The Hope of D.C.'s Aproned Ranks

By Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 29, 2005

Miguel Rosario grabs a NY strip and hurls a pinch of sea salt at the meat as he lays it on the fire. The flames leap, lighting up the face of one tired 34-year-old cook with tongs in his hand. Miguel is on his second pitcher of ice water, drinking like a man in the desert. The kitchen is chaos and Chef is all over him.

"More butter!" Chef shouts after tasting the broth Miguel has laded into a bowl. "And dude, your rice and beans are getting cold! Come on, bro."

Miguel is sweating. Down the line, the sous-chef unfurls a string of expletives because someone has left a bin of shrimp in his work space. Dinner tickets are coming in fast, and most are grill items, which means Miguel is receiving the brunt of Chef's shouting.

" Pollo . Shank. Two strip, mid-rare. All you!"

Only a week earlier, Miguel landed this job as a line cook at Merkado Kitchen, a new restaurant on P Street NW in the gentrifying neighborhood of Logan Circle. He learned to cook while serving time in prison -- "We made a mad veal parm at Lewisburg" -- and now he's searing foie gras for people carrying yoga mats.

Washington's economic boom is being driven by an expanding professional class whose incomes and desires are reshaping the city. The hot new monument in Washington is the $600,000 loft with granite countertops, smiling down on Caribou Coffee.

Less visible are the janitors, busboys, maids and cooks such as Miguel, whose lives are ruled by the same economic boom but in different ways. Instead of one job, they can work two. With the housing market untouchable on working class wages, they commute to $8-an-hour apron jobs, dozing and swaying on buses and Metro at 1 in the morning.

At Merkado, only a glass window separates the kitchen from the dining room, giving the cooks a nightly view of the other side. Everyone in the kitchen is trying to make a play. One of Miguel's co-workers, a former Salvadoran gang member, goes home at night and sits on the couch with his wife, who buses tables at another restaurant, and together they watch the Food Network for catering ideas.

Miguel says in a coda that could be the city's, "I been knowleging myself on transformation." He was born in Puerto Rico, raised in the Bronx and now lives in Anacostia, and his speech is dredged with all three places. He sports a wooly Afro and a fuzzy chin and has dark, intense eyes, like a Nuyorican poet.

Thirty people applied for kitchen jobs at Merkado, and Miguel was one of nine hired. Most are Latino men. They hustle side by side for 10 hours but don't know one another's last names. The work is hard. Feet go numb, legs go numb, knees blow out or turn arthritic. Restaurants are notorious for coke, speed, meth, Red Bull, espresso, any variety of stimulants to push the body beyond its limit. Miguel relies on two 16-ounce towers of Starbucks coffee.

The week before Merkado's opening, the kitchen is still learning the menu. Miguel hangs his cheat sheet in front of his station, trying to remember what sauce goes with what dish. The hipsters of Logan Circle crave more than mere crab cakes. Merkado's menu will feature Latin food with Asian touches.

Chef Edward Kim wants his $12- to $15-an-hour kitchen workers to feel the passion of his cuisine. He tries to bring them into his cult of perfection. "Refine your palette," he tells his crew. "Focus! Discipline your mind!"

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