Restaurant workers who keep it all running

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      You know those articles about celebrity chefs who parade about on the Food Network? This isn’t one of them. Rather, this is about the restaurant workers who get no glory. It highlights the individuals who work steadfastly, passionately, and humbly, often with little recognition other than an occasional pat on the back from their managers. They’re the backbone of a restaurant, the engine that keeps the whole machine moving forward, but sadly, their contributions remain largely invisible to the average diner.

      When the Straight called up people in the restaurant industry to ask them to single out a few of these local unsung heroes, we received a powerful response. This outpouring of enthusiasm wasn’t just because there’s an excess of candidates. It’s indicative of an industry that relies on workers who are frequently taken for granted by the general public and go unacknowledged by the food media.

      Tony Minichiello, owner of and instructor at the Northwest Culinary Academy of Vancouver (2725 Main Street), is passionate about refocusing attention from so-called celebrity chefs onto everyday workers. “The fact that we have to write about our unsung heroes tells us there is an issue. There shouldn’t be any unsung heroes. Everyone who cooks your food should be a hero,” he says during a phone interview. Minichiello is disgusted by the glorification on reality TV of diva chefs who belittle and abuse their staff. He feels that this has led to a belief by the public that it’s okay for restaurant staff to work long, arduous hours for little thanks and little pay. “It’s too bad they have to make a large sacrifice. We’re not in a Dickens novel,” he says.

      Here, we take a look at three people—a sous-chef, a prep cook, and a server—who represent the thousands of unsung heroes in Vancouver’s food and beverage services. These individuals know all too well what it means to start off in an entry-level position in the industry, work like crazy, and through lots of elbow grease and stick-it-out determination take on more and more responsibility. They may not be as high-profile as those at the very top of the restaurant chain of command, but these are the people who keep restaurants across the city running day in, day out.

      Kevin Atkinson, a sous-chef at the Hamilton Street Grill (1009 Hamilton Street), is hard to get hold of at home since he can be at the restaurant up to 60 hours in any given week. Atkinson has worked his way up from line cook churning out orders in the kitchen to equally industrious sous-chef, a position that includes the added responsibilities of supervising and scheduling staff, helping with menu development, and monitoring inventory levels. His name may not appear at the bottom of the menu, but he’s there nightly making sure that he and the other kitchen staff are always on top of their game.

      Once the Straight reaches him, he’s straightforward and sincere. He describes his career path: how he began dishwashing at the Pendulum restaurant at UBC, and then moved on to do prep for campus catering. Three-and-a-half years ago, he trained in the culinary-diploma program at Northwest Culinary, signing up with the Hamilton Street Grill after graduation. In the works is a stint in Italy, where he’ll pick up skills he can apply to an Italian restaurant kitchen when he returns.

      There’s a quiet self-assurance to Atkinson as he looks back on his career: “I’ve definitely noticed a huge change since I started, in the speed of everything, how much faster I can do everything, how much calmer I am when things really start to get busy.” Although he loves his job, there are times when he finds it pretty rough working late at night, and when the temperature in the kitchen can become unbearable. Why does he return? “I really like handling food, and every day is different. It’s pretty awesome.”

      Atkinson is fortunate to work for a boss he admires—chef and owner Neil Wyles. Wyles describes Atkinson as a dedicated learner who takes his work home with him, experimenting during his off-hours with cured sausages for the menu. Wyles, no slacker himself, speaks to the Straight by cellphone as he rushes from errand to errand. As head chef, he compares himself to a pharmaceutical inventor who is indebted to staff for mass production: “I make the first pill. They make the next billion.” A serious note creeps into his voice, though, when he’s asked about the demands of the profession on those who aren’t at the level of an executive chef: “It’s hard for them to have a family life.”

      Hyuk-Joo Na mentions his brothers and his parents a lot during a chat at Provence Marinaside (1177 Marinaside Crescent). Na, or “Scott”, as everyone at the restaurant calls him, starts work at 7 a.m. and beavers away until 3 p.m., six days a week.

      Eight years ago, after studying marketing management at BCIT, he was having a tough time finding work and decided to apply for a dishwasher position at Provence. He slaved in the dish pit for two years before gradually assuming more responsibility. Now, as a prep cook and jack-of-all-trades, he gets items like soup and crab cakes ready before the dinner rush, orders and receives stock, schedules staff, and oversees dishwashers.

      He laughs modestly when asked what makes him a solid employee: “I just try to be on time, and try to work hard and have a good relationship with my employer. And yeah”¦ ” he trails off, rather than trumpeting his talents. For Na, it’s about putting in an honest day’s work and inching toward his dream of running a family restaurant with his brothers.

      Na returns to his work, while Jasen Gauthier, chef de cuisine at Provence, sits down with the Straight and lists the qualities that make him worthy of recognition: “Has a lot of heart. Really looks after the place like his own. Goes the extra mile.” He says Na also has a knack for putting staff at ease with his calming influence.

      As a 30-year industry veteran, Gauthier sees the value of someone like Na, who’s willing to stick it out. “I think anybody who’s been in [the industry] a while should definitely get recognition because most people that I knew when
      I started aren’t in it anymore,” he says.

      Romano Castillo’s name immediately comes to mind when Paul Grunberg is asked to single out a stellar employee. The co-owner and general manager of L’Abattoir (217 Carrall Street) doesn’t hold back his praise for this front-of-house worker. “He’s a superstar. He’s what the industry needs,” Grunberg says before adding, “He’s a young kid with so much weight on his shoulders.”

      By phone, Grunberg recounts how he met Castillo at MARKET by Jean-Georges (1115 Alberni Street) when he worked there as general manager. Castillo was working there as a server assistant, later assuming the roles of bartender and server. At the time, Castillo was that frenzied person moving from table to table picking up dirty dishes, refilling water glasses, and arranging cutlery while diners were busy making chitchat, engrossed in their meal.

      Immediately, Grunberg could tell there was something special about Castillo.

      He uses words like honesty, sincerity, generosity, and kindness in connection with his protégé, whom he recruited over to L’Abattoir as a server when it opened in July. Grunberg is now training Castillo as a host, bartender, and manager, and sees him as someone who might eventually run the restaurant.

      Castillo continues to work bartending shifts at MARKET, where general manager Bruno Valentino raves that he’s a dream employee who’s always ready to grow and never complains about the tasks he’s given.

      The subject of all this praise is so modest that it’s easy to see why everyone is rooting for him. Twenty-three-year-old Castillo tells his story simply. He had a dream to be a cook but had to drop out of the Vancouver Community College culinary program in order to support his daughter, whom he coparents with an ex. When MARKET opened in January 2009, he landed a job there. Since then, he has blossomed under the mentorship of people like Valentino and Grunberg.

      Castillo helps his toddler put on her jacket as he speculates over the phone about what makes him unique. “I think it’s my dedication,” he says. “I’m passionate about the work that I do.” And with the grandmother who raised him sick in hospital right now, Castillo is glad to have a job that provides much-needed stability. “It’s a tough life. Work has been keeping me happy and on the go.”

      Grunberg has some final thoughts on why under-the-radar champs like Castillo deserve a standing ovation: “Kids like this are the frontline employees that are taking the biggest hits.” After all, it’s these individuals who are working their tails off dealing with customers, keeping orders moving along smoothly, and making sure everything stays afloat. “They’re more important than me in day-to-day operations,” he says. The work they do isn’t usually glamorous enough for front-page news, but it’s solid and deeply important.


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      Tony Fox

      Sep 27, 2010 at 3:01pm

      Great article - we often see a restaurant as being inextricably linked to that chef's name on the menu, but forget there's a whole cadre of people who help make that chef's vision appear on the table. Thanks for sharing these stories, and I hope we see more of them!