Monday, November 15, 2004

Se Habla Espanol

A three top walks in the door. An old woman, face ruined, her hair and makeup arranged in a failed attempt to look thirty. Her daughter, already disintegrating into a younger version of mom, and the daughter’s husband; an Armani clad tortoise shell eyeglass wearing Uber Yuppie

I smile, say welcome, and ask if they have a reservation.

The first words out of the husband’s mouth aren’t “Hello” or “Three please” but,

“Is the owner in?”

I don’t like these guys already.

“No it’s his night off” I reply.

Shocked the wife says, “Where is he?”

“I think he’s home with his family.”

“Well if he's home who’s in the kitchen?” Uber Yuppie asks.

“The sous chef is cooking tonight.”

“What’s his name?” he demands


“Where in Italy is he from? Lucca?” he queries suspiciously.

“Ernesto is from El Salvador.” I say.

A look of disgust and surprise begins to play out on his face. He catches himself before it’s too obvious – but I see it.

“El Salvador?”

“That’s in Central America sir. “

“I know where it is. Why isn’t Fluvio cooking? We want him to cook our meal.” shithead declares.

Instead of “Get the fuck out.” the words “Ernesto is an excellent chef. I’m sure you will enjoy your meal.” drip soothingly from my mouth.

The man looks at his wife. She shrugs. Her mother is just staring off into space mumbling “What? What?”

They deign to grace us with their presence. I seat them in a relatively shitty table.

Now I’ll let you in on a little secret. Many executive chefs, like Fluvio, hate to cook. After spending twenty or thirty years slaving under abusive bosses, working sixteen hour days, avoiding sodomization, and baking in 120 degree kitchens working themselves up from dishwasher to master of the kitchen - these guys are fucking traumatized. Have you ever noticed executive chefs’ uniforms are always immaculate? Not splattered with tomato sauce? That’s because they shout orders all night and never go near a stove.

So who does the cooking? Mostly guys like Ernesto. Hardworking faceless guys from places like Guatemala, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Mexico. You were expecting a bunch of Italians singing opera flinging pasta? Wrong. You hear mariachi music and guys cursing in Spanish.

But this doesn’t jibe with most people’s fantasy of how a restaurant kitchen works. They imagine someone like Emeril or Mario Battalia waxing ecstatically about herbs and oils, engaging in something close to foreplay as they lovingly prepare your entrée.

So sorry. It’s a Mexican guy earning a paycheck, watching the clock praying for his shift to end as he sweats in front of a blast furnace cooking your food. In every restaurant in this great land of ours, whether it's French, Thai, Chinese, or even Indian, it’s Se Habla Espanol.

Yuppies raised on a steady diet of Food Network bullshit want an opera singing food personality to reinforce their Williams Sonoma Catalog ideal of how the world should be. When it runs smack dab against the harsh world of restaurant economics and immigration it creates what my old sociology professor called “dissonance.”

After Uber Yuppie and company tuck into their meals I go over and ask how everything is.

“Its ok.” they reply.

What a crock. Ernesto cooks the food exactly like the owner does. If I told these idiots an Italian had prepared it they would be smacking their lips, asking to meet the chef, and calling him “Maestro.”

But it’s only Ernesto the Spic so they don’t.

Dissonance? I call it racist bullshit.

Perception can be more important than taste in my business.

So the next time you go out to eat remember our hardworking Hispanic brothers and sisters who make your dining experience possible.

You couldn’t do their job. Trust me.

Ok culero?

Chupa mis huevos grandes pendejo!

It is about time we let the world know how the restaurant business works in America! I too have encountered a situation like this and my Ernesto was working three jobs with only a half day off sending as much money he could back to his ill parents in Mexico. Don’t you just want to grab each of the “guests” heads and knock them together as hard as you can after they emit such a superiority stench?
You know, I'm not a yuppie asshole but I sure feel like a jerk after reading your posting. Whenever I go out to eat, or order in for that matter, I don't think twice about the people who prepare the food. Not that it's an irrelevant job... I just never took time to consider how thankless it is. I'll remember your story and send my best, most positive energy to the Ernestos and all the hardworking restaurant employees from now on. Thanks for writing!
I know this is true in some places but not all. For example, I have eaten at Jaleo over 50 times and I know for a fact that the Executive Chef prepares my meals. I read in the newspaper that chefs are required to cook the meals in many finer restaurants. Are you telling this reporter is on the take?

Don Kosin

I would expect Daniel Boulud to be cooking at Daniel's in NYC. When you are paying those prices I would hope he’s there. But trust me; he has South of the Border help.

Of course there are very high end restaurants where the executive chef is obligated to do the cooking. Such places are, however, in the minority. The economics of the restaurant world gravitates towards a cheaper labor pool.

For the vast majority of restaurants in the USA Spanish people are the backbone of the kitchen. Sadly, they are not compensated enough for their work. If they were, restaurant prices would skyrocket.

Alain Ducasse, a celebrity chef to be sure, has three restaurants in three different countries. Unless he can transcend space and time he can't be at all three simultaneously. He is not at two of his three signature establishments every night! Who does the cooking? Well I am sure it's some French guy - with a Mexican by his side.

So I don't think you are on the take Don. But outside the world of super high end restaurants executive chefs don't do a lot of cooking.

Thanks for the post. What paper do you write for?

Beautiful post. Cheers to you. I think it's impressive you kept your head about you, but I'm glad you blogged and that I got to read it.
Hello, my name is Alejandro. Its really sad to see that most people there live so out of touch with reality.

I live "South of the border" whatever the fuck thats supposed to mean, many Kilometers to the South. We dont like you "North of whatever border that is" a whole lot either, but we are better at hiding it.

I work in a restaurant too, doing salads. I dont like it but it pays the bills, and when someone gets all indignant on a waiter or some other staff member, we make sure they get what they deserve.
Ah, that brings back old bitter memories. I remember slaving away, 8-12 hours a day, 6 days a week in the country club kitchen, while the executive chef collected the big paycheck, took credit for all the good food, and spent most of his time at the track.
Sorry to post anonymous.

Your post is right on the spot, not only in the U.S.

Have you read 'Kitchen Confidential'? I highly recommend it. I read it while slaving as an illegal Mexican Immigrant in a very posh London Sushi Restaurant.

I started as a dishwasher, went all the way up to Sous Chef. Never made it higher, reason being the Head Chefs worked in plain view of customers, who expected a Japanese Looking chef.

No Japanese people at all worked there, the chefs were all Mongolian, and the customers bought it. Talk about racial preconceptions.
No, it is not time to let the public know how the restaurant business really works and it is not time to let the prick at table 12 get what he deserves, and yes most of the time your food is being cooked by someone with less than a prestigous resume. However just as painting plates and adding height to food makes it dramatic, so does the "creative stories" the front of the house uses to sell the back of the house. Our job is to make the guest feel special and yes at times, superior. If sucking it up and taking home a paycheck, which in my 20 years of experience is usually better than the guy pumping my gas on the way home is not enough for you, if you need someone to hug you after every shift, then I suggest you go answer phones somewhere cause this business is not for you!
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