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

I’ve had people tell me that more opportunities open up for them and they start at the process of getting documentation once they start feeling comfortable with the language.
But not everybody does that. I’ve seen circumstances where people have moved up the ladder and have gotten everything situated, but I’ve also seen people that have been working for ten years at the same place with the same pay, but then…

Why do you think that is?
A lot of the people coming from El Salvador are farmers. People that are not really in tune with what the right thing or the fair thing is. I think they’re more into, it’s a job, I’ll take the job and if I’m getting paid, this is what’s good for me. It’s better than what I would make in my country. I’m fine with that.

What is your general sense on what undocumented workers mean to the restaurant industry?
It means a lot. To me, it is a backbone of the industry. If at any point the government were to decide to get rid of all the illegal immigrants, they’re gonna see a huge hit to this industry because in reality…it is what it is. There are a lot of people who are not really willing to do the work that needs to be done in this industry. You can see it from different angles. Listen, if you’re a business person, if you’re a big one in this industry, it is more beneficial to you to make it not too easy to open up a restaurant. To me, if I wanted to open a place [and become a small business owner], I can go and open a place and hire people that are [undocumented]—l don’t care [note: he’s saying that is the stance of many small business owners]. I need workers. It’s not gonna be as expensive to get you up and running. So for the small business, I think that it affects a lot. For the big ones, they have the money to play with. They can afford to address whatever changes need to be done.

Do you see a profound difference between the culinary school grads and immigrants in the kitchen?
Yes, there’s a big, big difference in my opinion. To me, bringing in a culinary student is not just bringing them in so they can get the experience that they need, but also to understand the culture of what it takes. A good example is I‘m getting an email [shows me his phone], hey chef, can you send me the schedule that I have for next week. I’m like, you can’t pick up the phone and call the chef that’s actually working in the restaurant to get you the schedule. Simple things like that. Do I really need to pick up this fifty pounds of potatoes? Why can’t I just do five pounds? I’m like, because I need you to do the fifty pounds. You know what I mean? There’s a side of managerial skills that need to make sure that you’re kind of paving the road for these kids so they can understand how things are done and why they’re done the way they’re done and how the business works. Something that is not taught at school. At school, they give you the technical stuff but the experience, you gain [that] once you’re in the industry and you see it hand-by-hand.

Is that much more likely that you know the immigrant in the kitchen has been working hard, say since the age of thirteen, when you hire them?
To me, it’s seeing what they’re bringing to the table. Every individual is different. Some people have the drive, some people don’t. Some people are okay being a dishwasher twenty years. Some people are going to school because they want to figure out a way of advancing. Some people want to advance way too quickly without really having the experience, which is a downfall in my opinion.

But that’s on either side of the equation.
Exactly. So it’s like, how do you balance that. I think that’s part of management, mentoring the guys and really guiding them. For me, I bring a culinary student here, they’re gonna start in prep because they need to learn the basics on how to make everything. All the sauces. How to use the knife properly. How to prep and be consistent by following the recipes. Then you get into making salads. Okay, that’s the easy part. Then you go into maybe the middle in the kitchen, then you do sauté station and then you do the grill station. And then you’re doing more of rounds. Whatever I need, this is what you’re gonna do. That kind of develops you to get you to a point in which you’re like, now I’m seeing a bigger picture. You’re not just seeing one thing, but now you’re seeing an entire thing.


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