PORTRAIT OF A KITCHEN
Restaurant kitchens are rigorous but often friendly working environments. Cooks bark at each other in Spanish. Kitchen veterans consider their coworkers their family. NJ interviewed dozens of restaurant workers and immigrants from a variety of establishments to create a composite kitchen. Their names and some situational details have been changed to protect their identities.
It’s a Monday night, the slowest night of the week, and the restaurant is about half full. The dining room is warmly lit with yellow and red chandeliers. Behind the metal swinging kitchen doors, fluorescent lights give off a hard white gleam. A Spanish-language program blares on the radio. The back of the room is steamy with fry oil. The white linoleum floor is greasy. The reflections on the metal work counters give an ultrabright, buzzing quality to the air.
Jose is from Guatemala. He works the grill line—or rather, he dances it. He flies across the kitchen from the fryer to the oven, checking meat, shaking fry bins, hauling ice buckets. He has worked at this restaurant for 10 years, and its owners consider him nearly indispensable. He works 55 hours a week and makes $10 an hour. He is here illegally. He came to the United States in 2002, following his girlfriend (now wife) and her sister. The women came on visas, which have since expired. It’s not entirely clear how Jose got here.
Roy is from Mexico. He turns over a sieve of steaming clams into a small bucket that will be served on a plate. He garnishes it with lemon wedges and greens. He works two part-time restaurant jobs, and his hours fluctuate with the seasons. In one, he is a server. In this kitchen, he is a “runner”—delivering food and taking plates from tables. At peak times, he works 60-hour weeks. His first job in the United States was as a “porter,” a restaurant cleaner who comes in at midnight and works until dawn. He came to the United States in 1997 at the age of 15, after a month of coaching by traffickers, or “coyotes,” about how to get past the immigration authorities at the Tijuana, Mexico, port of entry. His father had paid the coyotes $3,000 to help the two of them get through the immigration screenings, but Roy was nervous on his first try and was detained. His father went on without him.
Sal is from El Salvador. He manages the kitchen. He has six cooks in the back of the house now, but it can grow to 10 at peak times. He has worked here since 1996 and managed the kitchen for the past four years. He came to the United States in 1982, at 30, under unclear circumstances. He got a legal permanent residency, or a green card, a few years later. He had little education, so he went to school and worked cleaning offices and in a kitchen. “I have no experience, I have to learn the system,” he says of his kitchen work. He has an adopted son back in El Salvador, whom he has been unsuccessful in bringing to the United States because the adoption was never formalized.
Raul is from Mexico. He works as a line cook in two kitchens. “I work daytime over there and nighttime here,” he says. He shows off the tin tubs of flour lined up behind the fryer—cornmeal for the fried pickles, peppered flour for the chicken fried steak. He gets Sundays off, and sometimes Thursdays. He has four daughters and owns his own home. He came to the United States in 1982 after paying a coyote $300 to get him across the border. He received amnesty in 1986 but he has yet to become a naturalized citizen. He has two brothers and two sisters who are here illegally. More than anything, he wants Obama’s health care law to take effect so he can have health insurance. He also says he is “hoping, hoping” that his undocumented family members can get legal status under an immigration-reform plan proposed recently by Obama.
Immigrants such as Jose, Raul, Roy, and Sal are a staple of the restaurant industry, but the policy considerations of citizenship and green-card quotas rest far from a kitchen worker’s daily thoughts. Cooks with papers and cooks without papers work side by side and don’t talk about it. They all want deportations to stop, but unlike the politicians, they aren’t worrying about paths to citizenship or being in the front or the back of the line. Undocumented immigrants simply want to know they can drive home after work without fear of being pulled over.
Isolation and fear are central parts of an illegal immigrant’s life. Roy started dating a woman in January. He waited almost a month to tell her that he was undocumented. “I feel ashamed,” he says. “I don’t think anyone understands. It’s like having cancer.”
Jose hasn’t seen his father in Guatemala in 10 years. A few years ago, his Guatemalan father-in-law died, and his wife was forced to send her regrets by mail. He hasn’t left his city since he got here. He drives without a license and can’t board a plane, even if he could afford a ticket.