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.
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.