Latino Food Workers in Los Angeles Acquire a Knack for Kosher Cooking

By Nathaniel Popper

Published September 16, 2005, issue of September 16, 2005.

LOS ANGELES — The strictest rabbinic authorities certify the kosher restaurants lining Pico Boulevard, but most of the people preparing the food are Latinos who never had met a rabbi before taking their current jobs.

At the Pico Kosher Deli, the man behind the meat slicer, Rene Baraona, 31, grew up in a Catholic family that emigrated from El Salvador when he was 4. Baraona’s sister now works in the back of the deli, making the matzo balls and knishes, while Baraona is up front putting together pastrami sandwiches. After 11 years at the deli, he has started bringing home loaves of challah bread each weekend and looking for kosher meat at the market.

“I see how clean the animals are, and how strict it is,” Baraona said recently, while taking a break from work. “Now my wife says, ‘You think you’re Jewish.’”

The Pico-Robertson area, just east of Beverly Hills, in which Baraona works is one of the most Jewish areas in one of the most Latino cities in America. This ethnic diversity, however, does not always foster intercultural communication. A large number of L.A.’s Latinos work in menial jobs, little noticed by their richer employers and customers. Indeed, on Pico Boulevard the Latino workers frequently are sequestered behind kitchen doors. But the close quarters of the kitchens and delis also provide some opportunities for everyday cross-cultural pollination.

No one demonstrates this process more clearly than Juan Martinez, head cook at one of the most popular glatt kosher restaurants on Pico (the restaurant, as well as the documented employees there, will remain nameless because of Martinez’s undocumented immigration status). Martinez grew up in a rural town in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, living with his parents in a house that had a dirt floor and no running water or electricity. At age 13, he and a friend set off and sneaked over the border to L.A. Two months later, he landed a job washing dishes at the restaurant — where he still works 21 years later.

“When I came over here, I didn’t know what Jewish was,” Martinez said from under his blue-and-white short-order cook’s cap. “The first time a man with a big beard walked in, I say, ‘Who is this guy?’ They say, ‘It’s the rabbi.’”

Martinez began at $60 a week, much of which he sent home to his parents via Western Union — a practice he continues today. In those first months and years, his new workplace provided little in the way of familiar comforts. The Israeli owners did not speak Spanish, so they slowly taught him Hebrew, one word at a time. Today Martinez speaks English haltingly, but his Hebrew is fluent, and the Israeli customers frequently stop in the crowded kitchen to talk with him.

Martinez, who now has the stray whiskers of a much older man, has seen four Israeli owners come and go at the restaurant. In the process, through stints as vegetable cutter, grill master and now top cook, he has emerged as the eatery’s one steady presence.

“He runs the place,” said the kosher supervisor who works at Martinez’s restaurant. “He’s the one who makes everything happen. He knows all the recipes.”

Along the way, Martinez has become an expert in kosher law. The restaurant first became kosher in 1989, and Martinez remembers the rabbis coming over so that they could add a new stove for fish, and burn all the pots and pans behind the restaurant. At the time, Martinez recalled, he was overwhelmed by all the new dietary rules.

“I start worrying,” he said. “But if you don’t want to learn, all the time you have to stay and wash the dishes.”

Still, there are limits to Martinez’s level of Jewish acculturation. He never has been to a synagogue, and around his neck he wears a Virgin of Guadalupe pendant on a gold chain. At home his wife does all the cooking. He has two sons — ages 12 and 13 — and he hasn’t taught either of them any Hebrew or how to cook.

“I don’t like to see them work like me,” Martinez said. “To do this kind of job is not easy.”

To be certain, the working conditions on Pico are not always exemplary. A few years ago, the L.A.-based Progressive Jewish Alliance pressed the case of Latino workers who felt they were being mistreated by kosher grocery stores on Pico. After a long battle, the labor commission found in the workers’ favor.

The going is even more difficult for undocumented workers like Martinez. He has worked six days a week since he took his job 21 years ago. Because he is not documented, he does not have a driver’s license and has to take three buses to reach his home in Echo Park, on the other side of the city. And since arriving in L.A., Martinez has been able to return home only once. Three years ago he took a bus across the border. When he was traveling back home, Martinez paid a smuggler $4,000 to bring him across the border in a car — a hefty sum, considering that Martinez generally earns only $500 each week.

Martinez’s parents still work picking vegetables in the fields of Oaxaca, and he thinks that by the time he is 40 he will return home and join them.

His heart may long for Mexico, but customers say he has acquired the taste of an Israeli. “I wouldn’t be coming here if it weren’t for [Martinez],” said Zvi Abaranok, an Israeli-born Angeleno who has been eating at Martinez’s restaurant for 20 years. “The food is just like in Israel.”

Martinez learned many of the recipes from the mothers of the various owners, but he has also added his own twists. Discerning customers ask for his special Israeli salad, a variation on the finely chopped mix of tomatoes and cucumbers featuring onions and lemon.

At other restaurants on Pico, the Latino workers have brought even more to work with them. Up the street from Martinez there is the Pizza Station, an establishment that has evolved from an Italian kosher restaurant into an Italian Mexican kosher restaurant. Sheina Gilbert, an Orthodox Jewish woman who owns the restaurant with her husband, relies on two Mexicans and two Guatemalans to do almost all the cooking. Frequently at lunchtime the cooks whip up their own meal and eat in the same room as the restaurant guests.

“My customers always say, ‘I want what they’re eating,’” Gilbert said. “They make these weird omelets with onions.”

Recently, two of Gilbert’s cooks from Oaxaca gave her a bowl of their lunchtime soup. She liked it so much that she decided to add the dish to the menu — labeling it Oaxacan Soup.

The previous pizza expert at the Pizza Station was also from Oaxaca, and recently he returned to his hometown. Before originally coming to L.A., he never had seen a pizza, but on returning to Mexico he decided to open a pizzeria.

“We taught him everything he knows about pizza,” Gilbert said.

It’s not hard to understand why Gilbert and other Jewish restaurateurs turn to Latinos. In 2004, Latinos made up 46.7% of L.A.’s documented population; taking undocumented residents into account, Latinos almost certainly constitute an outright majority in the city, although reliable estimates are hard to find.

“This is where the labor pool is,” said Michael Engelman, owner of Doheny Kosher Meats on Pico, where eight of the 10 employees are Spanish speaking. “It’s a simple fact.”

Engelman and other owners on Pico also say that their Latino employees work harder, and there is evidence to support them. Jack Kyser, chief economist of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation, conducted a study recently, which found that a few Los Angeles factories with Latino workers had much higher productivity than the average Los Angeles factory.

For the kosher establishments — virtually all of them — that employ Latinos, there are only a few modifications necessary to comply with Jewish law. The Torah calls for kosher food to be cooked by a Jew, but most Orthodox Jews will accept food cooked by non-Jews as long as a Sabbath-observing Jew turns on the stove’s pilot light. At Martinez’s restaurant, there is a kosher supervisor (known as a mashgiach) who turns on the pilot light in the morning and cracks all the eggs to make sure there are no blood spots.

There are still some Orthodox Jews who insist that a Jew cook their food — mostly Persian Jews, according to Gilbert at the Pizza Station. When someone makes the request at the Pizza Station, the waitress writes “kosher hands” on the order. The cooks call out for Gilbert or her husband to put the pizzas in the oven.

The rabbi in charge of kosher supervision for the Rabbinic Council of California, Nissim Davidi, says that compliance with kosher law is rarely an issue with Latino workers. Davidi said there have been a few instances in which restaurants had to put up Spanish signs to label the milk and meat separately. In the end, he added, it is really the owners who benefit from such a step.

According to Davidi, in many establishments, “without the one [Latino] chef, the whole place would go down.”

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