Do We Really Want To Do Without Immigrant Labor?

by Kirke on February 24, 2017

I have been derelict in not having written sooner on this subject. For more than 30 years I’ve worked as a chef in large and small hotels and in various restaurants around the San Francisco Bay Area. I have been very fortunate to have worked alongside immigrants from many nations, although mostly with those from Mexico and Latin America. My Latino heritage co-workers have been the most loyal, hardworking and reliable staff I have ever worked with. Some of them were working in the U.S. legally, most were not. All had Social Security cards and paid payroll taxes. In some cases, these were the only workers that applied for jobs as line cooks, dishwashers and busboys. Frequently, were it not for these workers, I would not have been able to open the doors. I could count on one hand the number of European heritage citizens that applied for a dishwashing position. I will concede that when I began my culinary career I lived in the Midwest where there were virtually no immigrant workers at the time. I started out as a dishwasher, learning skills that I would find useful later, as you will see.

I was perfectly happy with the fine applicants of Latino extraction wanting to work in my kitchen. For many, work in my kitchen was their 2nd or 3rd jobs per day, much to my lament. Often, they were working that hard so that others in their extended families could stay home and care for newborn or elderly family members. At one restaurant located in a somewhat remote suburb, my kitchen employees would carpool to work, hitching a ride with the one fellow who happened to have a driver’s license at a time when California law prohibited undocumented immigrants from acquiring the permit. Not helpful. You can imagine what could happen if that one legal driver became ill. Most of these workers gained extensive cooking skills from their long hours in multiple kitchens. I did work with many culinary school trained cooks and chefs, but the most highly skilled cook I ever had the pleasure to work beside was a Guatemalan gentleman I will call Pedro. I first met Pedro when I was hired to update the kitchen and menu in a well-known, established Bay Area restaurant. He had been there for years, working his way up from dishwasher to kitchen manager. Of all the dozens of cooks I ever worked with, Pedro was the best. Every meal he prepared was perfectly done. Every rack of lamb was cooked to the correct temperature (doneness), every time. They say you can be taught to cook, but you are born knowing how to roast. And, when Pedro was expediting on the line, things were calm, organized and enjoyable for all. I was very sad the day I had to move on to the next chef position, leaving Pedro behind. I later heard he went on to run the kitchen. No surprise.

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I don’t think that those that support President Trump’s immigration policies realize the invaluable, sustained contribution immigrants make to many small businesses and homes, work that many Americans refuse to do. I won’t repeat here the foul insults Trump levels at the dignified, hardworking people that help keep our economic engine running. It is not a new phenomenon for current U.S. citizens to denigrate the latest wave of immigrants that have had to uproot their families, escaping persecution, famine or war. How quickly they forget the time when their families had to do the same, as all but the indigenous have. But to hear the inevitable hateful rhetoric come from the leader of our country, his own family a benefactor of Lady Liberty’s largess, marks a very sad day for our country. Will Trump’s supporters send their sons and daughters to kitchen back doors to help run the restaurants that they patronize Saturday nights?  My first day as executive chef at a small hotel began with an ICE raid resulting in the deportation of my entire dishwashing crew. I found myself scrubbing pots that first night. The following week there were no U.S. born dishwasher applicants to be found. I had to hire someone to keep the business open. I was fortunate to find a new staff of hardworking immigrants sent by word of mouth to do the difficult job of cleaning the dirty dishes, pots and pans for the well-heeled patrons of that hotel.

The argument is often made that hiring undocumented immigrants bring down wages for U.S. born citizens. Well, using my own life experience of working in the immigrant free Midwest of the seventies as an example, I started dishwashing at minimum wage, although I did get promoted to full time pot washer at $3.75 per hour. A better argument can be found in this recent article by conservative columnist David Brooks in the New York Times entitled “The National Death Wish.” He uses the example of the construction industry, which is unable to find enough workers to meet demand. And he cites the success of cities like Houston that are thriving with a diverse immigrant population.

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Throughout my career I had the honor of meeting and working with many wonderful people, and in some cases much of their family. People like Alfredo. As a boy he learned to be a fisherman in El Salvador. He had to choose: join the rebels or die. Or he could try for political asylum in the land founded by immigrants, the land of freedom and hope. He started as a dishwasher. Then he began helping serve desserts. Soon he was making the desserts, doing most of the prep work, making fresh pasta and of course, filleting fish. Alfredo’s Spanish was so influenced by his indigenous language that at first, most of his Latino co-workers could barely understand him. But he learned English quickly, just as he did everything I taught him. A chef could not ask for a more dedicated, intelligent employee. I can only hope that Alfredo went on to apply for citizenship. An American could not ask for a better fellow countryman.

References:

Soble, J. (2017, February 12). The immigrant-free economy. New York Times Sunday, Sunday Business.

Brooks, D. (2017, February 24). The national death wish. Retrieved February 24, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/24/opinion/

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Elena March 1, 2017 at 10:38 pm

Well said and so sad we have to face this reality. So unfair to have all these hardworking people not being able to make a better life for themselves and their families. I wish I could go back in time and wake up to a different president…

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Kirke March 20, 2017 at 1:04 am

Great immigrants like you and your family can help to make keep our country true to its roots. I came from a long line including some of the first immigrants to our country, arriving hundreds of years ago. Those first years were not our proudest. But we have continued to be a nation of immigrants. This is the only place in the world where new citizens can come and truly be assimilated into our American culture, all the while being allowed to keep cherished traditions and freedom to worship as raised. Or this is how it has been for most of our country’s history. Exactly as my family did 300 years ago, this foundational quality still works, still holds true, still self evident, still defining who we are as Americans today. The resulting enriched diversity as a founding principle is what has built our indefatigable backbone. That is who we are and anyone who disagrees, has forgotten what it is to be an American. Please come back into the fold. We, as a people, are very accepting of those who wish to assimilate. Just bring that loving, accepting, intense work ethic I’ve found in most immigrant cultures, we reward those qualities with what we call citizenship in the United States of America.

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Lisa Gershenson February 26, 2017 at 1:06 pm

I’ve also worked in kitchens for the last 35 years and could not agree more. Thank you for publishing this articulate and insightful piece. Lisa

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Kirke February 28, 2017 at 12:54 pm

Lisa, thank you for your comment. I was not familiar with cooksgazette.com, but I enjoyed visiting and I will do so again.

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Nadra Holmes February 26, 2017 at 12:55 pm

Hey Kirke – great article! So well said, and so relevant for these trying times in our country. I wish Trump could or would read it. I’m posting it on FB.

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