Like many restaurants, my kitchen was staffed largely by cooks/runners/dishwashers of Latin American origin, particularly Mexicans from the state of Puebla. This made sense, given that we were cooking Latin-influenced food, but you’ll find Mexican cooks everywhere in New York, from diners to Chinese restaurants to fine dining.
There are many great cultural exchanges to be had from hanging out with Latino cooks, from hearing the latest reggaeton to learning the true meaning of Cinco de Mayo. (Turns out it’s not just about cheap margaritas.) But as you while away hours peeling yucca in the slow afternoon, sometimes the conversation takes a turn for the serious. You ponder aloud: what you’re doing with your life, what your dreams are, who you love, where it all went wrong. You share your hopes for your family, your fears that you’re not good enough, your ambitions to go to college. You tell your life story, how you came to the US and found your footing here. You do all this while crammed into a closet-sized space, with tweezers in one hand and a fish fillet in the other. This is the trench.
For those of us who aren’t first generation immigrants, it’s easy to forget that this country is built on immigrants and a dream for a better life. For those of us who can afford to go to culinary school, who have a college degree, have no family members in the military, live near a Whole Foods and have never been arrested, it’s a cold bucket of water to remember that we are part of the privileged class, even if we think we’re not.
Here’s a couple of the stories I heard:
S: I came with my dad when I was 13. Why? I don’t know, it just seemed like the thing to do, I wasn’t doing much else at home. I’ve been living and working in NYC for 9 years now. I’ve been a busboy, runner, dishwasher, oyster shucker, and now I’ve been working here for one year. Started off doing dishes here, then moved to the cold station, and now I’m on flat top and grill.
My dad died 3 years ago, and I spent $12k on his funeral. It wiped out all of my savings. I want to go to school, get a college degree, but I don’t know how or where to get the money.
What do you want to accomplish before you die?
Well, I would really like to take care of my mother, make sure she is comfortable. That’s the first thing I want to do. Secondly, I want to take care of my girlfriend, because I know she loves me a lot. Then maybe after that, my sister. But she has her own family, and she’s ok I think, she doesn’t need me. So really, I want to take care of my mother, that’s my #1 goal.
P: I came to the United States when I was 17. I had some friends in New York, and they helped me get a job in Chinatown, working for a Chinese restaurant supply company. You know when you go to the store and there’s bundles of scallions, 5 or 6 each? That was my first job, to put the bunches together. And they fired me. I was small and skinny and had no muscles, and the boss looked at me and thought I couldn’t handle it. So here I am, on my first day at my first job in America, and I’m fired already. I feel so sad and down, and I don’t speak English, and I don’t know what to do. But my friend tells me, don’t worry, I’ll go talk to the boss for you. So he does, and the boss agrees to take me back again. Now, I am working extra hard, to make sure I can keep this job.
But wait, why would they hire you, instead of a Chinese person? Don’t most Chinese companies only like to hire Chinese people?
Well the thing is, they paid me very very low wages. I worked from 6 am to 6 pm, Monday through Saturday, and for that, they paid me $225 each week. In cash? Yes, in cash. And it was 1999, so wages were lower then. But still. That comes out to what, $3/hour? The other guys, who were more experienced, they got paid $350 or $400/week. But I was just happy to have the job. So I worked there for about 2 1/2 years, until my friend told me, “You know, you speak some English now, you can move to another company and make more money.” So I switched jobs, to another company in Chinatown, and was making about $375/week. For this job, the hours were a little better, Monday through Friday from 7 am to 6 pm, one extra hour of free time! Then on Saturdays, I worked 9 to 5 pm. And, they even gave us food. So, shorter hours, more pay and food, this was moving up! I basically did the same things. We sold supplies to Chinese restaurants, so people would come with their handtruck, and I would load it up with cases of chicken and vegetables. We sold ingredient mixes too. Like beef with broccoli? You could get a mix with all the ingredients together, all pre-made.
So I’m working in Chinatown, learning Chinese and meeting other Chinese people, and I met someone who needs a driver. So this other guy is a truck driver and he needs extra help. The job was easy, but the thing is, this guy had a gambling problem. He loooved the casinos. We would do the deliveries and then he would go to the casinos all night and come back in the morning and drive some more. Sometimes we would sleep in the truck. It was crazy! Then, one time he was driving after a long night, and he was shaking so hard that the truck was swerving side to side. I knew that if I stayed with this job, one day I was going to get killed. So I had to leave.
I started working for an Indian company, in a 99-cent warehouse. Not a store, a warehouse, and I was unloading big container loads. Breaking down the pallets and moving cases around. My brother was working there too, he came to the United States by that point, and we both worked there, at a warehouse in Brooklyn. But eventually the company outgrew the warehouse and decided to move to New Jersey. My brother moved to New Jersey, but I couldn’t. I had a wife and kid then, and so they stayed in Brooklyn, and I would go to New Jersey for work and come back to Brooklyn on weekends. It was tough. Sometimes I wouldn’t show up to work until Tuesday. Eventually, they told me I had to go.
I went to the temporary employment agency, and they sent me to a restaurant on 7th Avenue. They need a host, it seems, so I put on my nice business clothes. I take the train to Brooklyn, and as I’m walking towards 7th Avenue, I pass this restaurant. It’s being built, still under construction. When I get to the restaurant on 7th Avenue, it turns out, what they actually want is a flyer guy to pass out flyers. I’m really disappointed, I’ve worked so hard and I don’t want to be a flyer guy. I want something better. I’m walking back toward the train station and I pass the restaurant again, and I think about going inside. But I’m nervous, so I keep walking. Then I think, you know, I have nothing to lose, I should just go in and see. I turn around, and that’s when I meet V [the owner]. I ask him if he needs help, and he says, “Sure, can you help with construction?” I say, well I have no experience, but I can learn. V says, “Good, that’s what I like to hear. Can you start tomorrow?”* I say, no, I’d like to start right now. V is a little surprised, and says, “But you have nice clothing on right now, aren’t you worried it will get dirty?” I say, just give me a couple minutes, I have casual clothing in my bag and I can change right now. And so, I still remember, at 2 pm that day, I started working for V.
By then, the major construction was already done and we were just finishing up the details. The tables, the counters, things like that. You see those chairs in the dining room? I helped build them. After the restaurant was finished, V asked me and another guy, do we want to stay and keep working? Yes, of course. V asked me, do I want to learn how to cook? So that’s how I started cooking. V gave me my very first knife. I still have it, it’s downstairs right now. I can’t use it any more because the blade is so worn down, pretty much flat. It’s been about 7 years now that I’ve worked at this restaurant.
Jesus. You’ve been working really hard. So, when are you going on vacation?
Haha! V gives me two weeks every year, but sometimes I don’t take it. Last year I took one week, so this year I could take three weeks and go somewhere for longer. But it’s hard because I don’t have papers, so I can’t leave the country easily.
Oh, that sucks! So you’ve never had the opportunity to go back to Mexico?
About three years ago, my father was really sick. He was in the hospital, and we knew it was really bad. Before that, when my younger brother passed away, I couldn’t be at the funeral. So I really wanted to be there for my father. I told V that I had to go, and he told me, “Do whatever you need to do.” I had two weeks of vacation that year, and took the two weeks that I had for the next year, so I had one month total of time. I left New York on December 12th. In Mexico, my father was basically in a coma, not responding. The hospitals in Mexico are really corrupt. If they know that there’s no chance, they will prolong the patient and keep him alive for a little longer, just to make more money. It’s terrible. After a few days, my father passed away.
The first time I came to the United States, I was a young man and I wasn’t scared. It was a big adventure, and I had nothing to lose. This time, I was scared. I had a wife and kid in New York. I wasn’t working, and my wife wasn’t either because she was pregnant. The bills were adding up, not getting paid. After the funeral, I knew I had to get back to New York as soon as possible. It takes $5,000 to get here from Mexico. If you think that’s a lot, at least it’s less than the $8,000 that R paid to get here from Guatemala. I started on my way and made it to Arizona.** The problem was that they only take the trip to New York once they have a full load of 11 or 12 people. Since it was the holiday season around the end of the year, there weren’t that many people wanting to travel, and also the guides were working less. I ended up waiting for three weeks before finally making it back to New York. It was January 10th, almost exactly one month after I left. I haven’t gone back to Mexico since then. As you can see, it’s not as simple as just buying a plane ticket.
*In fact, this is the exact same thing that V told me when I walked into the restaurant and asked if I could cook for him—and had no line experience—but was willing to learn. V is a good guy.
**There are probably a lot of horrific details here that P is leaving out for the sake of my virgin ears.