Never Give Up, Never Surrender
Chef Aaron Hoskins on fighting for your restaurant family.
January 31, 2017
On Friday, January 27th, I spent a solid hour in tears. I would imagine many of us have done this over the last week or two.
That was the day our President outlined a ban on immigrants with valid visas and refugees from seven countries in the Middle East and Africa. (Remember that?) Around 7 pm, I took a break from prepping and retreated to the back office at Birds & Bubbles, isolated from the rest of the building, and, overwhelmed with helplessness and fear, just fucking cried. I couldn’t take it anymore.
We employ five West African immigrants. All are Muslim. All have valid visas and have lived in the United States for various amounts of time. These men are some of the hardest working, most loyal employees I’ve ever had. They make me a better chef. They make me a better person. During the days and weeks of service where I often feel like I might start drowning, these guys have been my lifeline. Now, watching this executive order directly aimed at these men and their families unfold, I’d had enough.
Something comes into view very quickly when you enter management in a restaurant: hiring good people is hard. You can always find a decent cook, but often they steal your favorite knife, or don’t show up for a brunch shift. Sometimes they just take another job and don’t tell you. They’ll put that single sheet of plastic wrap over the mise on their station instead of wrapping each 9-pan individually to save three minutes at the end of the night. When they disappear one day, you shrug and move on.
But when you find good people, it sustains you. It lets you ease off the gas and find the time and energy to reinvest in those around you. That’s the one thing I’ve learned in this business, that I never expected to know so intimately: the people that work for you are everything.
I spent years trying to make and enforce a self-imposed divide between the people that worked for me and myself. To a degree, that divide still exists — it has to — but I’ve just found a way to build a door in that wall. Sometimes you have to walk through that door to the other side; sometimes you have to open that door and let others in. It’s incredibly hard to get people to care about what you do and why you do it if they don’t give a shit about you.
I’ve learned all of this because of them.
Elie, who started as a prep cook shortly after Birds & Bubbles opened, is now working his way into the chef de cuisine role. He’s been the backbone of our restaurant for the last year and cares about it, and us, like family. As a teenager, he worked in the gold mines in his town, Burkina Faso, because it was the best way to make enough money to help his family. He now helps support his family back in Africa with the paycheck he earns from us, which puts his sister through school. He’s 25. I often think about how much more of a man he is now, at that age, than I maybe will ever be.
Zak started as a porter, and after moving to garde manger, left for three months to visit his family back home. He came back with a handmade apron for Sarah [Simmons, co-owner of Birds & Bubbles] in hand, excited and hopeful about getting his job back. Now he can crush sauté, solo, on a busy night. He takes classes two days a week and works hard for us the other five.
Ibrahim was the best porter I’d ever seen, and now he's one of the best food runner and bussers I've ever seen. Hardworking, smart, never complains. His sheer niceness stood out to me the most when I met him; every day, he seeks me out to ask how I am.
We have the responsibility to protect the people that work for us. No matter the threat. Whether it’s from sexual assault or unwanted advances, or the President of the United States, the people that work for us are our lifeblood. This bullshit nationalist agenda is aimed directly at our people.
I owe them a lot more than my tears. Not just as our employees, but as people with families, friends, and a life of their own in this country.
Chefs, talk to your employees. Make sure they know their rights, and who to call if they have questions. The ACLU even provides convenient bullet points on all this. Listen to their concerns, and try to find the answers they need to protect their families. There is no “maybe it will be fine." Let them know you will fight for them until your knuckles are raw and your throat is hoarse. Be vigilant and be proactive.
My team works day in and day out to keep my dreams alive. I will do the same for theirs.