How It Feels to Be an Immigrant Worker in a Restaurant Kitchen Now
When he was 13 years old, after spending most of his life in a camp on the Burmese-Thai border, John entered America as a refugee. Plopped down in Bakersfield, California, he threw himself into becoming an American. So he watched TV.
His favorite show was Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern.
"It wasn't the show itself, because the stuff he ate didn't surprise me at all, but it was because I got to watch the reactions of our American friends who came over to watch it who were amazed by what we Asians ate," John, now 22, says in lightly accented English. "And I learned that other people, like Europeans, have weird stuff going on too."
A few years earlier and 250 miles away, 17-year-old Diego and his older brother spent two days walking through the desert outside of Tijuana, with little more than a cup of water each, in the middle of July. They were two of 10 Mexicans who had paid a coyote, or human smuggler, $2,050 each to ferry them across the American border, where a pickup truck was waiting to sneak them into a city where they could melt into the crowds and take buses to other destinations. One man collapsed from the heat, and the others carried him.
"We were lucky," Diego, now in his thirties, says. "No one was raped."
John and Diego came from wildly different backgrounds and parts of the world, and couldn't have had more contrasting journeys to the U.S. One is here legally as a political refugee, while the other is undocumented. But both men, who've now been in America nearly half their lives, ended up in American restaurant kitchens. And both have become emblematic of the bind that restaurateurs and diners find themselves in as a nationwide wave of xenophobia is ushered in by the anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies of the Trump administration. These policies are at issue today as protesters around the country stage a "Day Without Immigrants."
John, a member of the Karen ethnic minority of Myanmar, came over with his parents and his younger brothers. John's father served as a porter but had been forced to clear landmines in the ongoing conflict between the Karen and the Burmese government. The family escaped into Thailand, and John spent most of his childhood in a refugee camp filled with Karen, Muslims and other minority groups fleeing his home country.
Shortly after John's family was admitted to the U.S., they relocated from California to a mid-sized city in an agricultural Midwest state, where John's parents now work at a meatpacking plant and his brothers attend high school. John, who takes automotive classes at a community college, became the wok cook of a Thai restaurant in a college neighborhood.
"I plan on staying in America. I plan on getting my citizenship," he says. "This is my home now. I can't go back."
The immigrants interviewed for this story asked to have their names altered, citing the incendiary atmosphere of immigration issues today. We asked them if they wanted to come up with their own pseudonyms, reflective of their cultural backgrounds. John, as if to underscore his fundamental Americanness, chose the name we're using for him.
The kitchen where he works, John notes, is staffed almost entirely by Asian immigrants, largely Karen like himself. If the nativist fervor for a country wiped free of immigrants were to come true, he said, the results would be disastrous for anyone who ever wanted to eat out.
"Well, first, the restaurants would be screwed. I don't know any other good word to describe it," he says, pausing and apologizing as he grabs a batch of noodles to cook for dinner orders. "The result would be simple: There would be no food coming out."
John's kitchen manager, Marisa, a Thai-born immigrant and now an American citizen, agrees. Despite the refrain from anti-immigrant forces that foreign-born workers are stealing wages away from natural-born Americans, there simply aren't enough American workers who are willing or able to do the often-grueling labor required in a working commercial kitchen.
"The American kids just want to be servers, because the front of the house is where the quick cash is, and the kitchen is a harder job," she says. "It's very hard to fill up the kitchen positions. Once we hired Americans for a summer, and they were just standing around playing on their phones."
"We could bridge the gap maybe a day or two," says chef John Mooney from his Southern-influenced restaurant Bidwell in Washington, D.C. "But if it was longer than that, I can't be a one-man team. I would have a very hard time training staff or even locating staff if we couldn't use immigrants, and, honestly, it would destroy my business very quickly. I'd probably have to shift my labor model drastically, where we'd have to do a buffet or something, and the diners wouldn't stand for that."
In some three decades in the restaurant business, Mooney has never seen a kitchen staff that wasn't mostly made up of immigrants. His current kitchen staff of 26 in two restaurants, he says, is "100-percent immigrants."
"I take this thing personally," he says. "I consider these people to be family to me. It's like domestic terrorism, making people fear for their lives and their families and their future. It's crazy."
Coming off his shift at a well-reviewed New York City restaurant, Diego proudly recounts his accomplishments in the culinary world. He worked his way up the rungs of kitchens across America, some very high-profile. Everywhere he worked, no matter if the menu was French, American steakhouse or something else entirely, the kitchen staff was almost entirely made up of Latino immigrants. As many as half at any time were in the U.S. illegally.
Now that he's the head chef of his kitchen, he's become part of a network of Latin kitchen workers who share tips and rumors of Immigration and Customs Enforcement checkpoints and raids, and of ICE-impersonator scams.
"I'm worried for the guys who got married and have kids," he says. "Everybody's scared. I want to tell the president that we're not drug dealers, we're not rapists. I've never had a problem with the police. We're immigrants, and we take the jobs that other people don't want to take. We wash the dishes and work in the kitchens. All I do is cook with famous chefs, and create the good food people like you eat."
Diego has considered what he'd do if we were deported back to Mexico, to his hometown near Puebla. "I'd have to start a new life again, but I've spent my whole life in the kitchen. I'm very good at what I do, but there are no restaurants there—it's a small village. I'd have to try to come back."
It's just not the threat of governmental actions against immigrants that worries restaurant workers. The vitriol of Trump's rhetoric has spilled into communities that once prided themselves on their hospitality and courtesy toward strangers. During and since the election, Marisa's sister and brother-in-law, who own the restaurant where she works, have endured racist taunts in a town they've lived in for years. Her sister found her car vandalized with spray paint; her brother-in-law was told to "Go back to China" by a passerby as he chatted with a neighbor on the sidewalk.
Even Marisa's young, American-born daughter hasn't been immune.
"When Trump was elected, she asked me, 'What's going to happen to you, Mom? Trump doesn't like people like you.'" she says. "I told her nothing's going to happen to me, because I'm an American citizen now, and he can't do anything to me. But I don't know if that's true."