Larry Matthews Jr., chef and owner of the elegant Back Bay Grill in Portland, and William “Franco” Tucker, dishwasher at the same, have worked together for about two decades. Longer than many marriages last. Longer, by decades, than dishwashers typically stay at restaurants. Longer than either ever expected, and longer than Matthews has worked with anyone else at his reliably first-rate restaurant.

Matthews, 43, grew up in Kennebunk, where he still lives. He was raised a strict Baptist, and today is married with two children. After getting a college degree in the culinary arts, he worked in a few restaurants – some quite distinguished – before arriving at Back Bay Grill when he was about 22.

At 24, he was the executive chef, and five years later, he owned the place. He left once, for two months, to cook at a restaurant in Ogunquit. But for most of his life, Matthews has had one home, both professionally and personally.

Tucker, 68, spent his childhood at the Waco State Home and in reformatory school in Texas; the state removed him from his family when he was a preschooler. He was raised “Southern fried Baptist,” he said. He dropped out of school after eighth grade – he has since got his GED, and a few years later he spent time in jail for stealing cars. He has never been married, and he doesn’t have a girlfriend now, though he smiles when he says he is “always in the hunt.”

Before he came to Maine in the 1970s, Tucker was a rambling man, living in Alaska; New Mexico; Seattle; Denver; Buffalo, New York; and Tucson, Arizona. He wandered around Maine some, too, looking for work, he said, always looking for work. Over the years, he has held many odd jobs, in welding, construction, and mason tending; making sandwiches, harvesting potatoes and working at an auto parts plant. Home was wherever he hung his hat.

One packed New Year’s Eve in the late 1990s, the dishwasher at Back Bay Grill walked. Tucker was hired at the eleventh hour to fill in, a trial by fire in more ways than one; that evening the dish-washing machine broke down.

Since then, he’s left just once, for a year, to be reunited with his sister in Texas whom he’d last seen when he was 4 years old.

In this industry, two years employment is practically a lifetime. Dishwashers often cycle in for just six months. As for finding one who cares about his work? As likely as finding a fiddlehead in January.

“It was a long year,” Matthews said of the time Tucker was away.

“I’d rather be up here,” Tucker said.

‘WE GOT IT DONE’

Tucker mostly works in a tight space directly behind Back Bay Grill’s open kitchen. He’s a scrawny man, which turns out to be handy, as a large man might not fit or be able to pivot with bus buckets stacked with dirty plates, racks loaded with clean glasses, and chinois and bain maries to fetch for the line cooks. Such specialized equipment, called in professional kitchens by their French names, hangs from the ceiling between the kitchen and the dish station, and Tucker can name every item.

Once, when Matthews was new and cooking on the line, something he does only occasionally these days, he asked Tucker to bring him lettuce.

“I wanted mixed baby lettuces. I didn’t think he knew what it was,” Matthews remembered. “I tried to describe what mesclun mix looks like.” Tucker went downstairs and came back with the wrong stuff. He made a second trip. And a third. “Finally, by process of elimination he got it and he showed it to me and I was like ‘yeah, that’s it.’ And he says (to me)…” Here Matthews speaks very slowly in imitation of Tucker’s voice, telling the chef, as if explaining to a not very bright child, “Mes-cu-lun mix.”

Tucker doesn’t remember this, though he does remember the painfully slow evening years ago when Matthews sent everyone in the kitchen home but him. Suddenly, the place filled up, “and the next thing you know, Franco and I were flying around and figuring out how to get it done,” Matthews said.

“We got it done,” he added.

COMMON CORE

In the beginning, their relationship wasn’t all truffles and foie gras – two items that are, incidentally, sometimes featured on Back Bay Grill’s menu. Tucker is set in his ways, Matthews said, and things could get tense. Matthews remembers bickering. A lot of it.

“I was a chef trying to make my bones, I suppose,” Matthews said. “Everything was very important to me all the time. If I needed a particular pan, that was the only thing. He saw other priorities.

“Once we understood that we both had the restaurant’s best interest in mind,” Matthews continued, “that’s when I think we (made) a more cohesive team.”

When he isn’t washing dishes, Tucker stands at the pass between the kitchen and dish room and watches the line cooks with fierce intensity. He hands them the correct clean pans they need when, say, an order for lavender-marinated duck breast comes in, and he grabs their hot, dirty pans with tongs or kitchen towels, disappearing to scrub them, reappearing a minute later to return them clean.

Franco Tucker makes his way around the busy kitchen while on duty dishwashing at Back Bay Grill.

Franco Tucker makes his way around the busy kitchen while on duty dishwashing at Back Bay Grill. Photos by Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

He’s got a system. He’s got systems. He knows just how to remove greasy, cooked-in rings from the top of stock pots. He separates the utensils before putting them through the machine – knives with knives (blades up), forks with forks (tongs down). He knows which scrubbies to use with which pans, so the pans don’t get scratched.

When the waiters come in at 4 p.m., relaxed and sociable, they can annoy Tucker. He starts his day at 2 p.m., and before the dishes pile up and depending on the day’s menu, he peels fava beans and potatoes, cleans fiddleheads, de-beards mussels, shucks corn… He has plenty to do, and it looks to him like the waiters don’t. He can be gruff, Matthews said. Tucker likes his routines, seconds Back Bay Grill General Manager Adrian Stratton, who at 12 years with the restaurant is the next longest-serving person on the staff.

“Franco is at the bottom of the food chain – supposedly,” Matthews said. “In years past, I had a cook who didn’t get along with Franco. ‘Don’t put me in a position where I have to choose between the two of you,’ he told the cook. ‘It won’t be a hard choice.’ ”

WHO WOULD DO THE DISHES?

Matthews understands the work of a restaurant dishwasher firsthand. He’s done the job himself. Before he cooked at the Relais & Châteaux White Barn Inn in Kennebunk, before he cooked at the James Beard award-winning Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, before he helmed Portland’s beloved Back Bay Grill, he washed dishes at the Lobster Pot in Cape Porpoise.

“Every chef should spend some time doing the dishes,” he said. “It’s a thankless job, but in a lot of ways, it is the most important job in the restaurant.”

He actually remembers the dishwasher at the Inn at Little Washington. We’re talking 20 years ago. A guy named Roy, whom Matthews called “a career dishwasher.”

“He took it very seriously,” he said. “He was very good at it. I felt very lucky to find a similar partner.”

On occasion, Matthews has substituted for Tucker at Back Bay Grill. It’s easier to do the job himself than try to find someone else to do it, he said. Someone who will live up to Tucker’s exacting standards, which Tucker describes this way: “Do it right the first time, so you don’t have to go over it.”

Once, Matthews tried to get Tucker help in the dish room, someone to do the pots for a few hours each day. That didn’t work out.

Not that Tucker needs a substitute much.

“If Franco doesn’t show up, that means a train ran him over,” Stratton joked. Which got Stratton and Matthews to thinking about the traits of a good dishwasher.

“Reliability,” Matthews said. “Reliability,” he repeated.

Until some five years ago, Tucker worked five to six days a week. He cut back to four days so he could get up early Sundays to take the bus to Boston – he doesn’t own a car – to see the Patriots play. His Social Security checks make his new schedule possible.

“I’ve always been into sports,” Tucker said. Others move to Maine for the beautiful coastline, the outdoors life, the reasonable pace. He said he stayed because he likes the Patriots and the Celtics.

Did you know Matthews wrestled on his high school team? he added admiringly.

Larry Matthews Jr., owner at Back Bay Grill in Portland, and dishwasher Franco Tucker have a friendship that goes beyond being co-workers.

Larry Matthews Jr., owner at Back Bay Grill in Portland, and dishwasher Franco Tucker have a friendship that goes beyond being co-workers. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

Tucker substituted for Matthews, sort of, just once. Matthews had the bright idea that Tucker should get a promotion to cook. This was “double digit years ago,” Matthews said. “I thought it would be a great story if I could turn him into a great chef.”

The tryout lasted all of a day.

“He had no interest in doing it,” Matthews said. “He didn’t have the passion for it.”

Tucker didn’t dispute this. Does he cook at home? “Microwave,” he said. About that possible promotion? First of all, cooking in a restaurant kitchen is too hot, Tucker said. Second, “like I told Larry,” who would do the dishes?

“We could probably get a dishwasher,” Matthews said.

“I’d probably be dissatisfied with what I see around,” Tucker replied. “Very few (good dishwashers) right now. I can’t recommend anybody.”

HE’S THE METRONOME

Tucker has been at Back Bay Grill twice as long as he’s held any other job.

“Everybody treats me with respect,” he said when asked why. “Not every job they are gonna treat you with respect.”

Then there are the occasional celebrity sightings. Like two weeks ago, when George Bush Sr. showed up to eat soft shell crabs.

Tucker has eaten in the comfortable, understated dining room himself. Once, when he had a date, the kitchen prepared a 14-course tasting menu for the couple. Only one problem: The date was a no-show.

“Actually it turned out good because she was a bad girl,” Tucker said. “It brought me up to what she was all about.”

Larry Matthews Jr., owner at Back Bay Grill, and Franco Tucker share a story during a quiet moment in the kitchen. The two have worked together for over 20 years.

Larry Matthews Jr., owner at Back Bay Grill, and Franco Tucker share a story during a quiet moment in the kitchen. The two have worked together for over 20 years. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

He ate the meal by himself. “I usually don’t eat that much.”

Usually, he is very particular about when he eats. Tucker doesn’t like to work on a full stomach. If he is busy, he may not stop to eat a slice of birthday cake for a co-worker. Sometimes, he eats staff meal with everybody else at the end of service. More often, he scrapes a portion into a container and brings it home to microwave.

“Everything goes to his time frame,” Stratton said. “I’m pretty sure my day starts on his time frame.”

“There are a lot of times I feel like Franco sets the rules, and we just follow them,” Matthews agreed, laughing.

“He is the metronome of the kitchen,” Back Bay Grill server Ian Bannon said of Tucker.

That respect Tucker feels, that any customer to Back Bay Grill has felt – it’s no accident. It’s in the DNA of the restaurant, the DNA of Matthews and Stratton.

“If you are respectful to all your employees, your employees will pass that respect on to the guests. It’s trickle-down,” Stratton said. “Your first guest is your employee.”

ARRIVING TODAY

Eighteen years years ago, Tucker attended Matthews’ wedding at the Danforth Inn in Portland. Do the pair consider themselves friends?

“Oh yeah. He’s a boss and a friend,” Tucker instantly answered the question.

“It’s definitely, ah … not a traditional friendship,” Matthews said carefully. “We don’t hang out outside of work. But I try to make sure he’s taken care of, he gets whatever he needs. He hurt his knee a few years back. He had appointments across town. I took him to all those. I don’t know if that’s a friendship, exactly what you’d call it.”

Tucker interrupted, laughing: “He’s not my enemy, anyhow.”

Now that Tucker is 68, now that he’s reliably held the same job for 20 years, now that he knows what he knows, what would he tell that 16-year-old boy who stole cars so he could run away from reform school?

“I never wished I didn’t do it. I would do something else just to get away,” Tucker said. “They don’t give you a bus ticket, they don’t. It could have been a lot worse.”

Not surprisingly, Matthews sees things differently. He got his own big chance as a young man at the White Barn Inn. He’d already worked at other restaurants by then, but then-chef Gethin Thomas opened his eyes to what the culinary field could be. I could do that, he thought to himself. I want to do that.

“I think Franco just really needed some consistency and some stability, something he could count on,” Matthews said. “He works very hard. He comes here and is appreciated and taken care of, so he comes back again the next day. And 20 years later, we are doing the same thing.

“I always wonder what would have become of Franco if he’d had some form of stability earlier in his life … what would happen in a different parallel reality.

“But this is where he is,” Matthews said.

When Matthews was young he figured he’d move around from good restaurant to better restaurant cheffing and climbing the ladder. He didn’t figure that then Back Bay Grill proprietor Joel Freund would get terminal cancer and want to sell the place to his star chef. But this is where Matthews is, too.