Hola, amigo! Tiene trabajo?
Here is how illegal immigration affects the restaurant world: all the cooks, diswashers and busboys are Mexican. Spanish is the only language spoken in 95% of restaurants. Ninety percent of these workers are illegal.
Twenty years ago, I had a restaurant full of illegal workers. We had two good guys, Juan and Juan. Or Juan and Two, as we jokingly referred to them.
And as Hose A and Hose B. Hysterical. (There is some historical precedence here: there is an entire town in California called Coalinga now. Used to be Coaling A. Coaling B did not make the 72 hole cut).
There was also a dishwash crew. They shared one name, and one social security number. The cast changed a lot, as people went back and forth to Mexico. I didn't care....the job got done, and there was always someone there. Juan (who became Emigdio when he came out of the closet) was a meticulous parrot. Show him once, and he could do anything forever perfectly. His Caesar salad was still the best ever in Carmel, before or since. Juan, or Two......who was also called Nueve Dedos after an unfortunate knife accident..... held three jobs, one of which was cleaning the restaurant after service. He also catered with us, so that was four jobs. He was smart, cute and hustled like a motherfucker. After Silver Jones closed, Nueve Dedos went on to Hula's for a dozen years....got married, had kids....and still had two or three jobs. The American Dream.
Silver Jones was a simple restaurant. Three or four apps, wood-fired pizzas, a couple of salads, a couple of desserts. The hotside stuff was all done by one or two white guys, but there were only a half dozen entrées. Not rocket science. And, though it was radical in 1990 to change the menu every day......it didn't change much. Our chef was a troglodyte who would have been thrilled with frozen farm salmon. Parrots were perfect in the environment.
I also used illegals building my house. Two come to mind in particular. One guy was ever after known as Chino. My property was affordable only because it was completely buried in poison oak. I am not affected by poison oak (Brendan and I still do all the trail clearing at Tassajara because of this weird genetic superpower). Many Mexicans are not affected either, so I would gather a crew on my days off and we would swing machetes for eight hours....pile the shit up and burn it. Truly a job not many Americans were lining up for. Then.
The crew changed daily. The work was brutal and not for everyone. I paid well, fed them well, and there was always cold beer and sodas. This one weird dude who became Chino would not eat with the rest of us. He would take his lunch and go off into the bushes with his magazine on his own, and meet us later.
Some few days after he started the guy no-showed. The rest of the crew told me that he had been rushed to the hospital, all swollen up.....his face so swollen that he looked like a Chinaman. He needed money for his treatment, and I kicked it in. Turns out old Chino was deeply in love with Miss September, and at lunchtime would go off and spank the chango. He wound up with systemic poison oak poisoning and swelled up like a Macy's Thanksgiving Day balloon. Probably the only guy ever to sneak BACK across the border.
The other guy I remember was from El Salvador. He came from a ruling family....but he was a fuck up. He flunked out of law school, got his girlfriend pregnant and got a tattoo. Still, he was among the nomenklatura so his family covered him....and got him a job with the police as a paralegal stenographer.
After a year of recording El Salvadorian police interrogations it occurred to this kid that he was the only living witness to some crazy war crimes and some even crazier political connections to the gringos (think Ronnie Reagan, Jesus' younger brother....) The kid wisely took a powder and walked from El Salvador to Salinas. I found him in the lineup at Kasey's reading a Spanish language copy of ''Ulysses"....handsome, fit, four languages, law degree almost....and not allergic to poison oak. Key skills for the new millenium global economy.
Fast forward twenty years. We have no illegal workers in our business. They can't keep up. Well, that El Salvadorean probably could......
I speak pretty fluent Spanish, so it is not communication that is the problem. It is that our focus is completely foreign to immigrant culture: we are highly competitive internally, focussed on details and subtleties and performance under pressure. We don't give a shit about the money....we actually strive to create. It is a culture of professionalism and creativity. If the creative level and creative pressure drops.....I lose workers.
Brendan and I start freaking out on Wednesday night about Monday dinner. How can we push the envelope? Edamame purée with the veal cheeks? And this is for the Cachagua Store!
And we are in a crappy valley walking distance from two trailer parks in the mountains of California. Picture what it is like in Nueva Jork.....College kids working for free 100 hours a week just to breathe the air around Wylie Dufresne......
Meanwhile, everywhere else it is Parrot City. Especially in California....and super especially in Carmel. Show the cheap Mexican worker how to make the plate once.....party over. He can do it forever....at speed....and come up with a reasonable approximation of the original dish and never complain. About pay, working conditions, benefits, ingredients....."Bring it, bitch....I can deal with it." Pretty soon, the only workers that CAN deal with it are illegal Mexicans. California kitchens wind up reflecting the culture of impoverished Mexico....either urban or country. Subsistence culture. Do just enough to get by.
"Volume cures all" is the modern restaurant mantra. Lotsa volume, minimal cost.
Sorry, folks. You pay peanuts, you get monkeys. Or parrots.
In real kitchens, guys get in fist fights over colors and textures. If some prick cuts corners and doesn't pull the basil leaves before he blanches them for the basil oil....someone (everyone) will notice the tannic bitterness imparted by the stems in the final product. All hands will be alert to the difference between adding the malt flour instead of rice flour to the tempura mix. Is the extra malty carmelization a good thing? When the baby beets get a centimeter too big, will the waiters be able to sell borscht, or do we just toss the motherfuckers? No one suggests using the wrong SHAPE ingredient......
But, the real kitchens are being outcompeted by the Parrot Kitchens. Try to find a proper meal in Carmel right now. Where? PassionFish is in PG. We are all the way out in Cachagua. Stokes is in Monterey....and is ohso lonely.
A kid that can notice the difference between stemmy basil oil and pure leaves is worth at least twelve bucks an hour for prep on artistic and intelligence grounds alone.....and the lead line cook at the Rio Grill probably gets less. Even at Stokes, the sous chef makes $37k for a 60 hour week.....Twelve bucks an hour. You want art for twelve bucks an hour? Maybe if it is bodypainting supermodels....but putting up with extreme heat, pain, pressure and stress for long hours in a commercial kitchen.....not so much.
Arturo, the recently fired chef at the Peppoli at Spanish Bay got $65k. $15 per hour....and he is an honest-to-God Neapolitan food Nazi-psychotic artist who trained in Hell with actual creative geniuses. He was replaced by a guy who can follow a recipe (devised by Arturo) for less money. And less vacation time. And less everything interesting to the diner.
Arturo's bosses are beholden to shareholders....Clint, Peter Ueberoth, etc.....who need to support their livestyles with their portfolios. They have made the decision, and been supported in their assumptions by actuarial gnomes....that you will not notice the difference between Arturo from Napoli.....and Arturo from Mexicali.
Our kitchens are being dumbed down....and it is a race for the bottom now between a public starved for a hint decency and cool who are clueless that they have lost all respect from the industry....and a workforce who sees that lack of decency and respect every day when they punch in.
Have you eaten at the Rio Grill recently? Could you gag it down? Don't answer.....And do you think there are not American citizens lined up ready to work there? Well, not for that kind of money.......
So, to finish up on the restaurant business.......My number one appetizer girl is Rachelle (aka Rose of BlogFame). She is graduating from high school next week and booted from her house. She needs a house, a car and a job.....all in a week. She is one of the most intuitive, hard working, sensitive and creative people I have ever worked with.....all the more so because her intuition, sensitivity and creativity is forged in the fire of weird social pressure and fucked up working conditions that is catering. How can she pay rent, insurance and gas in Carmel for less than $15 per hour? As much as I love her.....she ain't Arturo di Napoli. She will be better than he ever could imagine.......but do I bet on her in this environment?
If Rachelle is an IPO....do you buy in at $15 per hour? If I can't support her.....she would be paid maybe $8 in a modern Carmel Mexican kitchen.....and subject to every manner of social, sexual, cultural and physical harrassment known to man. And probably not make it. If she did....all that discretion, creativity and sensitivity is out the window.
This now sounds racist. Mexican culture bad.....Mike's yuppie culture good.
No.....back in the day......true Mexican culture was superior to ours: family based, traditional, intact, tied to longstanding cultural and religious values and the land and sea.
We have destroyed all that. Our Mexicans live in a culture of subsistence and survival. Living the life of a lie....illegally..... does that to you. Twelve dollars an hour is a good thing, to be aspired to in Mexican restaurant land. And, in the kind of perro-comé-perro world we have created for our immigrant servants the idea that it would possibly matter whether the basil stems are included in the basil oil with the leaves or not because of issues of tannins is completely ludicrous and unteachable. You need highly educated white kids for that.....or Mexicans with one job and an absence of fear.
This attitude is spread across the entire spectrum of craft and industry. This week I have to decide whether to front another month's mortgage payment to one of my bartenders....a union carpenter and heavy equipment operator who has been unemployed for a year....and is now so depressed he is not even any good for bartending. Meanwhile, walking distance from his soon-to-be-foreclosed-upon house is a jobsite where illegals hammer together Brazilian hardwoods for a horse barn in the fifth house of some rich guy from Texas who is saving five or six bucks an hour on skill, subtlety and creativity. And citizenship, legality and morality.
Not to mention the hidden social costs of my bartender crashing out....losing his house onto a glutted real estate market and sub-prime lending market....and Medi-Cal picking up his certain to come drug and alcohol related medical costs.....forget housing, there isn't any....and finally the pathetic costs of burying the poor fuck.....
We don't hire illegals. My competitors do. They have a price-point advantage of 50% in labor costs. I hire your sons and daughters and give them lives and careers......and my own government supports my competitors in their criminal activities.
I am always amused when my fellow Republicans laugh about the socialist hell that is Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Free medical care, free education, subsidized housing....all paid for by crazy taxation.
Guys....wake up. We have the same situation here......it is just not the citizens that are being cared for.
Meanwhile, we just got hired by a fella that has as guests next week the owners of Pebble Beach Corp, as mentioned above. This guy was bumped to us by Mrs. Hatfield, grace a dieu.
The menu he wants? Salad. Beef with no sauce. Twice baked potato. Maybe with some cheese in there, you know?
Will this guy notice the diameter of the beets? Or how we somehow leave the tails on them? Or the way the drops of balsamic reduction are shaped? Or if we use coconut cream in the dressing instead of the milk? Don't talk about the basil oil......
Am I going to work for him anyway? Yup.
I guess I am just an old whore....hoping the guy will notice my charms leave twenty bucks on the dresser when he leaves in the morning....
I wish I had some Mexicans to cook for him.
Maybe I can get some guys from the Rio Grill.......I could charge him $35 an hour and pay them $10......