Living in poverty in Argentina was not easy. Like many Argentinians trapped at the bottom of the economy, I was determined to make something of myself. I pursued a degree in accounting, but I quickly discovered that even with an education in my country, I was on a path to a dead end.
I knew that I needed to find my path elsewhere. With the help of family, I came to the United States — literally with the clothes on my back and an eye on making something better of my life.
After arriving in Washington, I learned at a job fair that an Angelo & Maxie’s restaurant was opening and hiring 300 people. I met the chef, and in very broken English I asked for an opportunity to prove myself. He agreed, reluctantly, to hire me as a dishwasher at $5.50 an hour. It was 2001. I watched everything, took mental notes and looked for every opportunity to try something new in the back of the house.
One day, I learned how to open clams. Before long I was preparing shrimp scampi and other dishes. On the job, I learned English — and everything about the kitchen and food prep. One day, I asked my boss about the business end of running a restaurant. He was stunned that I had a background in accounting. “Numbers are numbers,” I explained to him.
When Angelo & Maxie’s closed, I went to work at District ChopHouse near Verizon Center. In nine years, the general manager and executive chef taught me everything he knew about the restaurant business. Then, in a bittersweet moment, he told me, “It’s time for you to fly.”
I was hired as the executive sous chef at Rosa Mexicano, where I was able to apply the skills that I had learned over the years. Before long, restaurant executive Spike Mendelsohn asked for my help with kitchen management and bookkeeping for one of his restaurant concepts, Good Stuff Eatery, on Capitol Hill. Soon, I was recruited to be executive chef at Tortilla Coast, where I am today.
I am an immigrant who started at the bottom with nothing. I became an executive chef who understands the kitchen and an accountant who understands the numbers of running a business.
Today, I see many young people coming into the restaurant business with the same aspirations. But I am frustrated by those who come in with a sense of entitlement. Rather than seeking experience and skills, they are seeking shortcuts. I explain to them that nothing in life comes free; they need to work hard and learn the business so that when it is time for them to fly, they will be ready.
As a poor immigrant, would a $15 minimum wage have helped me? Absolutely not. No restaurant owner would hire someone without experience, skills or English at such a high wage. I would never have made it to that first rung on the career ladder.
When I was hired in my first job, I was given something much more than a high starting wage; I was given the opportunity to learn, gain skills and grow. I was also given the mobility to advance unlike anything I had ever experienced. I am not alone. Growth in restaurant ownership among minorities and women outpaced growth in the overall restaurant industry in the past 10 years. More than 80 percent of restaurant owners started in an entry-level position. Fifty-nine percent of first-line supervisors/managers of food preparation and service workers last year were women, 19 percent were of Hispanic origin and 13 percent were African American.
In Argentina, I was on a path to nowhere. In the United States, I worked my way to the top. I’ve met and served famous politicians and celebrities. I even prepared a hamburger for President Obama on his birthday. These moments stir emotions in me because I never would have dreamed that I could be where I am today.
Through the restaurant industry in the United States, I found an open door and a pathway to success that was completely closed to me in my home country.
The writer is executive chef at Tortilla Coast on Capitol Hill.