Dominican-born Al Gomez, 35, came to the United States when he was 15 years old. He became an American citizen and worked his way up in kitchens to become a sous-chef with the Village Social Group in Westchester County, New York. When the Group temporarily closed its doors at the beginning of the pandemic, Gomez spent a year in a suburb of Raleigh, North Carolina, as a sous-chef at an Italian restaurant. He is slated to return to the Village Social Group as an executive chef. In this edition of Voices In Food, he looks both back and forward at the role of Latinx workers in the restaurant industry.
I started working in a restaurant as a dishwasher at the age of 16. At that time, I didn’t have food or restaurants on my mind, but I was going to high school in the Bronx and it was one of the worst high schools there. I knew going to that school was going to be bad for me.
My brother was a chef and got me a job as a dishwasher. After three months, I moved onto the line as a cook. I started reading my brother’s cookbooks at home and familiarized myself with ingredients and took off from there. That was my introduction to the kitchen. I thought I was going to be a graphic designer, but food became my creative outlet. Cooking wasn’t my intention, but it became my lifestyle.
“A reporter wanted the name of the person who made the restaurant’s tuna tartare, which was me. The restaurant wouldn’t share my name. Although it was around 15 years ago, I’ve never forgotten about that moment.”
In the kitchen I met a lot of people whose path was like mine — the kitchen becomes your community. Being busy is good when you don’t have your family in the same country. Kitchens are traditionally composed of immigrants doing the hard work in the trenches. Working in the kitchen isn’t sustainable for people who don’t want to work weekends and holidays; they want to have a “normal” life.
I spent over two years in a restaurant in Larchmont, New York, becoming one of the best cooks in the kitchen. One day a reporter wanted the name of the person who made the restaurant’s tuna tartare, which was me. The restaurant wouldn’t share my name. Although it was around 15 years ago, I’ve never forgotten about that moment ― but I have a thick skin and kept working.
From there I got into a partnership in a pizzeria, then to the Inn at Pound Ridge (a Jean-Georges restaurant) and to Fortina in Armonk, New York, for a number of years. I realized when you work for a highly acclaimed name, you’re working for a brand, and cooks don’t get credit ― you have to be willing to put your own ego aside. I think chefs would get better production from their staff if they treat them more as members of a team.
When I moved to the Village Social Group, I got a push from [co-founder Mogan Anthony], who is also an immigrant. Even though we are from different parts of the world, we share similar stories, and there was an understanding of each other’s struggles. If you don’t get pulled up by somebody else with more power, the talent becomes stagnant as you’re not being challenged. There’s still only a handful of Hispanic chefs with their faces on magazines or their names in headlines.
The issue of Hispanic immigrants working in kitchens is a complex one. You find a lot of immigrants who are undocumented and have no choice in what type of jobs they have, or the salaries they earn. But you also have American citizens working alongside them, getting the same minimum-wage paycheck. Kitchen labor has not traditionally been considered a profession to be proud of and rewarded in the United States, unlike such countries as France and Italy.
When the local, farm-to-table movement took off, it started to highlight the value of talent in the kitchen. Unfortunately, with the rise of cooking shows and competitions on TV, the path to become a famous chef is built on somewhat of a lie — people think it’s pretty and fun, but don’t see the years it takes to reach that level. In reality, the goal for many chefs is to work their way out of the kitchen. That becomes more common as people try to balance work and home life. As my personal life has changed, I see my 6-year-old son growing up, and I ask myself, “What am I going to do to be there for him?”
“If you don’t get pulled up by somebody else with more power, your talent becomes stagnant as you’re not being challenged. There’s still only a handful of Hispanic chefs with their faces on magazines or their names in headlines.”
I do think the pandemic is going to bring about changes — I think the value and appreciation of those in the kitchen will start being reflected through income and benefits. The issue of staffing is real, as people stepped away from kitchen work and many aren’t returning. Last year I had to work to support my family. I did notice it was a different time in the kitchen. With the demand for cooks, I saw a less competitive atmosphere among the kitchen staff; I hope that change continues.
What I’m seeing now in Westchester is a new generation of Latinos coming up. I think it’s slowly becoming an example of history repeating itself — Latinos are following other immigrant populations who have worked their way up through the kitchen. The third-generation Latinos have more access to connections, are more acclimated to the culture, and they’re opening up their own restaurants. It’s personally important to me to take a leadership position in our community and to mentor anyone who ever seeks my help.
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