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.
The trend is not exclusive to Vietnamese establishments. At sushi restaurants, for example, owners who have had difficulty bringing trained sushi chefs from Japan have been handing over the ancient art to cooks from other ethnic backgrounds, including South Americans.
“A lot of Latinos, when they want to do the job, nobody can beat them,” said Binh “Gene” Nguyen, president of the Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Washington. “They learn fast.”
While these jobs offer workers such as Sierra the opportunity to learn new skills, they often pay little more than minimum wage and are prone to exploitation, labor experts say. That is a major concern in an industry known to be a magnet for undocumented labor.
“Very often when people are working 12 hours a day, they are not getting paid the proper overtime and they are also not getting paid the proper minimum wage,” said Dianne Enriquez, who coordinates a network of worker centers with Interfaith Worker Justice.
“This is not exclusive to ethnic restaurants and also not exclusive to immigrants in the industry,” she said. “The kinds of jobs that are available in the restaurant industry have really high turnover, have really low wages, have little to no benefits.”
Andres Tobar, who heads the Shirlington Employment and Education Center in Arlington County, said that in this economy, immigrants are more willing to take and stay in low-paying jobs with poor working conditions and no benefits.
“These are probably the only jobs that some of these workers can get because jobs are becoming more and more scarce,” Tobar said. “People are looking for any way to get an opportunity to get paid.”
Quach, 41, the owner of Viet Taste, came to America in 1985 when he was 14. Coming from a family of cooks, he had always wanted to run his own business. After high school and six years serving in the U.S. Army, he opened his first restaurant and hired Sierra.
For Sierra, the job was a chance to discover the cooking skill he didn’t know he had. He started as dishwasher, became prep chef, then assistant chef and finally moved to head chef.
“When I was a dishwasher, I used to tell a co-worker that one day I wanted to at least work the grill. He used to tell me it would be difficult to learn the orders in Vietnamese,” he said. “But everything is possible to learn in life.”
Sierra had no cooking experience when he left Honduras in 2000, fleeing the increasing violence and tough economic conditions there. He didn’t finish grade school and had to work at an early age, eventually driving a taxi in his home town of San Pedro Sula.
When he arrived in the United States, he tried several jobs, including construction, and not long afterward met Quach, who at the time owned another restaurant.
It didn’t take Sierra long to understand the flavors and learn food terms in Vietnamese. Every day, Sierra studied the orders using English, Spanish and Vietnamese dictionaries.
Then it all became natural to him, he said.
Quach, who doesn’t speak much Spanish, taught Sierra all of his recipes. When he couldn’t quite explain in words, they communicated through signs and gestures.
“I said, ‘This is how it’s supposed to be. This is how it tastes,’ and day by day he learned everything and he knows exactly how it’s supposed to taste,” Quach said.
His restaurant has become a place where the interactions are in a mix of English, Vietnamese and Spanish. His waiters are from Vietnam. The four kitchen workers are Central American.
“They understand Vietnamese,” he said, referring to his kitchen team. “The order is in Vietnamese, so they just look at the order, they read it and they know what to do.”
And while the customers listen to waiter Hoang Nguyen play the keyboard and sing popular Vietnamese songs in the dining room, back in the kitchen, the cooks are listening to bachata, cumbia and salsa.