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Feature Tue Oct 25 2011

Back of the House: The Struggle to Move Up in Chicago's Segregated Kitchens

by Chaya Babu

Luis Deleón's black "Baked is Better" Costello's t-shirt and camo shorts are covered with a creased, tomato-red apron. He bends down near the back wall of the sandwich shop to tear open a cardboard FritoLay box. Two short, dark crescents of eyebrows cap his close-set eyes, which seem small on his oblong face that rounds at the jaw, meeting his thick neck at a stubbly curve. The apron-tie stretches around his waist, cutting him slightly in the soft sides of his barrel-like body.

He joins Oliver, a sandy-haired guy at the register, to share a funny story. Laughing freely, Deleón reveals a tiny black circle of a gap between his two front teeth. Even with his comfortable slouch, the rim of his baseball cap, snug on his shaved head, hovers above Oliver and the stacked chrome wire shelves that hold chips and paper-lined wicker baskets. Oliver lets out a single courteous puff of amusement. Deleón's gaze darts fleetingly over the wood-paneled barrier that separates them from the seating area. Chipped red, green, and yellow paint cover the chairs, and the beige-and-brown speckled linoleum floor is scuffed and scratched. The space is awash with late day sunlight from a bay window facing Roscoe Street. It's Deleón's first week on the job, and he's learning to build Italian Grinders and Smokin' Turks. On a white, rectangular slab behind the counter, he layers thin slices of capicola, salami, and ham with pieces of provolone onto a sub.

Costello's"The heat? Nothin'. The work? Easy," he says to me with a shrug, comparing sandwich-making to the fast-paced toil of a sweltering restaurant kitchen. He has two new jobs — this one and another in the mornings at Pret-a-Manger, a UK-based natural-ingredients sandwich chain. Both are a big step down from his recent short stints at two high-end gastropubs, Longman & Eagle and Owen & Engine. But trying to find more permanent positions at such reputable places been a rollercoaster, and the grueling work has left scars on his golden-brown hands. Plus, he's getting paid $8.50 an hour, which is more than a lot of other jobs offered. So for now, he'll take it.

Deleón is 27 and has been working at various types of restaurants since the end of high school, from fast food and casual chains like Hooters to fine-dining, such as downtown's Park Grill. His experience of always getting hired in the kitchen, usually doing food prep, echoes a larger trend in the business, one in which there is a stark split in whom employers deem suitable for the distinct roles at a restaurant. Deleón, who is half Puerto Rican and half African American, has never gotten a job in the front of the house as a waiter or bartender and at times has suffered harsh and unfair treatment in the back.

According to Behind the Kitchen Door: The Hidden Costs of Taking the Low Road in Chicagoland's Thriving Restaurant Industry, "those with living-wage jobs are disproportionately white, and those with low-wage jobs are disproportionately immigrants and people of color." The 2008 study, conducted by the Restaurant Opportunities Center, reported that 47 percent of front-of-house workers surveyed in Chicago claimed to earn a living-wage, but only 8 percent of back-of-house workers did so. The latter are also less likely to be afforded benefits such as health insurance and sick and vacation days or receive health and safety training. Yet they are subjected to a greater percentage of poor conditions and workplace injuries, such as exposure to toxic chemicals (14.1 percent), cuts (55.6 percent), and burns (63.1 percent).

Dr. Marc Bendick, Jr., one of the nation's leading expert witnesses in employment discrimination lawsuits, explains the mechanisms that hinder career success and stability for people of color and keep them on the bottom rungs of industries that thrive due to their hard labor.

"The role of unconscious bias, stereotypes, and in-group preference — that definitely applies," Bendick says. Chicago's restaurant industry, the second largest in the country to New York, brought in $12.7 billion in 2008 and employs almost 250,000 workers, but minorities rarely benefit from this prosperity. And, for them, upward mobility can be a long, uphill battle. "The key theme here is the idea of micro-inequities. Discrimination happens in tiny tiny incremental ways, like who gets picked to fill in when somebody else is sick," he says. "Pretty soon, what began as an almost unobservably small advantage has snowballed into a major difference."

After a decade in the industry, Deleón recognizes that achievement, even in the kitchen, will have to be in his own hands. He has plans to pursue a culinary degree, with faith that it will provide a way out of the cycle of ascending temporarily to prestigious restaurants only to return to lower-level jobs. "Yeah, you gotta work your way from the bottom," he says of his post-graduate expectations. "But after a while, they would see that I have dedication, heart, and especially the knowledge." Beneath his easy, laid-back nature, this inner core of determination is indiscernible.

~*~

Closing up at Costello's one night a few weeks later, Deleón wipes down stainless steel vats of soup and chili with a dingy dishrag. He's been working a lot of long days — 6am to 2:30pm at Pret-a-Manger in the Loop, then booking it north and across town to Costello's for a 4-to-8pm shift. But these jobs are just until he starts classes at Washburne Culinary Institute. "This isn't something I'm trying to do," he clarifies. "I need a little extra dough for bills, Christmas, and to buy a car. Nothing special, just a little shitbox to get me through the next few months."

Outside, quick, cool eddies of September air sweep between us. Driving home, we go down Damen and turn right onto Diversey. "This place used to be real buck; it was really poppin'," Deleón says, alluding to the gang violence and drugs that pervaded the surrounding streets throughout his upbringing. He points out a cluster of drab, discolored brick buildings and tells me that he lived there as a child, in a housing project tucked neatly between the affluent West Lakeview community and the rapidly flourishing Logan Square.

Just across the river, on Campbell, Deleón lowers himself onto the front stoop of the ivory duplex where he lives with his family. "I need to just chill for a second," he says, balancing a cigarette between his fingers. Suddenly he looks older, his blithe, boyish demeanor melting away while he grows reflective. He's says the daily grind of waking up at 4:30am sucks, but you can't see the tired in him, just calm as he exhales, blowing long, silvery swells of smoke from his lips. "I know that working at restaurants like I am now isn't the most respectable thing and I want to do more," he says, staring straight ahead. "But I'm doing well considering everything, you know. My brother too. We ain't have any kids. We don't do drugs. We work. That's better than you can say for a lot of our friends and cousins."

This is his quiet acknowledgement of his less-than-privileged circumstances. His father, a Puerto Rican immigrant with poor English, lacks a high school diploma and has been collecting disability benefits since a factory injury 21 years ago. His mother has a partial college education and administers market research surveys over the phone. In her eyes, further schooling is essential for both her sons, but she never wanted to push them into anything. But when she found out that Deleón, whom she affectionately calls Luisito, got a $7,500 scholarship, she was elated. "My God, I was like 'Woooo!' I jumped up, I gave him a hug!" she says. "This a huge step. A huge step."

~*~

Longman & Eagle, where Deleón worked briefly during its opening, is a stylish gastropub just blocks from his Campbell Street home. On the corner of Kedzie and Scubert, it faces an El station and is in a row of other businesses: a liquor store, a Spanish tapas bar, a taco joint, and an old law office that looks ripe for transformation into a hip café or boutique. Above the restaurant's black wooden door hangs a heavy, tarnished metal disc with a bold "&" sign cut through it.

As diners trickle in, the exposed brick interior grows warm with chatter, the smell of maple-braised pork and beef short rib, and the dim glow from orange-rusted overhead lamps. The patrons are young, clad in heather-grey thermals and Chuck Taylors, thick-rimmed glasses and fedoras. There is a seamlessness between them and the staff — scruffy-looking servers in plaid shirts with tousled curls, a slender hostess with leather riding boots and straight chocolate hair down her back, and the bearded cooks in the kitchen, visible from the dining area. Every few minutes, a short man with a black crew cut and leathery, honey-colored skin steps away from his silent post next to the vintage Wurlitzer jukebox to remove empty plates from tables. Aside from him, everyone is white.

In the cramped kitchen, Wilson Bauer yells over his shoulder, "Scallop, foie gras, meatballs, pork cheek!" Bauer is the sous chef at Longman & Eagle. His coarse, auburn hair is thin on top but heavy on his cheeks and chin, and small-framed glasses shield his cornflower blue eyes. A digital thermometer is clipped to his breast pocket like a pen. It's hectic and hot, and Bauer's face shines with sweat. Under his chef's coat, two little triangles of a red tattoo, almost like devil horns, peek out from behind the white collar lapels. He grates roasted hazelnuts onto warm gruyere donuts. In the brief lulls between orders, he jokes around with the line cooks, Dane, Blake and Austin. All of them have wiry brown or gold facial hair, except Austin. The manager, a wide-eyed young woman with high, creamy cheekbones, teases him from over the counter, "You're like my boyfriend — even if he tries, he can only grow a Mexi-stache."

On a quiet afternoon, Bauer recounts his path to becoming a 26-year-old sous chef at one of Chicago's Michelin-rated hot spots. In high school, he already knew he loved to cook and was entering culinary competitions. Though he knew that he could grow to be a chef through on-the-job training, his mother insisted that he pursue at a least a two-year culinary degree, which Bauer now regards as a waste of time. He attributes his success to passion and diligence but also, largely, to networking. "You gotta get in with a chef and work hard for him," he says.

At 18, Bauer began working when he wasn't in class, washing dishes at a place called Blue Water Bistro in Seattle. Bauer recalls a chef there: "He was like, 'What are you doing in the dish pit? Come on the line. Let me teach you how to cook.'" This fortuitous moment early in his career was certainly a catalyst in setting him on his trajectory, but this likely would have happened at some point, if not at Blue Water and if not with that chef. "I mean, I don't want to sound stereotypical, but I was a white kid... washing dishes." After that, at a restaurant called Paragon, he met Jared Wentworth, now executive chef of Longman & Eagle. Wentworth took Bauer under his wing, bringing the aspiring young cook along with him while hopping around between restaurant gigs in Seattle and finally inviting Bauer to come along to Chicago when opening Longman in January 2010.

Mark Bendick refers to Bauer's bit of beginner's luck as the tap-on-the-shoulder system. "You can have two people standing side by side washing dishes, and who gets tapped on the shoulder to become an apprentice and start in an upward mobility position?" Bendick posits. "It's the white guy. That happens all the time."

As sous chef, Bauer manages the cooks and the rest of the back-of-the-house staff, and he hires and fires people. Straining to remember Deleón, he inhales, leans back in one of the mismatched espresso wood chairs, and turns his head to the side. "You said Delgado, right?" I correct him; he searches his memory and eases back to the table. "I remember him completely now," he says. "I really wanted to hire him. He was a good kid." Deleón had applied for a server position but says he was turned down by the manager at the time due to lack of experience. According to Bauer, though, the waiters are friends of the management and many are unqualified or inefficient. Deleón then took a temporary dishwashing-bussing job with the hope that something permanent would open up, but it never did. There were people who would work the same position for less money. "All my guys downstairs right now washing dishes, they're totally illegal," Bauer says frankly.

Though difficult, he believes that building a solid relationship with a chef is more valuable and better instruction than many culinary programs. The guys below him agree. Dane Harris, one of the line cooks, says everyone wants to move up but that school is the wrong way to do it. "Especially if you're gonna get an associate's from some community college," he says. He sprinkles rosemary into a bronze skillet of wild boar sloppy joes. "It's about connections. This is where it's at." And he gestures with his free hand to the tight, food-splattered square around him.

~*~

Deleón pulls the hood of his black sweatshirt over the top of his head. It's a cold, overcast Wednesday morning at 8am, and we're heading down to the Washburne campus in Englewood, on Chicago's South Side. He has a meeting with Rhonda Purwin, the enrollment director, to discuss registration logistics. Veering off the exit ramp at 63rd Street, we follow the arc of the rusty beige El track suspended above, slicing the steely grey sky in two. The support beams stand firmly in parched, scraggly grass. On the lane divider, two men stand near a rickety table with a neon green poster that reads "KRISPY KREME" in marker.

Kennedy-King College, which Washburne is a part of, relocated five years ago from just a few blocks away, and is a clean, russet brick structure amidst dilapidated buildings and vast weed-filled lots. As we search for parking, the streets become residential and increasingly haggard. Windows and doors are boarded up. Glass panes are broken, and rotting wood banisters collapse inward. The area is desolate except for a few men in big, fur-lined leather jackets standing idle on a corner, looking at their ashy breath on the morning air. "Let's turn back around. Someone might try to sell us crack or something here," Deleón says, noting our decrepit surroundings. The car bumps along on the cracked and potted pavement. There are open spots on Union Avenue on the opposite side of the school.

Inside, light from the floor-to-ceiling windows flood the wide, open hallways and bounce off the white floor and walls. In an upstairs office, Rhonda Purwin, a middle-aged white woman, sets paperwork down on the table in front of Deleón. He sifts through the sheets as Purwin talks rapidly about math and English placement exams, student ID numbers, and program costs.

"Are you eligible for financial aid?" Purwin asks abruptly. "Well..." Deleón hesitates, uncertain. "How would that work since I won the money and everything? I wouldn't have to apply for financial aid?"

"Tell me again. You won the money? You have to remind me." She's not impatient as much as accustomed to this routine.

"Yeah, I'm sorry. I won the money... the grant... for Diageo... 'We Are The Future.'"

"OK. Well you're still going to want to apply for financial aid because Diageo is $7,500. And if you're going to do the whole associate's degree, it's going to be $15,000. So you're still going to want that."

Deleón pauses. He expected the scholarship to cover all or most of the tuition. He's a little worried, but quickly recovers from the shock of new information. "Oh, OK. I see."

Deleón takes a tour of the kitchens downstairs. The students in the classes he observes are mostly black and Latino with a few Asians and one white woman. Washburne's state-of-the-art facilities, the newest in the city, have burnished stainless steel and glossy-tiled kitchens. A young black woman in the pastry section braids fat ropes of dough on one of the massive islands. Over in culinary, some students are tasting fresh herbs while others strain meats. All of them have on white, double-breasted chef coats, black-and-white houndstooth pants, and black hats.

Deleón tries a piece of chocolate sugar brioche just out of the oven. "I'm excited. I'm pumped up. I'm ready to start," he says. He's OK with the cost of the program because the education is important to him. "I'll figure it out. I'll still have the Costello's job in the evening and... I'ma do what I gotta do."

~*~

Four days later, Deleón gets fired from Costello's for being late, without any prior warnings or complaints. He seems confused but also not that bothered. "It felt like a relief in a way. I felt bad, I was like, 'Man, this is how y'all are doing me?' But I can finally just be home a little, like right now." It's a Tuesday evening, and he's sitting on the couch wearing plaid pajama pants and a Blackhawks t-shirt, watching the news with the lights out.

On the coffee table, Herbert Asbury's The Gangs of Chicago rests next to a small black and silver photo album. In it are pictures of Deleón in a pale blue cap and gown on the day of his high school graduation. He looks younger, exuberant, carefree. "I had my own agenda. I was the funny guy, a wise guy." It was then, working after school at Wendy's, that he started in the industry, content with a job and not yet concerned with a career. Eight years later, his time in kitchens has altered his outlook drastically. Part of his scholarship application essay reads:

i have paid my dues by putting up with lazy employees, managers, getting hours cut because business is slow due to the economy or even working 50 hours a week to put food in my fridge and keep the bills paid for my parents... i am not only person struggling in america right now but i have the will to do something about and i won't sit back and watch and complain i will fight till my life is over... with the training and education, I will be unstoppable.

His dream is to start a business of his own and he's ready for Washburne to give him the skills for that. He has of course seen owners, head chefs, and managers who have made it far with no formal schooling, but, he says, "They're always white." He trusts that big things will happen for him one day, even if it's after 10 more years of being a line cook.

~*~

Chaya Babu is a freelance journalist and recent graduate of the Medill School of Journalism. She is currently living in Mumbai, India.

Costello's photo by Allison Felus, used under Creative Commons license.

This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.

 

Megan / October 25, 2011 10:54 AM

Thank you for this thoughtful piece.

Deepak / October 25, 2011 3:35 PM

Excellent piece on the plight of immigrants in the restaurant industry which I'm sure can be translated to many other fields as well. The thought, feeling, and imagary that the Ms. Babu captures in this piece really makes you feel as if you have personally met Deleon.

Arati / October 25, 2011 3:51 PM

This is a very poignant piece that highlights the issue of micro-inequities in the restaurant industry. These inequities are prevalent in all industries and unless we expose them to the light, they will continue to propagate the cycle of poverty that exists for minorities and immigrants.

Arun / October 27, 2011 6:51 AM

Excellent, well-written piece that is a poignant reminder of the racial inequalities that continue to exist. We all need to support the Deleons around us, and I wish him the best success.

uy / October 27, 2011 1:29 PM

Another reason to *not* visit Longman and Eagle.

Sumanth / October 29, 2011 5:51 PM

A very thoughtful piece that illuminates some of the specific challenges that minorities and immigrants face in attempting to advance their lives. Some of those specifics include: 1) disadvantages in forming the types of connections that further most peoples' careers, 2) unfavorable double standards in hiring policies for better jobs (in this case, client engaging positions like servers or bartenders) and 3) weaker job security. The message in the piece is very insightful. Moreover, the illustrations of Deleon's struggles forces a reader to get emotionally involved in his life ... I thoroughly enjoyed the piece!

R / October 31, 2011 12:19 AM

This "tap on the shoulder" concept really resonated with me. This happens not only with the minorities working in restaurants, this also happens among gender as well. It's tragic. A lot of peoples' potential are restricted and muffled because of appearances.

I hope Deleon gets where he wants to be.

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