“Immigrants are good for our kitchens and for our country.”
Ry Cooder and Harry Dean Stanton, Across The Borderline
“Le disparé cinco veces, por accidente.”
Up at four a.m., on La Brea by 5:30—the clock in front of the bank already reads 78 degrees—I’m in the kitchen at 6:00, with enough time to make a quick espresso before the boys arrive. If I smoked, I would lean against the dumpster in the alley and have a cigarette. Instead I’ll sit on pastry counter and enjoy the quiet before the chaos begins. It will be the last time I sit until dinner service is underway.
“Hola, Raul. ¿Como esta?” My ally, the dignified, solemn-faced dishwasher is always first in. He owned a small business in Peru but lost everything during the last military coup and came to this country to start over. He examines the kitchen to spot anything the night guys missed and walks through the back door into the alley, ready to unload the produce truck. His nephew, Luis the pot washer, walks in behind him, loosens the stacks of kitchen towels just delivered by the laundry and portions out twelve for each station. Raul’s wife Lupe, the shy, sturdy pastry prep, saves two towels from her dole and hides the rest in a “Lard” container.
Raul, Luis, and I head for the walk-in to plan the day. Everything is dragged out, opened, sniffed, and either thrown away or put on someone’s prep list to add to the day’s revenue. Luis dips the string mop in hot soapy water, wrings it out and swabs the walk-in floor, adding a pine-scented, hospital smell to the chlorine odor of fish a day too old—no money there.
By this time Manuel, the tall, surly King of Prep and his crew of three—all from a small town in Oaxaca—are here. They find a narco station on the battered boom box, turn it up to #Pain, unwrap their stilettos from clean kitchen towels, and check their eight-inch prep list. The vegetables are stacked and waiting in the alley, so they head out to distribute the sacks and boxes to the prep sinks, the pantry, the walk-in, and the upstairs storeroom. The exotics—truffles, stinky cheese, French strawberries, chanterelles—are carefully boxed and set by Chef’s office door.
I argue with the produce guy about the limp green beans and overripe tomatoes, bringing in Raul when I need help with my Spanish, sending back the slippery oyster mushrooms and moldy raspberries. “I have choices, you know, I could call Frank’s.” An empty threat—we all know that’s not an option.
The meat order arrives—again Raul and I check each item, bartering, badgering, and rejecting. Today’s meat order, which includes a baby goat—one of Dennis’s night specials, three boxes of chickens, two boxes of ducks, three legs of lamb, four untrimmed tenderloins, a side of pork, cryovaced skirt steaks, and chuck roasts for grinding, is iced and stacked by the butcher’s station. The bussers, one from Honduras and two from Mexico City, trickle in, start the morning coffee, and fill the silverware tubs with hot, soapy water.
Sweet-faced Jose, the second dishwasher, joins the others in the alley unpacking vegetables and distributing the meat order. His mother Maria, the pastry assistant, checks yesterday’s pastries deciding which to toss, which to put on the pass for the staff, and which to sell. Last year she paid a coyote $2000 to smuggle her and her son into San Diego, then to LA where she got a green card from her brother, the butcher, and replaced Flora who had been deported.
The butcher—speaking of the butcher, where’s the kitchen’s rock, Jon Pierre? He’s always here by 8:00 with his two guys and it’s already 8:30. My world shudders.
At 10:00 the kitchen phone rings. Manuel answers and hands it to me.
“Jon Pierre, donde?”
Manuel translates, “There was a fight last night in my backyard. I shot him five times, by accident. I’m on my way to El Salvador. Lo siento. I’ll try to call when I get there. Tell Maria.”
I look at the meat stacked by the butcher block and know that it will be a long day for both of us.
When it was Raul’s turn to prepare family meal, if we were lucky he would make his mother’s Sopa de Guajillo. The following recipe is an approximation.
Sopa de Guajillo
1 (2-3 lb) whole chicken, a chicken cut into pieces, or the chicken removed from one roasted or poached whole chicken
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic
Water to cover
1 cup water
3 guajillo chilies, deveined and deseeded (these chiles are not so hot)
2-3 arbol chilies, deveined and deseeded (be careful, these are very hot)
2 Roma tomatoes, peeled and diced
3 tomatillos, husks peeled off and chopped
1/2 cup diced onion
1/2 teaspoon cumin
11⁄2 tsp salt (or to taste)
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 zucchini, diced
1 cup green beans, cut in 1/2″ pieces
2 cups chicken stock
queso fresco, crumbled
Place whole chicken or chicken pieces, onions, and garlic in a large pot or Dutch oven. Cover with water or chicken stock and bring to a boil, turn down to a slow simmer and cook until chicken is done–30 to 45 minutes. Remove chicken from pot, cool, and take chicken from bones. Strain stock.
In a small sauce pan, bring water to a boil and drop in chilies. Remove pan from heat and let sit for chiles to soften. When softened, drain off cooking liquid from chilies and add chilies along with tomatillos, tomatoes, onion, garlic, cumin seed and salt to blender with 1/2 cup chicken stock and blend well. Set aside.
In Dutch oven, add 1 Tbs. oil and heat to medium high. Pour in blended salsa and fry briefly. Add chicken stock. Reduce to medium heat and add vegetables. Simmer for 15-20 minutes.
Add cooked chicken pieces, simmer for 10 minutes. Add more chicken broth if necessary. Taste for seasoning and garnish with chopped cilantro, squeezed lime wedges, Mexican crema or sour cream and queso fresco. Serve with warm tortillas and a side of beans. Yield: 6-8 portions