I can only speak to my own experiences and as a result formulate and support my own beliefs about immigration and the value of diversity. As I have said many times before – I feel that the greatest advantage of a life in the kitchen is the chance to work with people of all different cultures, races, age, gender, and beliefs. As much as I have thoroughly enjoyed working with food and creating some memorable experiences for guests, it is this chance to learn about people and build friendships with them that pulled me back for decades of hard work.
From my time in the kitchen I can confidently state that the restaurant business in the United States is a melting pot of culture and could not exist at the level that it has without the diversity that is evident in food establishments from coast to coast. I feel compelled to just point to the wonderful mix of people that I have had the pleasure to work with, and learn from, beginning with my first job washing dishes in 1966.
With all of the dangerous, hurtful, and sometimes destructive rhetoric contrary to the core of what makes our country so great, we should all reflect on what America would be like without the diversity that has always been part of our history. I have worked with fantastic people from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Northern Africa, Iran, Israel, Greece, Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Norway, Sweden, Japan, China, Korea, England, Ireland, and Russia – this has been my great privilege over nearly 50 years in kitchens. The following is just a brief introduction to some of those individuals who were my co-workers and with whom, in many cases, I became friends:
Haddie, to put it simply, was a great cook. She was not finesse, fine dining cook, but rather a solid preparer of food for the masses. She was a production beast who came to America from the Dominican Republic – a person who taught me to be humble. Gina, from Puerto Rico, was a pantry cook making fabulous salads day-in and day-out with a smile and an opinion about nearly everything. She taught me to face the day with a positive outlook.
Lloyd was a sous chef at the Statler Hilton. He was Jamaican – a professional, even-tempered, competent, and demanding chef. He helped me to take control of my temper when I was young and reactionary. I visited his home and family in a rough section of town where fellow Jamaican families chose to cluster. I was welcome with open arms as if I were family.
Frenchie also worked at the Statler. He was our butcher back when hotels had their own butcher shops. I never knew his real name, but everyone called him Frenchie. He came to the U.S. from Lyon, France and although he lived in the States for 15 or so years he maintained his French aura and language. He taught me the importance of caring for your tools in the kitchen. Patsie, worked in the pastry shop at the Statler (thus his nickname) – like Frenchie, no one knew his real name. Patise came from somewhere in Italy and brought to the Statler kitchen, his European commitment to doing things right. He made the best ice cream that I can ever remember and through my apprenticeship time I was able to build an understanding of how important the best ingredients were to great cooking. Angelo was another Italian who served as a saucier. Unlike others, he was very protective of his processes and time-tested recipes. I only picked up some of his technique through observation but in the process built an appreciation for stocks and the value of sauces in cookery.
I worked with two chefs at the Statler Hilton: Francois and Rocky. Francois was a classically trained chef from France who built his chops as sous chef and chef at the Queen Elizabeth hotel in Montreal, Canada. He was the chef who hired me and gave me a chance to learn as an apprentice. Rocky followed Francois. He was a native of Italy who at a young age worked as a cook at this same Statler Hotel. Years later, and many new experiences under his belt brought him back to the hotel as Executive Chef. He showed me that hard work builds an entry-level job into a career in food.
Hiro was a Japanese student who was a classmate of mine in hotel school. This was his first time in the States and he was totally taken by the breadth of land and the beauty of nature – both of which are in short supply in Japan. His mastery of the English language was astounding to me since that level of discipline to become bilingual was not a priority in America. He was a top student, a great storyteller of his heritage and the history of Japan, and a person who appreciated the freedoms that Americans enjoyed. Hospitality, to Hiro, was not something that he needed to learn – this was imbedded in his culture and as a result he became the teacher of every native born American in the program. I learned the true meaning of hospitality from Hiro who went on to become one of the most important hotel consultants in Japan.
Johnson was a dishwasher. He was born in Kenya and longed to make his way to America. He spoke near perfect English attesting to the quality of the schools that he had attended. He was pleased to wash dishes because it gave him an opportunity to observe and learn about our culture from a baseline position. His reason for being in the U.S. was just that – to learn about the average person who enjoys, but maybe doesn’t truly appreciate the freedoms and the opportunities before him or her. I learned to appreciate dishwashers and never underestimate what lies beneath the surface. I learned to never judge a person by what they did for a living, but rather how they treated others. Johnson was a great teacher.
Eduado was a line cook from Mexico. I never knew whether he was here legally or illegally, and to be honest –I didn’t care. He was great at what he did. Always organized, great mise en place, forever calm even when the ticket rail was full, and totally focused on consistent quality – this was what Eduado brought to the table. He was fast and efficient, always happy, never complaining, and truly appreciative of the opportunity to work in the restaurant. He taught me that every job is worth doing to the best of your ability.
Katya and Helena were both born in Russia and came to the U.S. to find a better way and to discover what America was all about. They were different people but shared the same level of commitment to become good citizens. Both had fond memories of their home country and in conversation would often defend the people of Russia even though they had little use for the leadership of their homeland. Helena was calm, warm, and a bit reserved; while Katya was bold, strong willed, and outspoken. Underneath they were both kind individuals. They taught me to keep an open mind and avoid pre-judgment of a culture based solely on what is promoted in the press. I learned that what a country’s leadership promotes does not always reflect what the people of that country believe.
Barisha was an inspiration. He was a student who had escaped persecution and death that was prevalent in Bosnia – a country that over the past 400 years has survived countless devastating conflicts and wars. He was very intelligent, curious, and desperate to feel part of a family united under the banner of freedom. He was a cultural sponge and through sponsorship was able to absorb everything that school could offer including an internship in France. He went on to become an important world diplomat. Barisha taught me just how fortunate we are to live in a country that chooses freedom over oppression.
Mahlia was a wonderful, kind, smart, and cautious Muslim. Unlike what we may fear, it was obvious that Mahlia represented the majority of Muslims who are kind, good hearted people simply wishing to practice their faith as an integral part of their daily lives. She even temporarily set aside some of her doctrine to experience what she could and make her own personal decisions throughout her life – this was done with the blessings of her family. She taught me to not pre-judge, to be respectful of others lifestyle and beliefs, and to simply enjoy how we are all different.
Herve, Andre, Serge, and Michel are all chefs. Accomplished technicians in their own right and enthusiastic ambassadors of the culinary heritage of their homeland. They are, however, Americans now and love their new country as much as France. They relish the freedoms that they have including the right to express their opinions about everything from how we treat the profession of cooking to our political disagreements. They continue to teach me, through example, just how important it is to speak your mind (with some filters, of course) and never give up on the beliefs that define who a person is and what our country stands for.
This melting pot of kitchen personalities represents a taste of my personal passion for life in the kitchen. It is the emulsion of these relationships that holds together who I am and what I believe. I would not trade these experiences and these relationships for anything. As we formulate our opinions about America and the history of open door immigration opportunities, we should look no further than the history of diversity in industries like hospitality. We are a country of people ingredients that make a wonderful dish when combined – let’s not forget what makes America great.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Learn from each other and be kind
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