By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Our nation has never wavered on this iconic phrase from the Emma Lazarus poem, “The New Colossus,” emblazoned at the foot of the Statue of Liberty.
The nation’s next presidential inauguration on Friday, Jan. 20, will for many reopen some wounds first inflicted on Nov. 8—wounds that for some have probably not healed yet.
We all have our opinions and most of us have one or two issues that are close to our lives and emotions, usually when we have some skin in the game. As a chef, I definitely have some crispy fried, tasty skin in this game.
I bet we’d all agree that no president to date has had a more rigid stance on immigration than Donald Trump, specifically immigration from our southern neighbors. America is no stranger to Mexican immigration. In fact, from 1900 to 1930, we recruited cheap labor from Mexico heavily, as we all but banished Japanese and Chinese workers from our labor force.
I have traveled through my fair share of this great country and I don’t know if there is any state more “American” than Texas. They truly bleed red, white and blue. Yet walk through most kitchens or hotels in the Lone Star State, and you’ll find that the lion’s share of staff was born under a green, white and red flag.
So here’s the conundrum we face: Given that a restaurant makes, on average, five cents on the dollar, the lower wages that many Hispanic immigrants will accept create the margins necessary for many restaurants to succeed.
Many young people today simply aren’t interested in work in a real kitchen, an opinion I learned from a conversation I had with Iron Chef Cat Cora over a year ago, and one that I share. We both agreed that, much like idolizing athletes, today’s youth would rather leapfrog culinary school and avoid cutting their teeth in the industry to build a career as a chef, and instead become an instant sensation on food TV.
That’s where immigration comes in.
If there’s one thing I’ve come to experience as universal in restaurants across America, it’s this: an underbelly of Hispanic workers in hotels and kitchens. I do not intend the term “underbelly” to be derogatory in any way, quite the opposite. In echoing Chef Anthony Bourdain’s subtitle of his first book, “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly,” those housekeeping and kitchen roles are the cornerstone of any establishment.
No matter the ethnicity of the restaurant, many of its kitchen workers are Hispanic in larger metropolitan areas. The chef may be of the same ethnicity as the food he features, but most of the worker bees are Hispanic, a fact that I’ve witnessed and lived for three decades in this business.
Trump has appeared to ease slightly on his south-of-the-border immigration stance. He obviously dines out and travels extensively. Given that no less than nine restaurants pay him rent, perhaps someone on his team walked him through one of his own kitchens or hotel hallways.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.