Cha McCoy's Lip Service aims to expand opportunities for food and wine professionals by breaking down language barriers.

By Maria Yagoda
January 13, 2021
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Credit: TahJah Harmony

Sommelier Cha McCoy can remember it clearly: working in a restaurant while living abroad in Portugal and not understanding a single word during team meetings. "They would talk for two or three hours, and no one was stopping to see if I could catch up," she said. While she at least could eventually ask questions in English, she wondered about the dishwashers in the kitchen, many of them recent Nepalese immigrants.

"This is the ongoing life of so many people who are coming to America, France, and other countries, who are looking for upward mobility," she said. "They struggle to effectively communicate with their team for years."

In the hospitality industry, language proficiency not only fosters better connection with customers, but can also open up opportunities for career advancement. Knowing the local language equips recent immigrants with tools to negotiate contracts and helps workers expand their wine and food vocabularies.

This January, to help spread access to these opportunities, McCoy launched Lip Service, a nonprofit language-learning program geared toward BIPOC hospitality and wine-industry workers. The program includes a scholarship for 30 BIPOC hospitality professionals, offering free language lessons and educational material to help them become more competitive in the industry. The nonprofit has partnered with Babbel, the language-learning app, to offer a free year of access. (Applications are open until February 5.)

McCoy has also kicked-off the #LipServiceChallenge on her Instagram page, calling on participants to dedicate three months to sharing their language-learning journey on social media and posting conversations with industry leaders who've taken the pledge. She has been posting about her journey learning Italian and Portuguese, hoping she can rally others who may be reticent to start something new and intimidating.

"This project feels very natural to the person that I am," she said. "Providing access to wine to everyone and being able to share my knowledge in their native language allows me to connect to more people. The fact that I haven't made language learning a priority in my career in has inhibited me from having more fruitful conversations with guests at the restaurant or even as a caviste during my time working in wine shops."

The drive to learn a language should not only fall on people in workplaces where no one else speaks their language, says McCoy, nor just on professionals looking for global opportunities (or to properly read that Italian wine label). It should matter to business owners to connect with all of their staff.

"The leaders of the teams, whether it's the maitre d' or the head chef, are usually not taking the time out to learn a language of the people they are hiring," she said. "Most of the time you go in the kitchen, the people that are doing all the work usually speak in Spanish if they're from Latinx communities, or French if they're from West Africa, especially in New York."

Despite all the recent conversations around inclusivity in the restaurant industry, McCoy notices that many people in leadership roles aren't "giving staff the proper tools to be successful for service that day" by making an effort to speak their languages.

"As Americans, we have this privileged idea that the world is speaking English now, so we don't have to connect with them in this way," she said. "There's a mentality of, 'We gave them jobs. They should be happy.' Versus actually making it truly feel like a family environment." In a recent Instagram post, she wrote, "In an industry that uses the terms like family and community so freely I often struggle with how and why language remains a continued barrier between the diverse cultures that make up the industry and the guests we serve."

Learning a foreign language is also a powerful way to expand your wine vocabulary, which McCoy is realizing first-hand as she learns Italian and spots words on bottles that she never noticed before.

"There are so many clues on labels that we overlook, especially from Old World countries like France, Italy, and even Spain, because we are not familiar with the local wine vernacular," she said. "We're just kind of like, 'Okay, that's the producer, this is the vintage,' and that's it."

As Lip Service kicks off, McCoy is seeking donations, sponsorships, and partners to help build out the program for virtual language classes, sponsored study groups in different languages, and educational material on wine, spirits, food and culture. Eventually, McCoy wants to host language-immersion trips with members of the community.

"This is a journey to let people know that it's okay, they don't have to feel ashamed, that they too can start from whatever level they are," she said. "Everyone should learn a new language because there is someone, especially in America, located in the communities that we serve who speak many languages outside of English, and it's our job to make everyone feel welcomed."

Scholarship applications are open until February 5th, and you can learn more about the program, and how to get involved, here.