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Longtime Dishwasher Becomes Part Owner of World's Top Restaurant

Rene Redzepi/Facebook

A 62-year-old dishwasher from Gambia has just been named a co-owner of one of the world’s best restaurants.  

Ali Sonko — who has been working at the restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark for more than a decade — was unveiled as one of three new partners, alongside two managers. Influential chef and co-founder Rene Redzepi announced the milestone last week in front of staff and friends.

“Ali is the heart and soul of Noma,” Redzepi said. “I don’t think people appreciate what it means to have a person like Ali in the house.”

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“He is all smiles, no matter how his twelve children fare,” Redzepi added.  “And, by the way, my own father was also named Ali, and he too worked as a dishwasher when he came to Denmark.”

Noma, Redzepi’s two-Michelin star restaurant, closed the doors of its current location last Friday to reopen in December as an “urban farm,” according to Danish newspaper Berlingske.

“It is a fantastic new project,” Redzepi said, “but what would it all be worth without the employees?”

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Generally, dishwashers are one of the lowest paid workers at restaurants. And according to data from the Labor Department in 2012, it is one of the lowest-paid jobs in America, raking in some $18,930 annually. They represent some of the vast majority of workers across the world, in emerging economies, who struggle to survive on wages that are barely enough to cover their daily subsistence needs.

Sonko’s story is one long overdue.

He first gained recognition in 2010 when he could not join his fellow employees on stage in London to receive Noma’s first “World’s Best Restaurant” title. A resident of Denmark for the past 34 years, without a visa Sonko could not enter Britain. Instead, the team accepted the prize while wearing t-shirts with Sonko’s face printed on them.

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Two years later, when the restaurant won the prize again, Sonko not only attended but gave the reception speech.   

"I cannot describe how happy I am to work here," he told Danish website BT. "These are the best people to work with, and I'm good friends with everyone. They exhibit enormous respect for me, and no matter what I say or ask about, they are there for me. And that's enough for me to say that it's the best job I've ever had."