A kitchen is only as strong as its dishwasher. Not the machine (though hopefully that's in good working order), but the person who daily performs the wet, thankless, finger pruning task of washing every dish and scrubbing every pot in the place. I am thankful to previous chefs who taught me to treat them well, sneak over little treats (salmon collar snacks!) and show respect to the guy who often doesn't get a whole lot of it. This translates to how I feel about the entire kitchen staff: they are the rock and the wheels of a restaurant. And most of them are immigrants, some legal some not.
I'm gonna put it out there and say that I could never run a kitchen without the workforce from Mexico, Guatemala, and other Latin American countries. Year after year I have had the pleasure of working alongside folks who continuously surprise me with their unfailing hard work, grit, loyalty and pride in what they do. There are problems - one guy drinks too much, another has very limited English - but the good far outweighs the bad. I feel richer thanks to the hours spent working side by side with each and every one of them, hearing stories from their villages, seeing the sparkle in their eye when they taste something particularly delicious, talking about how happy their kids were when they sent them a new pair of sneakers or a computer. Many haven't seen their children for years, which brings along its own type of lingering sadness and loneliness.
The dichotomy between my positive experience as manager and the negative perception by some customers of the Latino cooking staff both angers and shocks me. One story stands out in particular. It was a normal day - Karina and I doing eggs and prep in the back, the guys running the line in the front - when I heard the loud voice of a regular customer. She was an outspoken vegetarian, and I commented on something about that to Karina, who was silently fuming in the corner. What's up? I asked her. She said she hadn't wanted to tell me but she was so upset she couldn't help it: A few weeks before she had been at the grocery store with her girlfriend, in the long checkout line. The checker was moving along slowly when the woman behind them - said regular customer - started berating them: "You people are so stupid, don't you understand English? Some of us have places to go, I don't know why you people are even here." Karina, who has been in the US for 11 years, speaks English beautifully. The woman went on and on, but instead of confronting her, Karina and her partner went back to the car and cried.
My heart crumpled into a little ball. Here was a valued customer who bent over backwards to be sweet to me every time I saw her, now showing her true colors. Who did she think was making her precious Beans on Toast every day? Karina held me back from going after her, but it got me thinking more about the human aspects of the service industry. With immigration being the hot topic on every politician's lips, we need to consider how immigrants touch our lives personally, what our true feelings are towards them and how we want to treat them.
It comes down to treating people with thoughtfulness and compassion, no matter what country they're from and how they got here. When my husband's family came from Italy to the US they were treated like second class citizens, as was my Jewish father who emigrated from Tunisia to Paris when he was fifteen. The newest wave of immigrants are not invisible. They have become an integral part of the framework of this country. They are doing the hard, grueling jobs that many Americans do not want to do. They have goals and dreams for the future. They want to be acknowledged. Say hi. Look them in the eyes. Thank them. We would be lost without them.