THE COOK NEXT TO ME

thinker

I thought I would chime in with all of the recent talk about immigrant workers in the U.S. One of the most significant reasons why I have always loved working in the restaurant business is the diversity of people with whom I have had the opportunity to stand next to at the range.   The is not, in any way shape or form, a political statement – it is rather a true feeling that has been at the core of my work for the past fifty years. It has been enjoyable, educational, eye opening, and rewarding to work and learn from people who shared the same feeling of satisfaction when cooking and serving others.

At the diner where I received my start, I worked with Millie who came to the United States from Poland, and settled in Buffalo. Her husband, also from Poland, was a chef by trade before he passed away and left Millie to fend for herself. She was a great cook, a wonderful teacher, and a friend who shared her breakfast station with a 16 year old with no experience whatsoever.

When I landed a position in the apprenticeship program at the Statler Hilton Hotel – I was immersed with a crew of people for Europe. Frenchie was from somewhere in central France – he had lived in the United States for 17 years and chose to never speak English. I sensed that he understood and could speak if he chose, but it was important for him to hang on to his cultural upbringing. He was a fabulous butcher (the hotel in those days purchased sides of beef, whole pigs and lambs, etc.) who showed me enough about butchery to give me a taste and show me that it was probably not my future career. Patsie was around 4 foot 10 inches tall (I think he was shrinking) who made all of the pastries, desserts, ice cream, and the like for the 1,200-room hotel. He didn’t have any full time help, just always an apprentice working through all of the stations on the property. His ice cream, from what I remember, was as good as it gets. Like Frenchie, no one seemed to know his real name, but he did, at least, speak in broken English. He was from Florence, Italy. And then there was Antonio who handled the lunch line for the Beef Barron Restaurant and was the resident saucier. He made all of the stocks and various sauces for the restaurants and enormous number of banquets that we served. Antonio, I think was from Sicily – he was skilled at making massive amounts of stocks, soups, and sauces in 100 gallon steam jacketed kettles.

You see – Buffalo, where I grew up, is as multi-cultural as New York City on a much smaller scale. There are sections of the city with an Italian population, another (The 1st ward) that is almost entirely Irish, a strong Polish population, a deeply rich African American section of town, and many other smaller ethnic areas all of which seemed to choose to protect their individuality and customs by keeping their populations as pure as possible. Yet throughout the city we all co-existed. It was, however, in the kitchen where the real magic happened. Kitchens are incubators for healthy integration of cultures all focused on a single purpose – cooking and service.

Later I worked for a Greek restaurateur at Shore’s Orchard Downs in Orchard Park – he taught me how to be frugal and conscience of every dollar spent by an operator in a restaurant. I worked with African American cooks, Jamaican Cooks, Austrian Chefs and Master Chefs. Italian Sous Chefs, English maître ‘d’s, Hispanic and Ethiopian Line Cooks, prep cooks from Mexico, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico; Garde Manger’s from Spain and Portugal, Russian servers, Korean prep cooks, dishwashers from every part of the world, pastry chefs from Austria and Switzerland, Ice Carvers from Japan, Bread Bakers from France and Switzerland, and Norwegians who made the most incredible Gravad Lox. This was quite an incredible lot of magnificently talented individuals with whom I worked over my time in the kitchen.

So what did I learn through the process of sharing workspace with this broad range of ethnic diversity? Well, I learned that when we share a common interest we are all the same. I discovered that nearly everyone feels the same passion for their country origin, yet is proud to be here on American soil. I learned to listen and wonder at the mastery that each of these people had for their set of skills. I built on my repertoire of cooking techniques as each shared what they could with everyone they connected with in the kitchen. I discovered that our differences paled in comparison to what we shared as human beings. I found out that the language of the kitchen compensates for a lack of understanding of each other’s birth language. I discovered that whenever we (native born Americans)_ complain about what we went through on a daily basis, most of these people of other cultures went through 100 times more to get where they were. And I learned that we all had dreams that we hoped could be fulfilled on American soil.

I know, after decades of working in busy operations that when we listen, respect, and show interest in a co-worker’s cultural background – that we can then depend on them to do the same with us. I know that all of these wonderful people want to do a good job, want to learn and grow, and want to express themselves with food and service.

Every time I visit another restaurant I know that I can walk in the kitchen, shake hands and give a thumbs up to cooks, servers, managers, owners, bakers, and dishwashers and receive a sincere smile in return. I make it a point to always thank the kitchen crew for the meal they prepared for me – I know how hard it is, I know how much soul goes into well-prepared food, and I know how important it is that kitchens are non-partisan, open environments where we relish the opportunity to work together.

My grandfather on my father’s side came to America from Norway at the age of 17. He was made a citizen in two weeks and then drafted to fight for America on French soil in WWI. My grandfather on my mother’s side was from England and Ireland and came to America to become a restaurateur (obviously my inspiration in later years). Like most Americans we can follow our lineage back a generation or two and find similar stories.

When I hear disparaging comments about immigrant workers in the U.S. I always reflect on my own experiences and know how much I relish the time I spent along side interesting, proud people from every part of the world. I know that without their presence my life would never have been this full.

We are a country of immigrants, of proud people who at some point came over to the United States to fulfill the dreams that each of us share for ourselves and our families. The oneness and opportunity of America is what has made us great and what will continue to do so.

I saw a poster the other day that portrayed a sentiment that should be at the heart of our rhetoric: “Make America Kind Again”. I would add – “Keep America Inclusive – We Are One”.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

SHAKE THE HAND OF THOSE IMMIGRANT FRIENDS THAT MAKE OUR INDUSTRY GREAT.

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericaventures.com

 

  1 comment for “THE COOK NEXT TO ME

  1. November 3, 2018 at 9:00 am

    Totally agree with your post, ive been cooking over 30 years, ive worked and learnt with people from so many different countries. This business would lose so much if we only had our national cuisine to work from.

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