Outside his kitchen, the customers, most of them Vietnamese, are expecting authentic Vietnamese cuisine. German Sierra, born in Honduras, makes sure they get it.
“When I left my country, I never imagined that I would be cooking this food,” Sierra, 39, said in Spanish. He had never had Vietnamese food and didn’t know anything about the cuisine until he came to the United States 12 years ago.
Since then, Sierra has mastered the art of Vietnamese cuisine while working at Asian restaurants in the Washington region. At Viet Taste in the Eden Center, he is behind the stove 12 hours a day, six days a week. He said he earns about $550 a week.
Sierra is one of many Hispanic immigrants working in the kitchens of Washington area restaurants, an industry that is one of the largest employers of immigrants. It is also the leading source of job growth for Hispanics, the largest and the fastest growing ethnic community in the country, according to a recent Pew Hispanic Center report.
“Visit any food establishment in the region and you’ll find that the labor force is mostly Hispanic,” said Benjamin Velasquez, executive chef at Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School in the District. Velasquez, who has trained hundreds of local immigrant cooks in the past three decades, said the trend is even true at non-Hispanic ethnic establishments.
Take the Eden Center, where most of the shops are owned and operated by Vietnamese refugees and where many of the region’s 80,000 Vietnamese Americans come to satisfy cravings for traditional Vietnamese iced coffee, banh mi sandwiches and big bowls of pho noodle soup.
For owners of Vietnamese restaurants in the area, Hispanic workers have become vital to the eateries’ survival. Vietnamese refugees who arrived in the 1970s after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975 are retiring.
“It is hard to find a chef now — a Vietnamese chef,” said Thi Quach, owner of Viet Taste. “Most young Vietnamese people now, they tend to stay in school and they do professional jobs, so they don’t want to stay in the kitchen, and the older generation are getting old already.”
A new study suggests that recent Asian immigrants also tend to have higher levels of education, the majority enter the country legally and they are more likely to hold employment visas than immigrants from other countries
. By contrast, a larger percentage of Hispanic immigrants have arrived undocumented and with lower levels of education, making them more likely candidates for lower-paying jobs.
At the Eden Center, the immigrant influx is evident in conversations, carried on not just in English or Vietnamese but in Spanish as well.
A supervisor at the popular deli Song Que is Hispanic, and his boss speaks fluent Spanish. The manager of V3 Lounge, a Vietnamese nightclub, is also Latino. Some of the bakers at Huong Binh Bakery & Deli are Hispanic women.