The Silent Success of Mexican Chefs

~ By RICHARD FOSS ~Originally published in LA CityBeat October 2003

The caller on talk radio was forceful and articulate as she was angry. “The Mexicans who are coming across the border are taking dead-end jobs in hotels and restaurant kitchens. They’re a permanent underclass that will never integrate into the broader community.” The host of the show didn’t argue the point, moving on to questions of payroll taxes instead, but I was still fixated on the caller’s assertion. Jobs as busboys and dishwashers, a dead end? I remembered a French chef telling me that all the best chefs he knew had started at the bottom, and decided to see if things had changed.

I started at the Pacific Grille in downtown LA, a noted California/Asian restaurant. The gingery vegetable dumplings were followed by asparagus soup with toasted walnuts, and monkfish in Chinese lobster sauce, but the best part of the meal was the conversation with Executive Chef Manuel Diaz. “Some people are surprised when they go to an Asian restaurant and the chef is from Mexico,” he mused. “They ask who created the recipes, and I tell them, I did. A few have been skeptical, but then they taste what I’m doing.” Manny came to California at sixteen with little money and no connections and took a job as a dishwasher. As he tells it, “I was watching the chefs on the line, and it looked like what they were doing was fun and challenging. They saw that I was paying attention, and they asked if I wanted to learn a few things. I told them, yes, I want to be a chef. After a year I became sous-chef and later executive chef. Coming from the bottom to the top was a lot of work, but I know some things about the way a restaurant really works that they don’t teach you in school.”

I had heard a persistent rumor that some French and Italian restaurants tried to hide the fact that they had a Mexican chef, fearing that they might lose some snob appeal. Manny was guarded, saying only that he heard it has happened, but never to him. He explained, “At the French restaurant where I was Executive Chef, even the French customers had no problem. If they wanted proof, it was there. I prove what I can do every day.”

I had to know if his experience was unique, so I asked a well-known French restaurateur, Guy Gabriele. Guy owns two restaurants, Cafe Pierre and Zazou, both with Hispanic managers and chefs, but he confirmed that not all owners share his broadmindedness. “I know of some restaurants where the owners don’t want to admit their chef isn’t French, and there are probably many others where there is a glass ceiling and nobody who isn’t French will get the executive position. The funny thing is that the food will be better at the place where they just let the best chef rise. French chefs are known for their bad attitude, not relating to the other personnel in the kitchen. I had a French chef, a guy from Nice, and he had a Mexican assistant. The assistant actually had more finesse, more artistry than the master. He was intelligent and sensitive, and I had to build up his confidence so that when the Frenchman went back home, he knew he could take over. The French chef came back to visit a year later and couldn’t believe what the guy was doing.”

If this is the case, that the best chefs in Los Angeles are Mexicans, why haven’t we heard of them? Where are their cookbooks, radio shows, TV appearances? After all, the people who are best known for making Mexican food in LA are Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feininger of the Border Grill, neither of whom is from Mexico. If Mexicans can’t even get famous for making Mexican food, how can they make it big in the broader world of cuisine? Guy Gabriele thinks it’s not about cooking, but self-promotion. “”The Mexican who comes to work here, who becomes a chef not just to make a living but because he loves it – he probably has a language issue. Not that he can’t speak adequate English, but because he doesn’t speak it well enough to feel comfortable mingling with his guests at the restaurant. He may be a great chef but be shy.”

Manny Diaz from the Pacific Grille agrees. “Growing up in Durango, there were many people working very hard, but never growing their businesses, never promoting them. In Mexico you don’t really learn how to do that. Here you come and you get the skills, but you have no polish. You don’t speak the language perfectly, you’re used to being in the background. You’re a success, but nobody knows but your friends and family. You don’t see a lot of us on TV cooking shows… In the future, we’re going to be on those shows, and not just on Spanish language TV, but we’re not there yet. We need to work on media skills.”

There are other avenues to popular acclaim than via the media, but as Chef di Cucina Francisco Velasco of Il Grano restaurant pointed out, working as a chef makes it difficult to participate in cultural and educational events. “I work six days a week and I have a family. It’s not like I don’t want to have a voice in the community, mentor someone else, but I don’t have the time.”

As Salvadoran-born Velasco notes, when you’re a successful chef in a tony Westside neighborhood and the majority of your ethnic community lives elsewhere, it makes things more difficult. “I am better known outside the Salvadoran community than in it. I was interviewed about six months ago for the Beverly Hills newspaper, but nobody in my community reads the Beverly Hills newspaper, so they don’t know about it.”

One of LA’s Mexican chefs who has achieved wide renown is Hugo Molina, who became famous at The Parkway Grill before opening his current venture, The Spanish Kitchen. Molina, who was recently named one of the top 25 chefs in the world, reiterated the lack of an entrepreneurial culture in Mexico. “Many chefs from Mexico and central America don’t have the financial skills to open their own restaurants. You have grown up in a village, you don’t know about establishing credit with suppliers, making deals to lease a building. It’s not that those guys aren’t smart, they just haven’t had the experience. They grew up in a cash society, maybe even part cash and part barter, they don’t know about making a business plan. It’s not that they aren’t great chefs. They have worked their way up, learned things about the rhythm of a restaurant that can’t be taught in culinary school.”

Molina agreed that there’s a problem when successful professionals aren’t role models for others, and said he is surprised at the places where he meets Mexican chefs. “”I was in Benihana of Tokyo and there’s this guy doing all this fancy knife work, and I thought, where in Japan do they teach this? I talked with him and found out he was from Michoacan. He learned in LA, he’s making good money, and I’m sure there are thousands like him.”

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