Making their dreams pan out
Manny Diaz greets the servers and places the finishing touches on his daily special: Alaskan salmon on a bed of Moroccan couscous, finished with a passion fruit glaze.
“It’s Friday, so let’s sell lots of fish!”
As executive chef of Pacific Grille in downtown Los Angeles, Diaz designs the menu, directs a staff of eight and prepares meals for more than 100 customers every day.
It’s a far cry from the first job he got after sneaking across the border in 1981: washing dishes.
It is no secret that in kitchens throughout Los Angeles, Mexican and Central American immigrants scrub pots, empty trash, clear tables and mop floors. But the news is what’s happening at the oven. After decades of populating the lowest-paying jobs that require few skills and little English, the most ambitious of those immigrants are becoming top chefs at some of the most celebrated French, Asian and Italian restaurants.
“It breaks the stereotype of the role that Mexican immigrants play in our economy and in our industry,” said Daniel Conway, spokesman for the California Restaurant Assn. “It shows there is a place for merit and hard work to pay off.”
Many other California industries, including agriculture and garment manufacturing, employ disproportionate numbers of immigrants at entry levels. But few offer the wide range of opportunities that exist in restaurants, where determination and skill can still trump education in getting to the top.
Most of the chefs who started as dishwashers in some of the city’s upscale restaurants have no formal culinary training but rather have spent years learning on the job. Diaz served a nearly 20-year apprenticeship.
Restaurateur Wolfgang Puck, himself an immigrant from Austria, judges the talent of his chefs by the quality of their meals.
“At the end of the day, what is on the plate is what’s important, not what passport they carry,” Puck said.
Growing up in Durango, Mexico, Diaz helped his father on the farm and his mother in the kitchen. He dried peppers, picked corn, fried fish and made tortillas.
The family had food on the table but not much else. So Diaz quit school after the sixth grade and started working. And when he turned 17, he followed a coyote through the mountains into the United States.
He didn’t speak any English, but a friend helped him find a job washing dishes at a private club on Sunset Boulevard and Western Avenue. The work was hard: long hours and endless stacks of plates. He earned $3.25 an hour.
Diaz, 43, remembers the night he decided he wanted to become a chef. The club was catering an event. The chefs wore crisp white jackets and hats. The platters of chicken cordon bleu and sole fillet looked beautiful. The customers lavished praise.
“I said, ‘Wow, I want to be like that,’ ” he said.
At home, he read cookbooks and experimented in the kitchen. At the restaurant, he watched the chefs and offered to help.
His speed and eagerness led to his first promotion to prep cook. From there, he moved up quickly -- cooking at a few upscale French restaurants in Silver Lake and finally landing as an executive chef at Nicola in 1999.
The restaurant, on South Figueroa Street, changed owners and its name to Pacific Grille but continues to attract a weekday lunch crowd of bankers, businessmen and lawyers.
“Since we have been here for so long, everyone knows Manny’s name,” said owner Aileen Watanabe.
The customers also know his dishes.
The Asian-Fusion menu on a Friday last month included a saffron shrimp risotto and miso black cod with udon noodles -- both Diaz’s creations.
But when he got a special request for his carne asada, which marinates for two days, Diaz didn’t hesitate to prepare it.
Then he stepped out of the kitchen to say hello to the customer.
“My famous carne asada,” he said, greeting her by name. “How is it?”
“It’s delicious,” she said.
“Well, you guys enjoy your food,” he said. “And save some room for dessert.”
Across town in West Hollywood, another Mexican immigrant, Rodolfo Aguado, prepared 70 pounds of gnocchi for a special event. Flour covered his jeans and black tennis shoes.
Aguado, 29, who crossed the border illegally from Mexico as a teenager and grew up believing that only women belonged in the kitchen, found his first job as a dishwasher at Campanile restaurant.
“At the beginning, I cried,” he said. “At a restaurant, the job is the worst.”
When chef Suzanne Goin opened Lucques on Melrose, she took Aguado with her and gave him a job as prep cook. Now he is the sous, or assistant, chef and Goin’s right-hand man.
“Whatever new challenge I gave him, he would really rise to the occasion and do it better than anybody else,” said Goin, who helped Aguado get a work permit. “And for being the macho guy he was, he has a very elegant touch.”
Just a few steps away, 21-year-old Gerardo Canseco washed pots, pans and silverware and occasionally looked over at Aguado.
“He gives me hope,” said Canseco, who emigrated from Oaxaca two years ago. “Rodolfo told me that if I have the desire and I go to school to learn English, I could leave from here.”
After the new year, Canseco will take the next step in following Aguado’s path. He will become a prep cook.
For Salvadoran immigrant Rene Mata, being an executive chef at Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois on Main in Santa Monica has opened him to a world he never imagined. He has cooked for Anthony Hopkins, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Geena Davis.
Mata, 51, immigrated to the United States in 1981 and started as a dishwasher at Pear Garden. He planned to return home after a few years, but then met his wife at the restaurant. Through her, Mata got a green card and later became a U.S. citizen.
In 1988, Mata was hired as a line cook at Chinois on Main and became executive chef last year. He and the previous executive chef, also Salvadoran, had redesigned the menu to include dishes such as stir-fried Sonoma lamb and sizzling Snake River wagyu steaks.
“This is, for me, a dream come true,” he said. “But I never forget where I come from. When I see people like me, I try to help.”
On a recent night after returning to his Glendora home, Diaz prepared a fresh vegetable pasta and bruschetta for his wife and two children, Denisse and Christian. The family sat beneath a painting of the Last Supper.
His wife, Veronica Tovalin-Diaz, said there are perks to being married to a chef.
“When I get home from work, dinner’s on the table,” she said.
The couple met 23 years ago when they were children in Mexico. Both got green cards after the 1986 amnesty and are now U.S. citizens.
After the meal, Diaz stood behind Denisse, 21, and helped her make dessert: banana flambe.
“Like this?” she asked as she scooped brown sugar into the pan.
“Put a little more, hija,” Diaz responded before adding the bananas and a macadamia nut liqueur.
Denisse, a student at UC Riverside, said she is trying to learn some of her dad’s dishes.
“If I don’t learn to cook, it’s not going to look so good, because he’s a chef and my mom is a great cook,” she said.
Between the restaurant and some extra consulting and catering, Diaz earns between $70,000 and $80,000 a year.
But like other immigrant chefs, Diaz has another goal.
He hopes someday to open his own restaurant, perhaps Asian fusion with a Latino touch. He even has a name picked out: Bistro La Provincia, a reminder of his childhood in Mexico.
But for now, Diaz keeps busy in the kitchen at Pacific Grille -- and at home.
As his wife and his children cleared the dinner table, Diaz leaned over the sink, picked up a sponge and began washing the dishes.