While migrants from all over the world have been essential to Los Angeles’ food industry, they have remained largely behind the scenes. Walk into the kitchen of most L.A. restaurants, whether it’s a greasy corner burger joint or slick Korean restaurant, chances are you’ll find a small army of Mexican or Central American cooks running the grills, chopping the vegetables, and washing the dishes. They’ll probably be unloading the produce on the docks and even driving the trucks that deliver it to the restaurant. But they have also quietly influenced the palates of Angeleno foodies by lending their own cooking styles and borrowing across cultures. Today, the children of immigrants are drawing from their culinary traditions to create innovative dishes and restaurant models and claiming their new place as drivers of L.A.’s cutting-edge food scene.
An essential part of life, food is ultimately shaped by culture and human need as well as economic demands of a society. It is sheer necessity that has driven immigrants from the entire world into U.S. kitchens and formed the backbone of America’s food and restaurant industry. And in truth, the food industry needs immigrants as much as immigrants need it. It requires workers to endure and thrive under demanding conditions that most people are simply not willing to withstand.
“Immigrants don’t just get up and leave everything they know and love just because,” states writer, professor, and L.A. native Ruben Martinez. “Waves of migration that arrived here correspond to historical moments of great upheaval. So it's food that comes out of human history, particularly from the East, from Asia, and from the South, from Latin America,” notes Martinez. The 1960s and 1970s were landmark decades in the formation of the city’s ethnic composition with the mass influx of refugees of American wars in Korea and Vietnam as well as political upheaval and genocide in other Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia. In Latin America, the fires of civil war heavily fueled and fanned by the U.S. war on drugs sent millions of Central Americans fleeing for their lives to the U.S. through the 1980s. Waves of immigrants flooded across the U.S.-Mexico border following Mexico’s disastrous economic crash and increased privatization that further disenfranchised the poor and working class.
With immigrants’ arrival to L.A.’s urban centers, historical, ethnic enclaves burgeoned into neighborhoods that butted up against each other, creating multi-ethnic interstices and fertile ground for cultural cross hybridization. Pico Union, for example, is densely layered with the presence of Central American migrants that have mashed up against remnants of old Jewish American establishments. With a good appetite, you can grab a pupusa laden with loroco and crema Salvadorena on your way to Langer’s for chopped liver and pastrami. This neighborhood runs into the very metropolitan Koreatown where you’ll find the best Korean barbecue and soju bars and unexpectedly, run into the king of Oaxacan restaurants in L.A., Guelaguetza.
These immigrants are leading food innovation by infusing traditional flavors and techniques into modern dishes, effectively re-shaping L.A.’s current and future palate. “We’re finding the bounty we have here and integrating it into the food and flavor profile of our memories, growing up eating Filipino food,” says Chase Valencia of LASA.
Jorge Dugal, kitchen manager at Providence in Hollywood, tried to recreate his grandmother’s salsa recipe from his native Guatemala. Chirmol, a Central American salsa made of grilled chiles and tomatoes, caught the attention of Providence’s award-winning chef Michael Cimarusti who then asked Jorge to develop a shrimp dish for the salsa. Dugal’s creation now forms part of the Providence menu, and his sharp eye for detail has taken him from dishwasher to manager of one of L.A.’s most prominent restaurants. It’s a long way from his hometown which he escaped from over 11 years ago seeking refuge from the gang violence that has ravaged much of Central America and prompted recent waves of immigration, including an unprecedented number of unaccompanied minors.
Restaurants have come to represent an opportunity to realize the American Dream where any hard worker can climb from the bottom rungs of society and work their way up. An industrious dishwasher or table busser can learn the ropes of a professional kitchen and eventually run a business of their own.
Yet as many immigrants have known for generations, despite skill and hard work, whether it is in growing and harvesting produce, or in preparing it for exquisite dishes, many remain bound to poverty and hardship. For most Americans, in fact, economic mobility has become increasingly difficult, if not near impossible as the wealth gap widens between the upper and lower economic brackets. A study published by the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality reports that as the U.S.’s decline in economic mobility becomes more pronounced, it is more on par with the mobility of developing countries such as Peru, South Africa, and Brazil. “The U.S. sits... among a band of countries with relatively low intergenerational mobility, where 40 to 50 percent of income inequality is passed on across the generations. As many have pointed out, the American Dream is evidently more likely to be found on the other side of the Atlantic,” it states.
Nonetheless, restaurant work is where many newcomers find their first opportunity for consistent employment. “It’s really hard work. It’s a profession learned out of necessity,” says Manuel Villanueva, an organizer for the Restaurant Opportunity Center of Los Angeles. Before becoming an organizer, Villanueva was also a restaurant worker. “I felt I was really good at it,” he says, and adds that though immigrants land in the restaurant industry with no experience they quickly learn the skills of the profession.
However, Villanueva notes that restaurants will often hire people of color, undocumented immigrants in particular, because they know they can get away with underpaying and overworking them. “Workers face sexual harassment, wage theft, discrimination. If they are undocumented, they threaten to call immigration services if they complain.”
Restaurant work is not for the faint-hearted. Not only is it hard work, but it is also always vulnerable to quickly shifting food trends and the capricious nature of an increasingly interwoven world economy. That’s why when the devastation of the 2008 U.S. economic crash and the ensuing recession swept over L.A.’s restaurants, it was the resilience of food workers, particularly of immigrants that helped the restaurants weather the storm and emerge anew.
The recent economic recession became a moment of reckoning, a time for many to get in touch with values that would help them survive financial disaster. Since then, restaurateurs have been forced rethink their industry in all aspects, from the ground to the plate and beyond. From the sourcing of food (where and how it is produced) and minimizing waste, to the wages of restaurant workers, to the experiential aspects of eating, L.A.’s food scene has reinvented itself toward the holistic. No longer just a marker of economic exclusivity and culture panache, L.A.’s restaurants are making sustainability their mantra while turning to ethnic cuisines, many of which have been strongly shaped by hard times.
L.A.’s immigrant communities are testaments to survival as they hold fast to traditions and values that have historically helped them weather severe socio-economic and political hardship in their home countries, as well in the U.S.
Today, new generations, comprised largely by the children of immigrants, are honoring the culinary traditions of their families’ culture as well as their values, and giving them new life in uniquely Californian cuisines. Charles Olalia of Ricebar has found that by paying attention to the minute details of certain food staples, like longanisa, a Filipino sausage, he can capture the flavors that immigrants and their children are most comforted by.
For Isa Fabro, food became her link to her Filipino culture. Though she didn’t grow up speaking Tagalog or even cooking much Filipino food herself, eventually, she found her way back through traditional pastries, which she reinvented by fusing them with other Pacific Islander deserts. Most importantly she adds, that despite re-invention Filipino American food remains authentic if it honors Filipino culture's key values -- love, hospitality and generosity.
“There’s going to be a whole wave of second generation restaurateurs coming into food where their parents started, seeing potential in food as a creative outlet as well as financially lucrative,” says scholar and writer, Oliver Wang.
It is said that tongues and ears not introduced to certain flavors and sounds from a very young age, do not develop the ability to detect or reproduce them. Tonal languages of Mixtec and Vietnamese are incredibly difficult for non-tonal speakers to grasp, while certain pungent flavors in Indian or Chinese foods register null in Western palates.
Today we see energetic culinary cross-pollination that takes place between high and low brow cuisine, bringing a highly technical cooking to street food and vice versa as well as between cultures. It’s driven by younger generations equipped with the language, cultural know-how, and education that venture beyond the limits of their ethnic community and are eager to express their own unique styles.
However, as a plethora of cultures come together in cities like Los Angeles, there is an increased desire to translate and interpret these sensory “blind spots” for one another and for ourselves. Collectively we can serve each other as ears and eyes that enrich and expand our experience of the world so long as we are willing to recognize the inextricable intimacy we already and have always shared as consumers and producers, as members of a social organism of humankind.
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