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Bourdain on illegal immigration and the Restaurant Industry [moved from Not about Food board]

From the Houston Press blog:


I've never worked in the business but I wouldn't doubt it's true here.

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    1. It's pretty safe to say his sentiments extents to produce grown in the U.S. as well. In California, agriculture would shut down if immigration law were enforced.

      1. Bourdain has said similar things on No Reservations and in other interviews and articles that I've seen and/or read. He's also got decades of experience in the industry and doesn't appear to have a specific agenda here other than saying that we should own the situation we've created; all of that lends credence in my mind.

        1. Both of my daughters have worked in the food industry and speaking some spanish is crucial if you want to be able to communicate with the kitchen staff.

          Awhile back I read an interview with a female chef who worked in a kitchen with a bunch of spanish speaking helpers. They were saying some not nice things about her in their native tongue, which she ignored for a few days. Then one day she surprised them by responding, in spanish. And this wasn't in Houston, somewhere up north. So I imagine that if we forced all the immigrants out we would be eating at home. It seems to be a national, not regional, trend.

          1 Reply
          1. re: danhole

            >> It seems to be a national, not regional, trend.

            Absolutely. I'm sure Tony will also admit he participates in the trend in his restaurants.

            It's not a practice about to end anytime soon, either.

          2. I worked in the business for years and worked with many people who admitted that they were here illegally. I didnt care, as long as they could hold their own on the line I was ok with working with them. Many were the some of the hardest working people I have ever worked with, working 2 or 3 jobs to survive. They were surprised that me, a white boy was working 3 jobs to pay off some college loans, and not just a "lazy american", although it did take a while to prove that to them, and gain their trust. Also learning at least some spanish is a must if you want to work in a kitchen.

            With the above said sometimes technique, and turning out quality food was lost with some of these coworkers. Some believed in just turning out dishes, and didnt care about taste, or presentation. Also I learned the phrase/method of the "5 second rule" from some of these spanish speaking co-workers. I saw food being picked up off the floor and served, as well as other less than safe food handeling technique.

            12 Replies
            1. re: swsidejim

              You may be trying to relate two aspects of the kitchens you worked in that are probably unrelated. I've not worked in restaurant kitchens, but hubby has, and reports the same behavior though no one spoke Spanish or came from Central America.

              In any kitchen you will find some who care more about quality than others, and various interpretations of the five second rule. It is a function of a lot of people working in the kitchen , meaning that some will be more careful/better/concerned/whatever than others. the quality or lack thereof of management probably has a lot more to do with it than ethnicity or background of the workers.

              OTOH, it would make sense that folks who are here illegally are hard workers. The same motivation that led them to leave their homes and familiar surroundings to come here, despite all of the obstacles, drives them to work hard to support themselves and their families.

              1. re: susancinsf

                That is an excellent point. I am and have been a GM of a few different restaurant concepts, and as such have to make sure that if there is a kitchen worker who does not care how the food looks, just wants fast ticket times--it is real simple....they don't work the tickets. You want to have your most detail oriented person working the "helm" as it is sometimes called. There will always be at least one worker that will stand out from the rest of the kitchen. that person you pay a little more, and train them to run your tickets. At that point pride will kick in. Immigrant workers--and for the most part we are talking about spanish speaking immigrants--are some of the most prideful people I've ever met or worked with. You tell them you don't think they can get something done, they will kill themselves to prove you wrong.
                As for the main issue at hand, these laws would cripple the industry. It is easy for non-restaurant industry people to say.."don't allow illegals", but get their opinion 6 months after laws get strictly enforced, and they are going out to eat, they might feel a little different.
                One thing I have say-I don't care if I offend anyone either--American born workers in the kitchen for the most part are a lazy brand of worker. They do not understand the concept of really hard work. that is why they jump job to job with frequency. I currently have a kitchen of spanish speaking workers...Illegal or legal...who knows...I have paperwork on every one...Just a matter of how much the worker might have paid for their papers....Some have been with the company 2 and 3 years. That is unheard of in the industry. Some work at one location 6 days a week in the am...and 6-7 days a week at another in the evening. But this is easy work compared to back home. American workers in the industry--even if they could, would not do this...no matter how much they needed the money.
                Bottom line is, this for right now, is a necessary evil in our society. I think we should, as a government, concentrate more on getting these immigrants legalized, and contributors to our society (taxes, voting, etc.) instead of trying to throw them out of our borders.

                1. re: Rob83

                  pretty broad statements there. You must have employed some pretty sorry examples of American workers at your place, I am the son of Irish parents who lived during the depression, laziness isnt in our vocabulary, or work ethic.

                  When I was paying off my student loans I worked 6 days a week from 6:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. at my first restaurant job, and then from 5:00 p.m. until 1:00 a.m. at my second restaurant job.

                  I did this shift for 3 years day in and day out, turning out quality food at the same two restaurants the entire timeframe, working every station from appetizers, to deserts, to pasta, to prep, to the broiler.

                  1. re: swsidejim

                    I appluad you, sincerely. It cant be an isolated incident when your talking about 6 different restaurants and restaurant concepts over the years. And it is not my hiring because I am a firm believe in constant training, making someone better. I currently have 2 immigrant workers that I trust immensely...to the point that they each have a key to my restaurant, they do some of the food orders, and checking in food deliveries---sometimes refusing items that are not up to spec.
                    American born kitchen workers are generally not college educated. If they are in college, working in a restaurant....kitchen hours are not conducive to good study habits--depending on school schedule of course. Most college people are front-of-house employees.
                    What I mean as for laziness...American born workers in a restaurant kitchen, generally do about 1/2 the work of immigrant workers in the same amount of time. They have usually not experienced as hard of work as immigrants have back home. This is not news, I just like to tell it exactly as I and many colleagues in my same position have seen for years.

                    1. re: Rob83

                      I respect your opinion, and have worked with some of the same type of people you have that level of trust in.

                    2. re: swsidejim

                      So it's okay for you to paint with a broad stroke but not him? He made his observations based on his experiences, you did the same. Perhaps there's a nugget of truth in both and ultimately there's a wide spectrum of quality regardless of ethnicity?

                      1. re: Jase

                        if you read my original post I stated the majority of the people I worked with in this difficult situation were some of the hardest working people I had ever worked with, just a few bad apples like there are everywhere did the things I witnessed. I then mentioned it may have been a coincidence, or poor management hardly painting with a broad stroke. Thanks for the input though

                        1. re: swsidejim

                          I did read your original post and Rob's also. He also said some, not all. You both obviously bring different perspectives which is good.

                    3. re: Rob83

                      Thats a typical management statement. American workers know that things can be better and would not break themselves for the scraps handed out by tightwad ownership corporations. If the obligation/loyalty and reward were mutual turnover would not be a proble. We're too savvy about what we get in exchange for our labor.

                      In my ten years cookingI have watched wages stagnate as illegal immigrants poured into the jobs formerly held by citizens. Ten years ago they were paying us $8 an hour, made us buy our health insurance and did not match 401k contributions. Guess what? It's still the same situation today. Inflation chips two to three percent off the wage and we get one to two percent raises per year. I am so glad to be leaving this industry. Price pressure for labor used to work in favor of the worker, not so much when management think you all are replaceable and there is an infinite pool of poor foreigners ignorant of their rights.

                      1. re: bigchow

                        Scraps??!! not sure where you worked, but I wouldn't manage there, that is a certainty. Your right, American workers know that things can be better, they just want it handed to them. For the most part...read that statement again...for the most part, are not willing to show that they can handle the job they are currently doing, to warrant things being better for them. We, (the company I work for), also have some of the highest wages in our area--no matter ethnicity., but again it comes down to what I call...Environmental Work Ethics.
                        Also, why were these jobs you speak of FORMERLY held by citizens? If they were worth their salt they would have made things better for themselves within the company. You will probably say that restaurant owners got rid of the American workers to bring in immigrants for less. That does happen, but is not the norm...Restaurants have to keep up quality food---and turning over your kitchen constantly, spending 1/2 your time training new employees is not the way to do that. I would rather pay more and keep a good, veteran staff...and my ownership agrees.

                        1. re: bigchow

                          When my dad retired from an iconic but casual restaurant in L.A in .... he was being paid $12 / hour + Health Insurance as a lead cook... he was legal but others in kitchen weren't... and the illegal guys earned about the same as the legals employees.

                          The owners constantly tried bringing in U.S. born, caucasians & african americans to work (often people who had been in the military or gotten out of jail)... but not one over the years could handle the work pace & stress, and they would all quit with a few months. Every time I went to visit, my dad was moving fast, constantly & sweating profusely in fact his first 5k as a 60 something old he ran under 21 minutes beating many, younger men who presumely jogged regularly.

                          Hell... I ran sub 4 minute 1,500s in College... and I am only 32.. and I don't think I could break 21 minutes if I was asked to run a 5k tomorrow!

                      2. re: susancinsf

                        You said:
                        In any kitchen you will find some who care more about quality than others, and various interpretations of the five second rule.

                        How about:
                        "In any workplace you will find some who care more about quality than others, and various iterations of relevant five second rules."

                    4. I worked in the same restaurant every summer thru college and aside from the owner and a few of the other waitresses, everyone was illegal.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: southernitalian

                        I think it depends on where you are. In the bigger cities this is probably the norm. But my spouse and I have discussed this before. Between us, we have probably worked in at least 30 different restaurants and almost nobody was Spanish or any other foreign nationality that either of us can recall, except once he worked for an actual French chef. The dish dog was usually a poor kid, sometimes deaf or with some kind of disability such as having mild Down's or maybe a slight physical problem. The only spanish guy I worked with was from Texas and he didn't even speak spanish, his mother did. I live in the midwest and largely, I think illegals in the restaurant industry and immigration as an issue on the whole just hasn't touched us here as much as it has in the bigger cities or places closer to the border.

                        Like all trends, things take time to affect us here in flyover territory. I see it now more that I don't work in the biz anymore and am a patron than I ever did when I was waitressing, but my husband has gone into plenty of kitchens to ask for prep work, as short a time ago as 6 months, and he's just your run-of-the-mill white male, so Bourdain's theory seems to only work IMO when you're talking about major metropolitan areas. I don't live in a SMALL city, just not a big-big city like Chi or NY or LA.

                        1. re: rockandroller1

                          This is something I wondered about when I read the statement. As any of us who do not live on the East Coast well know, people who live there tend to think the whole rest of the country is just like that and their views get expounded and spread simply because it the home of all the media.

                          I don't know about Ecuadoran here but Mexican and Guatemalan definitely. On the other hand many of the Oriental restaurants I eat at are small family run operations where I suspect all the staff are family members or friends (whether they're illegal or not I don't know but it's not just Central Americans who sneak into the country).

                          1. re: rockandroller1

                            My husband has worked in restaurants in Sioux Falls, Iowa City, Des Moines and Minneapolis. Each of those places he worked with illegal immigrants, mostly Spanish speaking. I don't know where in the mid-west you live, but from my experience illegal immigrants working in the food industry are everywhere except for very small towns.

                        2. I worked for a Major Hotel Chain for 5 years in Chicago and a rural town. I promise that the hotel industry would also suffer. The restaurant industry is just the beginning of it.

                          1. This is definitely a hot button issue. I have mixed feelings about this because I am the daughter of Portuguese immigrants who came here legally and fought their way up. I have worked in the industry and feelings aside, thefacts speak for themselves: casi nadie tiene los papeles.

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: enbell

                              I've seen many rags to riches stories in the local media about immigrants, some illegal but who worked toward citizenship, working their way up and becoming managers and even owners.

                              Of course I realized it might but, for the record, I didn't intend to start a discussion of illegal immigration here on Chowhound with this topic and I suspect the CH Team will shut this down if it degenerates into that. I just wondered about the factualness of the claim that the restaurant industry is so dependent on immigrant labor, legal or illegal, and how widespread it is.

                              1. re: brucesw

                                And to that claim, I agree that Bourdain is dead-on.

                                1. re: enbell

                                  The restaurant I worked in was in Brooklyn. It was a "red sauce" Italian restaurant but was owned and operated by greeks who put cinnamon in the red sauce which I have ranted about on an earlier post. The cooks were Greek and taught me how to swear like a Greek sailor, the washers and busboys were Mexican and taught me tons of Spanish. The waiters were all Palestinians and all could have been stand up comedians. We had so much fun. And no matter who asked, we were all Italian! I seriously don't think anyone was here legally except the man that owned the place and his son, myself and a few waitresses.

                                2. re: brucesw

                                  You opened a valid and interesting thread. It can't help blending into the political, whether people post about it or not. And your thread adds information helpful in understanding the political morass, whether people post about it or not.

                              2. Jfood is absolutely surprised at the article.

                                Surprised that anyone views this as a Newsflash. Unless you took your dressing as an Ostrich in 1980 and stuck your head in the ground for the duration, illegals in the resto and many other business has been SOP.

                                Jfood remembers in 1988 having befriended a young chef in Texas who has since gained international recognition taking jfood on a tour of the kitchen. There sitting on an upside down 5-gallon drum was a teenager of definite Central/South America lineage. His job was to reach into the case with his left hand and remove a lobster. He would then rip the head off the lobster throwing body into one container and head into another. Jfood looked at the chef and said "how the heck do you advertise in the want ads for this job." Chef's reply, "When he graduates to dishwasher he has 15 cousins who want this job."

                                Fact of life for decades.

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: jfood

                                  I was working there in the early 80s and those people had been there for years. The owner treated them very well and with dignity. We all got along like a big family but I'm sure that was not the norm. Anthony actually did a show featuring a Mexican sushi chef in Texas who couldn't go home to visit his family so Anthony went to see them. Choked me right up.

                                  1. re: southernitalian

                                    The chef has since moved on recently to a new start-up at a fine hotel down the road. He was a wonderful man and a decent human being as well, a nice combo for a great chef. Once, knowing jfood had been away on many consecutive weeks from his family he treated him to one of the best meals of his life, all for $25, jfood refused to accept full comp. So he went in the back and brought out a signed copy of his cookbook that jfood has cherished for over 20 years.

                                2. I made sure my husband read the link. He is a Regional manager of a large chain of Chinese restaurants and every year, without fail, he loses employees who go home to Mexico for a visit and then can't get back here.

                                  Without going into the politics of it all, the bottom line is that few Americans, where we live, at least, are interested in the least pleasant jobs in the restaurant industry and the pay is certainly no incentive. It is good to read someone that tells it honestly.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: mercyteapot

                                    Yes, mercyteapot, isn't it? Better????

                                  2. I too am shocked..... that this is news.

                                    Every kitchen I've ever worked in has illegals. You can't work in a kitchen anywhere and not know "restaurant spanish" at the very least. And while the sexual harrassment is the downside (no offense to anyone, and it's not true of all, but in the kitchen, the only time I've felt truly intimidated was from a swaggering illegal macho man), in general the illegals are excellent and efficient workers. They don't bitch about getting hard work, about the heat, the grime or the pace. And that's why they are still there.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: cheesemonger

                                      I don't think that the fact that there are illegals is the news. It's the fact that our country has "decided" that they should be sent back to where they came from, and how much we really do depend on them. Of course if I lived in an Ivy League world where my only reality was to be a "pure" blood, and only deal with that type (whatever it is) then I might agree - seriously doubt it, but . . . The fact is in my city it would be hard to continue most business without the additions that the illegals have provided. I remember reading a book about Lincoln way back, when they were trying to figure out what to do with slaves. One person suggested that they should be shipped off to an island, but another countered with "who would do all the work?" Not positive if this is absolutely true, but it is the same premise.

                                    2. As a woman, who worked in kitchens in the Midwest and also in the Southwest, I can speak to the fact that the majority of the kitchen staff is Hispanic. The kitchen management is mostly white males, but you have to speak some English or have a translator around to communicate with the staff.

                                      I have to agree with Bourdain in that if the government imposes some swift changes in law and many illegal immigrants are forced to leave, the restaurant industry as we know it will shut down. I believe this will affect the chain restaurants more than it will affect independents, but both will be greatly affected. Who is going to work in the kitchen? Seriously. It is harder work than anyone who has not been in a busy kitchen on a Saturday night anywhere in America will ever understand. I can't believe I did it for as long as I did. But the truth is that most Americans won't do the work. Just like they won't clean toilets or sweep floors.

                                      I don't know what the solution to the problem is, but it's a complicated issue that won't get solved overnight, but I do believe that some middle ground could be won if people would accept a better understanding of the affects to the economy and the back-of-the-house this issue has.