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A foot in the kitchen door
Kitchen workers--all of them Mexican--huddled around a man who flipped sausage chunks onto a deep-dish pizza with the lightning-quick wrist snap of a blackjack dealer. Wearing a crisp Lou Malnati's polo shirt, he was teaching them the right way to build a Chicago food classic.
The workers listened, and not just because Pedro Barrera is their boss. He is Mexican, too, and his story embodies their dreams: An immigrant arrives, unable to speak English, yet rises from busboy to store manager in about four years.
Barrera now oversees the chain's 24 kitchens, jealously protecting the culinary legacy of the Italian-American Malnati clan as if it were his own family's recipes.
As Barrera rattles off tips in Spanish about cheese thickness and dough preparation, he looks into the eyes of his hard-working charges, who are drenched in tomato sauce and sweat. And he worries. Hardly any of them speak English. Many seem locked into low-paying jobs that leave little time for learning the language or other work skills.
In one form or another, that is the conundrum facing Chicago's largest and fastest-growing immigrant group, the Mexicans. As this historic wave of immigrants remakes the economic, cultural and political landscape, experts and civic leaders say the region's future is tied to their fate.
What railroads were to one era's immigrants, what stockyards were to another's, the hurly-burly world of the kitchen is fast becoming for newcomers from Mexico.
In the process, they have become the foundation of the industry that has been the state's largest job creator since 2000, fostering a mutual dependence that has overshadowed hard questions about the implications of adding a huge workforce with limited skills.
Legions of Mexicans--almost all of them men--have streamed through the back doors of Chicago's restaurants, where they wash dishes, melt mozzarella in 500-degree ovens and flash cleavers into fine cuts of meat.
More than 18,000 Mexican men in the Chicago area worked as cooks in 2000--more than worked as construction workers, gardeners or any other occupation.
About 60 percent of dishwashers were Mexican immigrants, though they were only 7 percent of the region's population.
The Mexican presence in Chicago's restaurant industry boomed still more--a breathtaking 48 percent--between 2000 and 2005. During that period, about 65 Mexican immigrants entered the industry each week, according to a Census analysis by demographer Rob Paral of the American Immigration Law Foundation.
Chicago's restaurant scene was once a melting pot of labor, from Puerto Rican busboys to Greek and African-American cooks to French and Italian waiters.
A dominating presence
But where the workforce inside ethnic restaurants once reflected their particular menus, today Mexicans dominate every type of cuisine and nearly every job up and down the industry ladder.
A Mexican owns Carlos', the Highland Park French restaurant with the best food in the region, according to the Zagat guide. Once a busboy at a French bistro, he is now a star with his own cookbook, overseeing a 15,000-bottle collection of wine.
A Mexican runs the sushi counter at Midori, the anchor of an Asian strip on the Northwest Side, molding seaweed, rice and fish with effortless speed. Mexican sushi chefs have become so commonplace that they now have their own Spanish name: sushero.
A Mexican wordlessly works the grill inside a Carpentersville Chinese restaurant before catching sleep on a mattress in the owner's unfinished basement. He speaks little English but knows enough Chinese to cook up a new noodle special when his boss tells him the order.
Nortena music streams from the Indian Garden kitchen. The gossip over the grill of the Israeli falafel house in Oak Park is in Spanish. A Greektown food runner's name tag lists the Mexican state of Zacatecas as his native "Greek island."
But the infusion of Mexican workers into restaurants is more than an interesting sociological quirk.
Mexican immigrants are "an essential economic force" that fits into a history of immigration to Chicago from Germany, Ireland and other European nations, according to a task force of corporate chief executive officers, elected officials and other civic leaders recently convened by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
The task force warned, however, that the area has never had to incorporate such a large group from a single foreign country.
Dispersed across the six-county area, many of these newcomers arrive without the tools to compete in a 21st-Century economy that demands college degrees for well-paying jobs.
DePaul University sociologist John Koval, a task force consultant who has researched Mexican immigrants in the food industry, said restaurants offer the rare avenue today where an immigrant can advance without formal education, strictly on merit and a few lucky breaks.
Still, Koval warns that those Horatio Alger stories remain the exception.
He said restaurant workers could represent the beginnings of a "permanent underclass" unable to thrive because double shifts and minimum-wage salaries keep them from getting GEDs or acquiring English skills.
"For every success story in the restaurant industry, there are hundreds of people not succeeding," Koval said. "The vast majority are toiling away."
Immigrants have endured such lives for generations, as they passed along the American dream of good homes and schools to their children.
But Koval and others see a more ominous sign: A growing body of research shows that many U.S.-born kids of Mexican immigrants are progressing slowly or not at all.
The median income for second-generation Mexican-American households in the Chicago area is only $45,000, a 2005 University of Notre Dame study found, well below that of white households.
"Expectations that U.S.-born Mexicans in the Chicago area are better off than their Mexican-born counterparts do not always conform to the reality," researchers wrote.
And, unlike previous waves of immigrants, many of the Mexicans in Chicago are here illegally.
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that one of every four dishwashers nationwide is an illegal immigrant, a total likely higher in major entry points such as the Chicago area. The informal, decentralized world of restaurants has allowed them to escape close scrutiny by immigration agents, but it also means they operate largely outside the protections of labor unions and agencies that advocate for workers.
Searching for `Malnati DNA'
Barrera used the freedom of the restaurant industry to seize an opportunity.
With a job already lined up at a Lou Malnati's pizzeria, the first thing he did upon arriving in Schaumburg from the central Mexican city of Nezahualcoyotl in 1986 was to enroll in an English class. He tackled his homework during lulls at the restaurant. As a busboy, Barrera took old receipts home and recalculated them in his spare time for practice.
He speaks proudly of having the "Malnati DNA," an intimate understanding of all things related to the pizza chain. Barrera, who became a U.S. citizen in 2000, runs with fellow marathoner and Chief Executive Marc Malnati, and golfs with American-born managers.
On a recent site visit to a Naperville pizzeria, Barrera strolled in through the air-conditioned comfort of the main dining room, filled with sports memorabilia, happy diners and well-groomed hosts and hostesses (all U.S.-born) who work to the sounds of George Harrison and light rock.
Then Barrera pushed the swinging kitchen door open and entered the world of the pizzeria's Mexican workers, a place of steamy air and clanging dishes. He grabbed a hairnet and went to work. Clipboard in hand, Barrera spent the next six hours critiquing every last ingredient: The beef in the minestrone was soggy, the mozzarella slices were too thick. He quizzed each worker in Spanish, looking for that spark, that "Malnati DNA."
To help them, he persuaded company executives to offer English classes to about 20 handpicked kitchen supervisors, those with the potential to become managers if they could master English. Restaurant managers make nearly twice as much as dishwashers, according to Koval's study.
"Being able to speak the language is like being free," Barrera said. "If you don't speak English, you don't have anything."
But during his visit to the Naperville pizzeria, Barrera learned that attendance at the English classes had dropped to 6 from 20 in just four weeks.
"That [ticks] me off," Barrera said, chucking a paper towel into the trashcan in frustration. "We're trying to make it easy for these guys. They say they want to learn. If they are committing to going to these classes, they need to show up."
Jose Luis Hinojosa, an assistant kitchen supervisor in Grayslake and one of the English students who has stuck with the classes, said Barrera is right. He said that it is foolish to walk away from the opportunity.
"Of course, I want to learn English," Hinojosa said. "Why wouldn't I want to be a manager? Make more money and work less."
But Hinojosa also has to pay the bills. He already works two full-time jobs and faced a long commute to English classes on a Saturday morning. And while he knows that English is key to promotion, not speaking the language hasn't kept him from getting by at work--everyone in the kitchen is a Mexican immigrant.
True enough, the Naperville pizzeria works by a series of hand signals and pantomime between English-speaking waiters and Mexican food prep workers. The cooks know only a few English words, the ones they need to complete their tasks: chopping onions, peppers or mushrooms.
For more complex commands, such as a call for extra cheese on half a pizza, a waiter turns to the kitchen supervisor, who speaks a little English. The supervisor slides down the food prep line and whispers the order, in Spanish, to a Mexican colleague.
Maybe, Barrera mused, this is the downside of the massive Mexican immigration to Chicago. A new kitchen worker can go to church, watch the news and even call a government office, all in Spanish.
For supporters of a growing movement to make English the country's official language, this is the worst-case scenario: Spanish-speaking ghettoes that leave Mexicans dependent on, yet unconnected to, the rest of society.
But the Mexican lock on kitchens has an upside for immigrants, say those in the industry. One can always find a countryman ready to open a door.
When Abraham Aguirre came to Chicago in 1965, all he knew about food preparation glinted in his father's knife as it came down to slaughter another pig before a birthday or wedding in Veracruz.
But the owners of a tiny Italian cafe near Taylor Street, where his cousin's uncle was already working as a cook, took Aguirre under their wing. They taught him how to roll ravioli, prepare marinara sauce and speak passable Italian.
He eventually took over at Billy's on Rush, a smoke-filled haunt for high rollers. There Aguirre's seedless marinara sauce and ricotta cheesecake made him a mini-celebrity to the likes of Frank Sinatra and Bill Cosby.
"That's how I met Harry," Aguirre said.
The late baseball announcer Harry Caray would come in after night games and regale Aguirre with tales about baseball, local politics and the city's history. Aguirre would eventually become the first chef at Caray's restaurant in downtown Chicago.
In time, Aguirre also would become one of the best-known Italian chefs in the city. He now is chef at Grotto on State, a tony Gold Coast restaurant where customers dine near the murmur of an indoor waterfall.
One local tradition Aguirre took to heart was the city's longstanding practice of ethnic patronage.
While helping to make Harry Caray's a popular tourist attraction, Aguirre cast himself as a mentor to other Mexican immigrants coming through the industry he recalls was once dominated by Greeks. Aguirre now has proteges, including his four younger brothers, in Italian kitchens on Taylor Street and all over the Chicago area.
Such support is part of a vast Mexican job network within the region's restaurant industry where every worker seems to have a "cousin" he can refer.
There are a lot of cousins--so many, in fact, that many restaurant owners have no need for want ads. They prefer this informal network because the referrals have a ride to work and someone who can train them, interpret for them in the kitchen and keep them in line, owners say.
Carlos Nieto, the Mexican owner of Carlos', once employed a string of chefs from France, Japan, Italy and the U.S., befitting French cuisine's global reach. Now all three of his principal chefs are Mexican. The staff portrait in his cookbook looks like a family reunion.
Business leaders--from construction to hospitality to health care--make no apologies for their reliance on immigrants and their willingness to take lower wages. Restaurateurs could hire U.S.-born workers, but they argue that they would have to raise wages so high that the cost of a meal would skyrocket too.
"Do you want an industry where you are going to spend $10 at McDonald's for a burger?" said Jim D'Angelo, a district manager for Lou Malnati's.
But the cheap labor and lower menu prices come at a cost, some analysts say.
Low-paid immigrants send their children to public schools and, without standard job benefits, often use hospital emergency rooms as a form of primary health care, funded by taxpayers, said Steven Malanga, an analyst with the conservative Manhattan Institute in New York City.
The tax burdens are spread to everyone, Malanga argues, while it is mainly those consumers with healthy disposable incomes who reap the benefits of a cheap meal subsidized by low-wage labor.
"I don't think you can look at the economic benefits of this workforce without looking at the social costs of supporting them," Malanga said.
Some U.S.-born restaurant workers watch these developments with mixed emotions.
Eric Meredith of Chicago jumped into the food industry after leaving the military because he saw the potential for rapid advancement. As he worked his way into management at McDonald's, no task was too humble, be it scooping french fries out of bubbling oil or stacking burgers in a steamy kitchen, he said.
Meredith eventually helped start a group called the Black Culinarian Alliance to help inner-city kids and others find similar success. But many U.S.-born workers--including second-generation Mexican-Americans--look down on routine restaurant chores, Meredith said.
Meredith, who recently left McDonald's but remains in the food industry, credits Mexican immigrants for having the work ethic to snatch up those jobs. But he worries employers don't even search for U.S.-born workers because they mistakenly assume none are interested.
"Sometimes perception becomes reality," he said.
And the description of the "hard-working Mexican" is code for something else, says Meredith and many in the field. It is the belief that Mexicans will put up with a lot of abuse and hassle that other workers would not.
`The new sweatshops'
Interviews with Mexican restaurant workers throughout the region reveal that unpaid overtime shifts, delayed paychecks, bullying bosses and extreme kitchen temperatures are accepted as normal.
Jose Oliva, director of the Chicago Interfaith Workers Rights Center, calls restaurants "the new sweatshops" of Chicago and said limited English skills leave workers vulnerable to exploitation in the "back of the house," the kitchen.
In a 2004 federal lawsuit filed against Bice's Ristorante & Grill by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 14 cooks and busboys alleged verbal abuse and sexual harassment. The workers said the restaurant's maitre d' often touched them inappropriately while the Italian chef regularly berated them for communicating in Spanish--problems management was accused of ignoring.
Hugo Gonzalez, who claimed the abuse caused depression and insomnia, said he remained at the restaurant for 12 years as a busboy and food runner because "I was scared. It was my job. I have a family to feed."
The Bice Group, owner of 40 restaurants around the world, did not admit wrongdoing. But as part of a court settlement in April, the company agreed to pay its Chicago kitchen staff $210,000 in back wages and owed overtime and to enroll managers in sensitivity training.
Oliva keeps a database of about 120 labor complaints forwarded to federal officials in recent years that reads as if ripped from the pages of "The Jungle," Upton Sinclair's novel about meatpacking industry abuses in early 20th Century Chicago.
One Mexican cook at a Chinese restaurant complained of singed eyeballs, causing irreparable damage, and 68-hour work weeks with no overtime pay. Another Mexican pizzeria employee had a miscarriage on the job, blaming long hours where she was forced to lift heavy boxes.
Labor activists agree that strong labor unions would help protect restaurant workers. But at a time when union membership is dropping nationwide, only 1.3 percent of restaurant workers nationwide belong to labor unions, compared with 13.4 percent of manufacturing workers, according to a 2005 analysis of Census data by two economists.
The majority of restaurants are mom-and-pop operations that are too unwieldy to organize, said Lars Negstad, local research director for UNITE-HERE, the country's largest union for restaurant workers. Those same operations often face the most intense bottom-line pressures, making them more prone to drive their workers hard while paying them little, he added.
With Mexican immigrants arriving daily and looking for jobs, the workers have no leverage, especially dishwashers, busboys and others with the least skills, Oliva said.
"These immigrants offer the cheapest source of labor that is least likely to complain and is the most disposable," he said. "That is why they're so appealing as a workforce."
The restaurant industry has an appetite for even more immigrant workers.
The National Restaurant Association spent nearly $1 million in lobbying fees last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Association officials said their lobbying focused on a bill that would bring in immigrants on temporary work visas from developing nations directly to your local cafe.
The industry expects to expand 15 percent by 2016 and reports that it will need nearly 2 million more workers to keep up. In Illinois, industry officials say they will need to add more than 100 workers a week for the next decade to keep up with demand.
Analysts say that the November elections, and the return of the Democrats to power in Congress, make it more likely that the U.S. will establish a program to bring in temporary workers to restaurants and other jobs. President Bush backs the idea, too, and some observers expect a resolution of the issue in 2007.
Until then, Mexican workers will continue to find their own way into Chicago's kitchens.
The 4 a.m. job fair
The young and the beautiful throw down their credit cards at Dublin's, an Irish bar and grill in the Gold Coast, while Mexican workers shoot through the open kitchen like pinballs.
Dublin's eventually clears out, after the Mexicans have grilled the last burger and collected the last martini glass. Then, around 4 a.m., a peculiar ritual takes place.
The restaurant workers from all over Rush Street converge at Dublin's to nurse mugs of coffee and relax. Among the oak cocktail tables, workers share job leads and intelligence reports in Spanish. The talk sounds casual, but it ushers more Mexicans into kitchens around Chicago.
Aguirre, the Grotto chef, says the Dublin's sessions, a few doors from his restaurant, work better than any classified ad. And he's not the only one looking: "You go door by door. They keep opening up new restaurants. It's almost sure that Mexicans are going to be behind them."
The Mexican immigrants know it. So they tell their friends: Just get me a job.
And by the time the sun has come up, a restaurant seeking a new busboy, prep cook, food runner or dishwasher has likely found one.