By Eric Cocoletzi
Restaurants in Orange County and California--the whole U.S., really--would be crippled and worthless if not for the brown people who have arrived in droves during the past four decades. And of all the Latin Americans, the Mexican stands alone in this industry. The Mexican presence in the commercial kitchen has become a vital component and a necessity for every aspect of a productive and sustainable restaurant in the Golden State. They earned this status via a relentless work ethic and an undying spirit that strives for a better future, traits ignored by their home country but that blossom and bear fruits here--with us as the lucky eaters.
Hotel kitchens, hospital kitchens, restaurant kitchens, school commissaries, food trucks, anywhere involving the preparation of food and our consumption of it--this is now their home. Most will never return to Mexico despite the many attempts of the Right to force them out or make them feel unwelcome. Many never rise beyond anonymity, hamstrung by legal status or a lack of capital or the lucky breaks that come to young guns fresh out of a fancy school. These Mexicans have become foundation and scaffold--load bearers--for restaurants, fortifying them with ganas, sweat and an overwhelming desire to cook. Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain put it best in his Kitchen Confidential: "The Ecuadorian, Mexican, Dominican and Salvadorian cooks I've worked with over the years make most CIA-educated white boys look like clumsy, sniveling little punks."
What's fascinating about our Mexicans in the kitchens, though, is their self-awareness. They know they're the backbone of practically every kitchen in Orange County, one way or another: the sous chef, the produce guy, the line cook, the porter, the lavaplatos (and let's set completely aside for the purposes of this essay those who pick the fruits and work in the slaughterhouses). What's more, they know that you know this as well, and they're extremely proud of it; some even boast about this perception.
But only amongst themselves.
They regard themselves as "heavy-machinery" and "workhorses" that dominate the restaurant industry, and they wholeheartedly believe they will continue to do so for years to come. The more deep-rooted reason they really believe this, it seems, is because they feel there is something in their blood that calls them to the kitchen. That sentiment gets planted in the heart of the primo who just came from Michoacán and stays strong in the veteran cooks with thirty-plus years under their aprons and kids away at college. Asked again and again, from Brea to San Clemente, cocineros couldn't explain what this "something" is when asked to put a name to it. They simply pointed at their chests and said, "It's in here."
It's almost inexplicable how Mexican immigrants, in particular, grabbed the American restaurant industry by the balls without formal culinary education. Or how they are able to easily learn and master any type of cuisine a chef asks them to: Japanese, Indian, Thai, Chinese, Italian, French, pizza. Pho in Little Saigon. Sangak at Wholesome Choice. Hipster meals. Hamburgers. Et cetera. And eaters are only vaguely aware that a Mexican made their sushi, plated their four-course meal. The only explanation that comes close in any way is that hoary engine for the American Dream and the moral in any rags-to-riches kind of story: Hard work. No complaining. Just do it.
That's all there is to them. And without Mexicans, OC diners would starve.
How hard do Mexican cooks work? Aron Habiger, executive chef at the North Left in downtown Santa Ana, explains their reputation in the restaurant industry in a very clear way. He recalls applying for a low-level chef position in his younger days. The boss asked Habiger why he should hire him and not the Mexican guy who was standing next to him.
The chef broke it down to Habiger this way: "This guy [The Mexican] will do anything I ask him to do. He'll work longer hours, he will never complain, he will never call in sick or ask for holidays off, and I can pay him close to nothing. . . . Why the hell should I hire you?"
That juxtaposition perfectly describes how chefs, even of the highest regard, perceive Latinos and Latinas across the United States, as well as why whenever you go to any restaurant in Orange County, it's almost inevitable you'll hear Spanish-speaking people in the back of the house. You'll hear random wisps of the cumbias, rancheras, banda or rock en español they're blasting from a radio in the kitchen. You'll hear their banter as they clean your dishes and prepare your next course. You'll hear the best of the best at work.
But you rarely hear Mexican cooks speak to you--other than the basic English that diners expect of them. Because that's how you want it. Because that's how their bosses want it, too--better that diners give praise to the tattooed, fresh-faced wunderkind who gets all the press and buzz instead of the immigrants in the back cooking his or her recipes.
But those cooks want you to know about them. They want you to know that when they see the remains of your meal, they feel as if they could've done a better job. They take it to heart because, to them, cooking is more than a paycheck, #instafood or a hobby. It's a learning process, a job that satisfies their curiosity for cuisine and for creating new flavors every day. They see cooking as a way to prove to America--the world, really--that they, too, have amazing palates and tenacity and should be recognized by the culinary elite and customers, especially in this golden age of OC food.
But you don't.
Recognize. Read this essay, study the photos and celebrate their wonder, their needed omnipresence. One could even argue these men and women have ingrained themselves so heavily into the industry that the phrase "Mexican in the kitchen" has become a stereotype, no longer a person. Just as when someone imagines a landscaper, a campesino or a car-wash employee, that worker is always Mexican in the thought bubble, just as when asked to imagine a dishwasher, prep-cook or busser. Some of the cooks photographed for this project felt a little uneasy when asked if they thought society treats them as a cliché, while others didn't care. The latter were simply proud of their jobs and proud to say that they, as brothers and sisters, can pull more than their share of the workload in this country. Proud to say that they refuse to beg on the streets and will instead work long and hard for what little money they make and do the jobs gabachos can't handle or won't sign up for due to low wages and hustle. Those that say this, say it with a slight smirk on their face, another sign of that pride and unshakable faith in Mexicans as the muscle in the restaurant biz.
The hombres y mujeres who work in the kitchen deserve more than the respect and acknowledgement we don't give them. They should be considered examples of what it means to be a true American: hard-working, relentless, fearless, innovative, passionate.
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Working for the love of one's well-being, as well as the well-being of their family--and the well-being of you, the eater. Realize that as they're standing in the hot line, there is a lot more on their minds than the task of cooking your meals--things that most of us don't have to consider--and yet they persevere and wow us with every steak, every entrée, every beurre blanc. These people should be lionized, their work ethic shoved down the throats of anyone who whines about adversity as an excuse to be nothing and settle for less. Look at the faces of those on the line and know it can be done. Know the struggles and fight it took for them to get to that restaurant and make mind-blowing food every day of their lives. Know that la raza y la cocina are fused together forever and that it was done by the same means that built this nation.
Let us now praise our Mexican cooks, those chingones who feed us.
Eric Cocoletzi is the publisher of Santanero, a zine devoted to life in SanTana, and has cooked in many OC restaurants over the past decade. Currently, he's on the line at Scott's Restaurant & Bar in Costa Mesa.