Finding a job in Groningen as an international is more challenging than it sounds, especially if you don’t speak Dutch. The language barrier can mean more limited options, which often means doing the “dirty” work for restaurants, cafes, and bars to support yourself economically.
A restaurant’s ecosystem has many components: a charming front-of-house team, managers and a crew of people who prepare your food and do the dishes. Unless you have worked in a kitchen yourself, you may not notice the people at the very bottom of a restaurant, café or bar hierarchy. Who are the people who prepare your food and wash the dishes in Groningen’s dining establishments?
Often, they are international students. Karlis Putans came from Latvia to study in Groningen. Trying to find a job to cover his expenses and to be more independent economically, he decided to turn to more internationally-oriented eateries, such as Het Concerthuis.
Since speaking Dutch is not a prerequisite, “In the kitchen, the ratio of internationals is higher”, he says. Unlike many internationals, Putans preferred to work as a dishwasher over doing deliveries due to his personality. “I’m too shy for direct service and inexperienced with scooters”, he admits. He has been working at Het Concerthuis for two and a half years, and he says that he prefers cooking to doing the dishes at this point: it’s not a hard job, but he says that it’s more mentally demanding for him.
The work itself is manageable, but the real problem starts when he has to combine working, studying and having free time to enjoy student life. When he first started working, he decided to shorten his study time in favour of having free time. “Until recently, my study quality has been suffering massively”, he says. It took some time for him to figure out a way to balance everything successfully, and the new reality of his life has taught him a valuable lesson: to put real effort into his goals.
“Dishwashing chose me more than I chose it”
Ilinca Niculescu from Romania can relate better than anyone else to Putans’ struggles: she is also a student and works as a dishwasher, but she says she would rather not say which restaurant. When she moved to Groningen, she thought that “finding a job would be a piece of cake because of the many restaurants, bars, and cafes.” In practice, it was proven to be a struggle. Although she had previously worked as a waitress, she was told that her experience was “useless” because of her lack of Dutch.
She decided to take any job she could get, as money has always been an issue. “Life in Groningen is expensive, especially for students that come from countries like my own”, she says. Niculescu started her job a couple of months ago: “I think dishwashing chose me more than I chose it,” she says. Having to do the “dirty” job and cleaning someone else’s mess is never pleasant, which is why Niculescu thinks that Dutch people prefer to do other jobs instead.
“Being a dishwasher is not easy. I have to show you my hands after work, and you’ll see why I’m complaining”, she says. “At the end of the day, I’ll be exhausted physically, but not mentally”, she explains. To combine working and studying, she has discovered that you have to be prepared to make sacrifices. “Sleep is one of the things I miss the most”, she says. But maybe not for long: Niculescu has started learning Dutch in the hopes of being able to “move from the kitchen and find something better”.
The “heroes” in the kitchens
Yung Te Hao, moved to Groningen from London two years ago to study and works in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant in town. Yung, who has five years of kitchen experience, started working in the kitchen as a dishwasher, but he quickly moved on to food prep as well.
With his experience behind the scenes, Yung says that he now recognises that the most crucial component of a restaurant is the kitchen and “the heroes” that do the jobs no one else wants. “I don’t understand why doing the dishes sounds so appalling”, he says, explaining that even now he will clean the pots at the restaurant he’s working for. “I enjoy what I’m doing. It’s not that bad”, he says. The only annoying part of Yung’s job is the fact that cooks and dishwashers “do not get tipped out and we do the hard work”.
Now that he has acquired his degree, he is planning his next step in life. Having spent years in the kitchen himself, he has nothing but respect for how demanding the work can be. “I studied economics, but if that doesn’t work out, I’ll just open my own restaurant”, he jokes.