A roundup of views to commemorate Hispanic Heritage Month.
By Chris Mohney
In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Zagat Stories asked six Latinx chefs from across the United States about their experiences being Hispanic in the restaurant industry, how it has shaped them, and what needs work. Here’s a collection of what they’re thinking and saying.
“Of course I’ve been bullied, stereotyped, and harassed in the kitchen. But once I understood my power, everything changed. I was the only person in many kitchens that could speak both Spanish and English. I can speak to my line cooks and prep cooks and lovingly to my dishwasher in Spanish, and communicate with my head chef in English. I can be a voice to my Latinx community and try to have a fairer, better kitchen, and create a less toxic environment. I saw myself as a United Nations sort of person between my workers and my bosses—and the kitchens I was in changed for the better.”
—Grace Ramirez: All Latinx Workers Are Essential
“Black, Brown, and Indigenous folx are ignored from the conversation. We become a hashtag—it’s trendy to look out for us, but people forget. It’s important in the current industry that we accept ourselves for who we are and unapologetically be ourselves in all facets. In the restaurant industry, it boils down to being seen. The first instant of ‘feeling seen’ was when chocolatier Jacques Torres promoted me to pastry sous chef. I am Dominican from the Bronx. There are a lot of assumptions made about you when you come from the Bronx. Stereotypes are a burden—people don’t give you the chance to explain yourself. They just assume that I am ‘something’ with negative connotations. You wouldn’t know I am into art and art history. I am well-traveled. I am not just a product of the inner city.”
—Paola Velez: We Need To Rebuild The Restaurant Industry
“I’ve definitely been told to dumb down Mexican food—that Mexican food was ‘too much.’ But now, when I write menus, I refuse to use French, Castellano, or English terminology to describe Mexican food, because we already have the terminology in our own language. People say they like Mexican food, but they don’t know what Mexican food is. All they know is tacos, burritos, and enchiladas. There is so much more, like delicious moronga, which is blood sausage. I was tired of people telling me ‘no’ so often, or what to do with Mexican food, so I opened my own restaurant. I made my own ‘yes.'”
—Diana Dávila: Making Space For Latinx Success In Restaurant Kitchens
“I’ve seen a lot of Hispanic kitchen workers primarily as dishwashers, prep cooks, and so on. I’ve always tried to promote from within to get them into sous and executive chef positions as their skills grow. In the kitchen, we’re all on the line together. I think the biggest thing might be that we can communicate really efficiently. Everyone learns Spanish on the line. I would love to see more Hispanic chefs in leadership positions in the kitchen and restaurant industry in general.”
—Jose Garces: The Blessing Of Hispanic Visibility
“Having children actually brought out cultural connections I was barely even aware of. You grow up Peruvian, and you just kinda are Peruvian. My first son was born right before Llama Inn was created, and it made me so proud that he could come and eat what I ate growing up. Passing that on feels powerful and important.”
—Erik Ramirez: Food Is The Language Of Culture
“When my mom first came into the New York dining scene in the 80s and 90s, the knowledge about Mexican food was fairly limited, and she became such a beacon for information and celebration of Mexican cuisine. I think that humble dishes like tacos and burritos are some of the biggest staples that have been embraced, but I also see such a love for things like ceviche, mole, and homemade sauces that really take a lot of finesse and a deep understanding of ingredients and flavors. We need to keep sharing our culture and legacy through food and honoring our heritage. As we learn more about cultures through food, we all learn to expand our palates and perspective, and we learn to appreciate the nuances.”
—Aáron Sánchez: My Mom Taught Me Everything About Hispanic Representation