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Latino Chefs Gain Sway in U.S. Eateries


October 17, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. All rights reserved. 

SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- It's a busy Saturday night at Wolfgang Puck's "Chinois on Main," and a nonstop parade of elaborate dishes makes its way to the pampered clientele. Quail with kumquat and star anise; Japanese Yellowtail Sashimi; Mongolian lamb chops with cilantro vinaigrette. The Zagat restaurant guide extols "an extraordinary Asian-inspired New French menu."

Yet, the executive chef evaluating each dish from his position at the head of the kitchen isn't a native of China or a Parisian cook. He is Luis Diaz, a Salvadoran immigrant who crossed the border illegally into the U.S. 22 years ago and started his culinary career as a busboy. "I had never eaten raw fish," he says.

Mr. Diaz, 42 years old, is among the swelling wave of Latino immigrants commanding the nation's top kitchens. While Latinos have long been a big presence in restaurants in more menial jobs, the number of Hispanic cooks has more than tripled in the past 15 years. They now account for a quarter of the commercial cooks in the U.S., according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "There are cooks in French restaurants that know the cuisine very well, but can't pronounce the name of the restaurant," says Luis Vega, a Mexican and executive chef at the Oakmont Country Club in Glendale, Calif.

Those who have moved up past the salad counter and saute station include Puerto Rican Juan Cuevas, 30, the sous-chef at New York's fabled Lespinasse. Mr. Diaz's number two at Chinois is fellow Salvadoran Rene Mata. Anselmo Ruiz, who crossed the border illegally from Mexico as a teen, is executive chef at Chicago's four-star New French restaurant Ambria. (All those mentioned in this article who entered the U.S. without documents now are residing legally here.)

"If you took out the Hispanic part of our labor force, many restaurants would shut down," says Edward Leonard, head of the American Culinary Federation, St. Augustine, Fla., and top chef at the Westchester Country Club in Rye, N.Y., where 40% of the kitchen staff is Hispanic.

Lespinasse's Mr. Cuevas, a graduate of the renowned American Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, N.Y., is an exception: He is among the few with formal training. Most Latino restaurant workers start out either washing pots or clearing tables, and many came here illegally. "Our industry has always been one of the gateways for immigrants to this country," says D. Taylor, head of the culinary workers union in Las Vegas, local 226 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International.

The restaurant industry has a large proportion of Hispanic workers, not only because it often doesn't require a high level of English proficiency, but also because Hispanic immigrants generally are cheaper to hire.

Many immigrants who start at the bottom stay there. "We talk to people all the time who have been dishwashers from 10 to 12 years," says Brooks Bitterman at local 100 of the hotel and restaurant workers union in New York. Many restaurants won't invest in training staff, he adds. Some restaurants have been taken to court over perceived discrimination. In 1999, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a class-action lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court against a local restaurant alleging that the eatery kept its Hispanic workers in low-paying kitchen jobs and hired Anglos for better positions in the dining room. The suit was settled out of court, but terms weren't disclosed.

Still, Gustavo Mendez Graciano, head of the American Culinary Federation's newly created Latino chapter, says only about 100 of nearly 20,000 accredited chefs in the American Culinary Federation are Hispanic, but he thinks an additional 2,000 to 2,500 will be accredited in the coming two years.

Indeed, compared with other industries that require little or no English or education, restaurants offer Latinos a better chance of advancement because kitchens have a range of progressively skilled jobs.

Mr. Leonard of the American Culinary Federation says restaurant owners like to promote from within, both because an in-house chef is cheaper than a culinary-school graduate and because it cuts employee turnover.

Kevin Brown, president of closely held Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Inc. in Chicago, says Hispanics make up nearly half of the staff at his firm's 43 mid-to-up-market restaurants. "When we need to fill a position, before we go outside, we give opportunity to those inside," he says. Mr. Ruiz at the company's Ambria, for example, started as a busboy, then moved up to fillet fish and on to various cook stations.

Chinois's partner and general manager, Bella Lantsman, also believes in promoting from within. About 70% of the kitchen staff and 30% of the front-room staff is Hispanic, she says.

And, there's Mr. Diaz. Chinois's top chef stumbled into his new profession when his uncle, who worked as a busboy at a local Japanese restaurant, told him of an opening soon after he arrived from El Salvador.

Mr. Diaz learned enough English to become a waiter three years later at Japanese restaurant Kushimbo in LA's Marina Del Rey. Yet his foray into the kitchen started only when his former boss, Makoto Tanaka, asked him to work with him at Chinois. Despite his lack of formal culinary training, Mr. Diaz gradually moved up the line, from the saute station to the wok. When Mr. Tanaka became executive chef, he took Mr. Diaz on as sous-chef. Last year, Mr. Puck and Ms. Lantsman gave Mr. Diaz the top job.

Mr. Diaz already has made some noted contributions to Chinois's menu, such as seabass wrapped in won ton skin in a riesling wine sauce. He once even added epazote -- an intense Mexican and Central American herb little known north of the Rio Grande -- as a soup garnish.

Mr. Diaz's own life has changed, too. He lives with his wife, also from El Salvador, and three children in Granada Hills, a middle-class community in the San Fernando Valley. From earning $6.50 an hour at Chinois's pastry station 17 years ago, today he earns about $60,000 a year, compared with the industry median for executive chefs of $53,000 annually. Even his name has changed: on Chinois's menu he's introduced as "Louis."

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