restaurant scene in Montreal; before that people would go out with company credit cards. The restaurant business totally changed after 2008, places that were packed closed six months after the financial crisis; all that money disappeared.
The Dishwasher first drew attention within restaurant world insiders, and even drew a few comparisons to Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Is is more a book for the kitchen crowd?
It’s also a book about your first job, and everybody has a first job. So it’s not a book for only the initiated, it really makes you discover what happens behind the kitchen doors. It’s the same thing for crime fiction, people like to read crime fiction because it’s a world you don’t get to see.
And how do you feel about those Kitchen Confidential comparisons?
If I did a non-fiction book it would have looked a lot like Kitchen Confidential in Montreal. I actually didn’t read it until after I finished the last draft of Le Plongeur. I didn’t want it to stop me from writing something that happened in the kitchen because I’d say “oh no, Anthony already wrote that sort of thing”. Though when I read Kitchen Confidential afterwards, I was encouraged. It made me know that I wasn’t alone in my experiences.
Would you ever go back to being a dishwasher?
It’s a very hard job, not just physically, but mentally hard. Now, my conditions at the bar [Taverne du Pélican] are next to perfect — so, no, I won’t go back. But, when I did it, I could work four shifts in two days then have five days free to write, and that was the winning part of that whole bet. So maybe I would go back to being a dishwasher, if it gave me free time to write.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.