A Chef’s Journey: From El Salvador To Philadelphia With Jorge Chicas of Red Owl Tavern

Has it gotten easier or more difficult for undocumented workers to get work and hold onto work?
I’ve seen a lot of change. I think that people used to be a lot more comfortable back then, when they knew that they didn’t have anything to worry about. Now I see….at least in big corporations you have to make sure that everybody has their documents in order. Now again, as a hiring manager, I’m not a certified person to really determine whether I’m receiving a real document or a fake document. But I’ve seen the process of when people didn’t have to worry about anything whatsoever to a phase in which people had fake documents and you could tell they were fake, but they had documents…and then a process in which you’re basically getting people that actually have everything in order. It’s different phases, you know. It’s getting more difficult for people. If you don’t have your documents, you don’t get a job.

When did you start to see it shift to being more difficult for people?
I’d say in the past ten years. But that’s the thing. Everybody thinks about the dollars and what money they’re gonna come in and be able to make, but they don’t think about the process of, ok, what does it take to get a job. They don’t tell you over there you need to have this or you need to have that.

What was the makeup of the kitchens you’ve worked in over the years?
I think the markets have been different. In D.C. there’s a lot of Hispanics. When I was in L.A., it was more Mexicans with Americans. Here in Philadelphia, I feel I get an even mix on everything. The difficulty I have in the kitchen is trying to maneuver the three different cultures. We need to work as a team guys. I have the Latinos, the Mexicans, black people, the whites. All the white people that I have working with us here are basically American, kids who are going to culinary school. I’m big into tapping into the culinary schools because that’s how I bring some of the talent in and create the environment of educating and mentoring and building people up from within. I always try to make the team work together. It’s been an interesting challenge.

I’ve read that 10-11% of the industry is made up of undocumented workers.
Why punish people so integral to the industry?
My belief is that everyone should make the effort. Do what you need to do to make sure you are legal. Again, I’m not an expert, but maybe if they create some sort of plan where if people wanna come here and just work—some Mexicans have the ability of requesting a VISA just to come and work. Why can’t other countries with difficulties have the same flexibility? Just to be fair with everybody. It’s a lot easier with Mexico because the borders are there. Going down south into Central America, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are always struggling with everything they got going on in their countries as far as people wanting to come and look for better opportunities here, but again, if you’re coming to work…if there was some sort of way of saying you have permission to come and work legally for five years and then you need to go back to your country, ok, then you have that clear understanding. If you’re coming here to make the move, then commit to it and do what you have to do. I think that that’s the hard part with a lot of the immigrants that come to this country. They come with the mentality that they’re gonna be here temporarily and they end up staying here.

But is everybody demanding those documents? And that’s before we even get to the issue of fake documents.
I think that any big corporations or big companies are always going to try to make sure that they’re covered. But smaller restaurants? I know for a fact, some are not gonna check that stuff. They’re gonna hire whoever they need to hire and at the end of the day, it’s a really weird situation. I’ve seen people taken advantage of just because they don’t have any documents. If you pay a dishwasher $10 an hour in a big establishment, in a small restaurant, where you’re barely making it and you can’t afford to pay $10, you’re gonna pay him $6 an hour and he’ll be perfectly happy with it. It’s that medium. If the employee’s happy…and he’s making money…But at the end of the day, is that fair? I don’t think it’s fair. Is it right? I don’t think it’s right.

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