The restaurant industry depends on immigrants. what happens if we lose them_ _ the immigration issue _ indy week

Seventeen years ago, I enrolled at the oldest public university in the nation to pursue my childhood dream of becoming a journalist. Best lunch places in san diego Just down the road from my classes at UNC-Chapel Hill, Luis Ortega was cutting his teeth as a line cook at Crook’s Corner, the Southern landmark that gave North Carolina a coveted spot on the national culinary stage.

I didn’t know Ortega then, but our lives intersected in ways that are typical in a college town. Best food places in san diego We are exactly the same age; back then, we were teenagers nearing adulthood.


Famous food in los angeles We caught live music at Local 506 and the defunct Go! Studios, and picked Breadmen’s breakfast the next day as our preferred hangover cure. Good restaurants in san diego We both worked in high-volume downtown food establishments. Best restaurants in san diego ca I studied Spanish and practiced it with a Greek accent at my job, rolling burritos for gringos. Best mexican food in san diego Luis picked up English with an eastern North Carolina drawl from chef Bill Smith and spent hours perfecting that classic, award-winning shrimp-and-grits recipe in a very crowded high-end kitchen.

Ortega and I realize all this when I first meet him in his hometown of Celaya, Guanajuato, during the summer of 2015. Best food places in los angeles After several years at Crook’s, Ortega returned to Mexico in 2007. Best lunch places in los angeles He grew tired of waiting for policy reform, of feeling trapped without the mobility to ever see his family again, or even to drive just fifteen minutes into another town, for fear of getting stopped without a license and getting deported.

A sense of nostalgia creeps into his cadence when he talks about “Celaya Hill,” or the Chapel Hill he and his compatriots made their own. Best indian food in chicago During the day, sunlight shines on the butcher block at his carniceria in the Las Delicias neighborhood. Best lunch places in new orleans In the middle of the shop, a clothesline supports dozens of hanging chorizos. Best food places near me A massive illustration of the Virgen de Guadalupe peeks through the links, her hands pressed in prayer, blessing the butcher. Good fast food places near me It’s there, in the midst of plucking sausages from the line, that Ortega confesses how much he misses grits. Soul food restaurants in miami Some Southern recipes, he says, can be amended with Mexican ingredients. Soul food restaurants in atlanta ga He can find the white wine to make the brine for Crook’s Corner’s green Tabasco chicken. Soul food restaurants in atlanta georgia And the beets, too, for Smith’s beet salad, another favorite. Good chinese food that delivers near me But not the grits. Soul food restaurants in nj He misses the grits.

At Crook’s, Ortega steered dinner service with other Mexican cooks, side-by-side with Smith. Best lobster in atlanta The way he speaks about food is the way my hipster generation talks recipes: with a nerdy zeal, sharp criticism, and an insatiable desire to talk the subject to death. Best lunch restaurants in los angeles Cooks like Ortega navigate the world of fine dining and become an integral part of it; they represent a growing sect of a creative class obsessed with food. Best lunch spots in los angeles But, as Smith once told me, his cooks “feel invisible.”

In fact, the men and women behind the kitchen door are quietly leading the pack. Famous restaurants in los angeles for celebrities They are part of a famed coterie of food artisans and entrepreneurs, chefs and farmers. Famous restaurants in los angeles Ortega earned the enviable tutelage of a beloved chef in one of the South’s most revered restaurants. Best lunch spots in san diego And in a place completely unfamiliar to me, I could relate to Ortega through food about our shared experience of a place once completely unfamiliar to him.

Smith can do the same, with a much deeper intimacy. Popular restaurants in los angeles When Ortega drove home to Mexico after many years in Chapel Hill, Smith took the thirty-six-hour drive with him. Best restaurants in san diego Smith visits when he can slip away from the restaurant, often on his birthday, most recently this winter. Best restaurants in downtown san diego His connection to his fellow cooks is based on a sense of equity he feels in his heart. Best places to eat in downtown san diego He understands them as we all should, with nuance, humanity, and zero expectations.

Many cooks come here for a “better life,” a uniform identity to which we are socialized. Best places to eat in san diego on a budget But with that comes complexity and layers. Good places to eat in san diego For Ortega, there was also a youthful sense of adventure, the kind that propels any American teenager with a passport to see the world. Mexican food in san diego He wanted to measure himself against something greater than what he already knew.

Food is not just nourishment or art. Best seafood restaurants in san diego It is a commodity, and it relies on a structure of labor. Best restaurants in chicago il The restaurant industry is the second-largest and fastest-growing market in the U.S. Mexican food in los angeles economy. Best dinner restaurants in los angeles The latest Pew Research Center statistics indicate that 1.2 million workers in the restaurant industry are undocumented—somewhere between 12 and 16 percent. Best inexpensive restaurants in chicago With a more draconian immigration sweep under President Trump, the South could lose many of these workers. Best cheap restaurants in chicago Most rumors about ICE raids in restaurants have turned out to be false, but the worry among chefs and cooks is palpable.

The growing demographic of Latinos and immigrants in the South in public places like schools, health clinics, and city parks is obvious. Best affordable restaurants in chicago The visual cues of change that we see in our public spaces—like tiendas and restaurant kitchens—are the result of this massive, decades-long migration. Best lunch spots in new orleans Between 1990 and 2000, the Latina/o population in North Carolina increased by approximately 394 percent.

Food has been our immediate gateway to other cultures, and the immigrant in food service is often seen as one who works for other people or owns a food-related business that adds vital diversity to the community.

But the conversation around ethnic chefs and cooks is often skewed toward the contribution of the immigrant. Best food in new orleans And even when that contribution may be a reflection of their voices and their entrepreneurial capital, it is still made for the consumption of a white majority that’s unfamiliar with the culture and often unwilling to familiarize itself beyond what it can consume. Best chinese food in chicago A Mexican immigrant cook through a white person’s lens is usually portrayed as working with previously learned skills, rather than inventing or initiating the art in question.

It would be remiss not to draw a parallel to the work of Toni Tipton-Martin, a journalist who researched hundreds of African-American cookbooks lost in, and shielded by, history for centuries. Best chinese food in chicago chinatown She not only points out the racist “magical” trope regarding African-American cooks, but also argues for the humanity, intelligence, agency, and creative talents of African-American men and women who contributed to the American/Southern culinary canon.

A discomfort and negotiation is expressed in our history, with patterns of exploitation that we must confront. Best seafood in wildwood nj Labor and food are symbiotic. Best indian restaurants in chicago But the disconnect between the realities of restaurant kitchens and the accommodations of their patrons is troubling. Best seafood restaurants in new york city We are surrounded by food culture, yet completely disconnected from the actual experience.

In exploring the expansive theme of food as a journalist for almost a decade, I’ve made it my mission to seek out stories that shed the layers with which we’ve insulated ourselves and others. Best cheap eats in chicago When immigrant workers are given agency, we can talk about their work in Southern food with the respect and consideration it deserves, understanding its value as an expressive language, as art, as cultural capital, as intellectual property.

I wish this weren’t an essay, that I could have instead shared the myriad stories of cooks like Ortega who are still here, making fantastic food with artistry and pride. Best fast food places near me But our democracy is dangerously swaying toward what resembles a regime. Best restaurants near times square And cooks in the South are keeping their heads down, today more than ever.

Food may be a tool for economic survival in America, but culinary skills have limited power. Best seafood in miami beach We are actively participating in a consumer culture that keeps its blinders on, focusing on American generosity and its semblance of opportunity. Soul food restaurants in new york We celebrate the wonderful food of immigrants, lick our fingers clean, and ignore reality. Soul food restaurants in newark nj The cooks who feed us, who run our vibrant food culture, don’t have the same rights as eaters.

If we don’t acknowledge that, we are feeding into a politics of fear and disempowerment.

Back in Mexico, Ortega and I tear through warm tortillas and fold each piece between our fingers, scooping chicken mole into our mouths at his mother’s kitchen table. How to get free food from restaurants He hands me a can of Tecate Light just as Mama Conchita presents her copy of Bill Smith’s cookbook, Seasoned in the South, which she has stored in her dining room armoire. Fast food restaurants delivery She shows me Smith’s handwritten dedication to her on the title page.

Before I can put my beer down, Ortega grabs the book from his mother and skims quickly through the pages to a recipe for blueberry soup. Fast food restaurants near my current location “Read this,” he says, pointing to Smith’s introduction, which reads: “‘I have tasted your blueberry soup. Seafood restaurants near my location It is terrible.’ So pronounced one of my cooks, Luis Ortega, when I put this soup on the menu.”

Ortega can’t stop laughing. Best seafood restaurants in san francisco “Have you had it? It sucks,” he says, drawing out the uh like a Southern teenager.

Ortega and I are talking food again, the way any food writer and chef would. Best mexican food restaurants I wish he could be here to tell you all about it.

This article appeared in print with the headline “The Immigrant in the Kitchen.”

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