Chapter 1-Infinity... the Cooks.
In my training as a chef I always looked for the best kitchens to work in, headed up by the best chefs in the community. I joined those teams excited to give my all and develop into a master of my craft. I dreamed of quietly working hard at the side of the chef as they taught me how to cook, while sharing their philosophies of the great chefs and their historic contributions to gastronomy.
Then I started working and realized how foolish I was, and who the real cooks were. Culinary school had put blinders on me, but they were ripped off immediately as the true ways of the restaurant life slapped my naïve teenage ass across my rosy tender cheek. I was fortunate to work in the kitchens of fair, hardworking, caring chefs who had not forgotten where they came from…the line. Well, most of them. The line is where the true cooks reign and where the beauty of America and its diverse population taught me the true ways of a cook, and made me the chef I strive to be today.
The immigrant line cooks I have met in my 20+ years of professional cooking taught me how to cook. The techniques and ingredients came from the thoughts of the chef, but the cooks executed those dishes and refined them into what ended up on the plate. Each new menu opened my eyes to another season and culture of food and also allowed the seasoned cooks that grind it out in these workshops to show their experience. The proper technique of searing a filet of New England Summer Striper was followed up with a lesson in how to filet the fish with lightning speed and precision. Any waste was treated as an insult to the teacher, not just to the chef, but to the cook sharing his or her time and knowledge. Chef could cut the fish, but Oscar could do it 5 times faster and cleaner. Chef could get the crispiest skin on the fish, but Gelson could do it 5 at a time. They taught me the basics. They are the basics. They are the true education of the foundations in any craft or trade and must be protected for the industry to continue.
These cooks come from all over the world. This is immigration in America for the last 400 years: a pioneer comes to this country, establishes themselves, sends money back to help others join them, a community develops. The native Salvadorans, Brazilians, Mexicans, Jamaicans, Albanians, Vietnamese, Colombians, and dozens of other cultures that I worked beside all were ethical people putting their best into every day to save for the future. These communities are based on sanctuary, family, and American opportunity. They are not just there to fill remedial jobs that others feel they are above. They are just like us, working for a better life. The places they come from are hard, hard, hard places. America and its enormous economy is dependent on their contribution of labor, as well as grounding values of hard work to build a foundation for themselves and our combined communities.
There is a gap growing in our country that has always existed but is growing month by month. The distance between how much money it takes to feel comfortable here in America and what can be earned is growing rapidly. The White House and many people see immigrant labor as the main issue in this gap growth. I completely disagree based on my experience in the restaurant industry. Blame has been placed on immigrants as the problem for a lack of jobs and earning potential when the real problem is the drive of individuals to work for their own success. Jobs that lead to lifetime careers exist everywhere in America today, especially in restaurants. Successful people are finding them because they were taught to look for these jobs by mentors at home, school, and work wherever they grew up. Then they applied themselves to do their best without excuse or expectation and were rewarded for it. No single vision or initiative, liberal or conservative, will make a change in the portion of the population that feels slighted by what they are able to earn or the jobs they are able to find. They will always be that way. The individual must look at what they have and do their very best to be successful for themselves and their community. That is what immigrants do and why animosity has always existed to these precious role models of the American dream.
These people are not the problem with our economy, they are the light in our economy. They represent the future that everyone in America believes in and wants for themselves. The problem is some of us are having trouble peeling back that blinder and seeing the light of success. Immigrants are not the blinder shading that light, they are the people clawing it off the fastest and with the most tenacity.
In the shadows of our prejudices, they are lazy and dirty scraping up small scratch for a day off and a drunken escape from the work week.
In the light of reality, they are the role model to all who recognize the value of a true hard day’s work.
In the shadows they are trouble makers preying on honest people on the last train home to East Boston.
In the light they are tired parents earning strong American dollars to give their children books and education that doesn’t exist where they were born and came from.
In the shadows they are disloyal employees working slow, complaining constantly in another language, and waiting for another dollar more an hour to jump ship with no notice.
In the light they are people that don’t call in sick unless paralyzed, never let the team down, quietly work laps around their co-workers, and look for opportunities to learn and teach anyone willing to listen.
In the shadow they are the grunt workers that clean and cook for less than their neighbor.
In the light that I see and fuel in my restaurant (from the examples I was shown by my mentors at home and in my craft) the immigrants are those who inspire me to cook better, be kinder, drink less, stop smoking, work harder, complain quietly, celebrate more, and open doors at home and work towards partnership for more earnings and a better future for all.
Where will you stay, in the shadow or the light?
This is dedicated to all the line cooks I have worked with. Mas homage.