February 25, 2018

The Humble King

Philip Asplund of Traverse City's Amical
By Lynda Wheatley | Sept. 16, 2017

Twenty-one years ago, Philip Asplund ate a turkey sandwich that changed his life. He was 46 years old. He had a degree from Michigan State University and a couple of decades experience as a registered social worker. And he had just completed a treatment program for alcoholism at Traverse City’s Dakoske Hall.

So when he went with a Dakoske pal to Amical — then a new-ish restaurant on Traverse City’s Front Street — the plan was just to get lunch. But as he ate, he decided he liked the place: its vibe, its feel, its downtown bustle. Before leaving, he approached the manager.

“I told her, ‘I’d really like to work here, but I’m just getting out of treatment, and I really don’t want to think,” he said.

She thought about it for a moment and offered him a job as a dishwasher: “She said, ‘All you really have to think about is what you’re putting on the next rack.’” 

Wash, Rinse, Repeat
By a patron’s perception, dishwashers typically sit at the bottom of a fine restaurant’s hierarchy. Those on the floor — the hosts, the servers — rank high. The chef, the sommelier, the owner — whether they mingle with guests or mastermind their wizardry from behind the house — they have stature, a kind of culinary celebrity. But dishwashers? Overlooked, unnamed, and  completely forgotten — at least until a guest spies the smudge of someone else’s lipstick on her stemware.

But in the back corner of Amical’s hot, narrow kitchen, Asplund occupies a somewhat different territory. “I call it my kingdom,” he says.

And rightly so. Asplund, who has seen Amical evolve from a cafeteria-style eatery to an esteemed anchor of Traverse City’s downtown and the region’s renowned culinary scene, has manned the dishwasher almost every year of Amical’s existence. No doubt he’s sprayed, washed, sorted, and stacked well over a million glasses and dishes in his time. 

Sure, glasses and dishes aren’t the artistry the chef unveils each night; they’re the canvases, mere vehicles of conveyance. But without them, where would any of us be? Standing over our sinks, eating bologna sandwiches from our hands, one supposes.

Human Resource
If not revered by Amical’s guests, Asplund is cherished by the Amical staff. That’s especially noteworthy, as the staff at Amical is an anomaly in the restaurant world. The establishment boasts a markedly low and slow turnover rate, with many lifers and long-timers on its payroll. But Asplund, one of the longest lifers, isn’t only a critical cog in the night-to-night meal wheel. He’s a vital part of the Amical family, a kind of favorite uncle – one who asks a lot of questions but listens hard and isn’t rattled by anything anyone might confess.

“[One] thing that has been really rewarding to me, doing the night dishes, is I’m exposed one to one with a lot of bussers and servers. [My dishwashing station] is sort of like a decompression chamber,” he said. “They come off their tables, say what’s on their minds, what’s happening in their lives. I’ve had a lot of good conversations, developed a lot of relationships, a lot of positive long-term friendships because of it.” 

Credit his background working with the developmentally disabled, people who couldn’t talk. Or his mom, who’d watch over a neighbor’s wife who suffered from schizophrenia. Whatever the formative experience, Asplund’s work isn’t washing dishes. It’s asking, talking, listening — even when people don’t say a word.

“ … I learned to detect emotions and problems at a very gut level. If I detect that someone may be around a while, I like to know what makes them tick and tap into their humor and their bright side,” he said. “And if there’s a dark side they want to bring to light, I’ll discuss that also.”

Asplund didn’t set out to be a one-man human resources department. In fact, he’s quick to clarify: “I am not officially that department.”

But he readily admits that when he started at Amical, he saw it as a temporary gig, figuring he’d stay there are a year or two, then move on. Amical owner Dave Denison, however, had other plans. 

Just a few weeks after Asplund started on dishes, Denison offered to promote him to the kitchen line. Asplund turned it down.

“I still remember like it was yesterday,” Asplund said. “I told him, “Dave, at this point in my life, there are three [issues]: One, when you drink as much as I did, you lose confidence in yourself. Two, other people lose confidence in you. And three, you stop caring. I’ve gotta come back from that.”

A month later, Denison approached Asplund again. He told the dishwasher there were some things he wanted Asplund doing in the office. Initially, it was dealing with vendor accounts, making payments. Asplund agreed. A year later, Denison taught him to do payroll, so Asplund took that on too. Eventually, Asplund was tasked with shutting down Amical after close, work that keeps him there alone until 2 a.m., with a full bar and countless bottles of beer and wine at his disposal.

“One time I asked him, ‘Dave, do you think people ever wonder about you leaving me here alone every night?'” Asplund said, recalling that Denison had looked taken aback by the question and had only one word in response: “No.” 

End of the Line
Now 67, Asplund has cut back to washing dishes just four nights a week, and during peak season, he’s backed by at least one or two other dishwashers so he can head to the basement to catch up on paperwork and other duties. “I always ask them before I head downstairs, ‘Are you ready to inherit the kingdom?’"

It might be a long while before Asplund permanently bequeaths his kingdom. He likes the job. Loves the people. Delights in getting to know the summer help Amical brings in from places like Ghana, Turkey, and Kazakhstan. He’s attended countless birthdays, baby showers, and even funerals for staff and their families. A few years back, a server asked him to speak at her wedding.

Not to be underestimated, the Amical kitchen keeps him exceptionally well-fed, too, with a nightly meal prepared just as he directs.

“After my first year there, Dave announced to me one day: ‘You have had an opportunity to eat a wide variety of food here that would have cost you a small fortune.’ I simply said, ‘I know.’”

That small fortune has multiplied 21 times since. According to Denison, Asplund’s been worth it.

“Philip is a savvy observer of human character and extremely non-judgemental,” Denison says. “He looks for the good in people and finds a way to communicate all the positive aspects of those around him. And he is humble and honest in his assessments.”

Asplund shies away from supposing what others feel about his contribution to Amical. But he will say that Denison is a guy “who knows quality and authenticity and strives for that with his staff and the food and beverages served at Amical.”

Plus, he adds, Denison’s just plain smart: “He operates on the stray dog theory for dishwashers — if you feed them, they’ll come back.”

Twenty-one years and counting.

 

 

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