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The Brunch Chronicles – Ch. 13: Seeing Past Race

Oct 21, 2020

A Story Written By Kevin Gallagher

Thanks to the magnificent paella, the wine and a glass of an excellent fino sherry that Daniel had insisted I have to finish, I was feeling slightly euphoric when I left McPherson at the bank and made my way back to the restaurant. I couldn’t shake the spectre of the bank manager’s sad bigotry though, reflecting on how he looked  toward the kitchen pass and said, “Do you think they’re clean?” I thought that if he would only get to know some of the people he avoided, he would see things differently, but he seemed to have no interest in reaching out. But I was in no position to feel smug; I too had made superficial judgments in the past, based on language, culture or colour.

The hospitality industry is a huge employer of new arrivals in this country and the restaurant kitchen is the shore that many wash up on, particularly those with limited language skills. Some will say that the restaurants  take advantage of them, and I’m sure there are cases where that is true, but for the most part it is a mutually beneficial arrangement. The restaurant benefits from their willingness to work hard and their determination to prosper and they, in turn, learn the language – the good, the bad and the slang, and how to maneuver through new customs and government regulations. Whether they are fully accepted is often another story.

When Donna and I first started working in restaurants, refugees from Vietnam, “boat people”, were in the kitchens, often running them with energy and efficiency. They were followed by a wave of Somalis. By the early eighties, Sri Lankan Tamils, refugees from the civil war, joined the earlier waves. My first encounter with these new arrivals was when a couple of young men applied for kitchen positions at Hernando’s Hideaway, a Tex-Mex restaurant I managed on Yonge Street. The position didn’t require previous experience and while they had none, they were prompt, polite and eager. There were no other applicants worth considering, yet I hesitated. Would they understand the cuisine? Could they make themselves understood? Would they fit in? Finally it dawned on me that my hesitation was rooted in simple prejudice. Why should it be any more difficult for them to fit in than anyone else? It was a straightforward menu of Americanized ethnic food, with simple prep and execution. 

So I hired both Suri and Siva.  Cheerful and serious about their work, their focus in the kitchen brought consistency to the menu and stabilized the food cost. While my respect for them grew and our friendship developed, I continued to feel a niggling remorse over my initial reaction.

When Mildred’s opened we had one Sri Lankan among our small staff. Like Anne, our chef-de-cuisine and Mirro, the server, Rajah had come to us after having worked for our friend Doug Clapperton at his restaurant, The Parrot. They had decided to move on when Doug and his partner André had sold the restaurant. Rajah, a successful businessman in Sri Lanka had moved his family to South India because of the war and was working hard to bring them to Canada. From Rajah I learned not to equate language facility with intelligence, for although in conversation he might pause to search for a word or stumble over pronunciation, he clearly understood business and our operation. From time to time, I would see him shake his head and smile at some of my decisions. If in the course of his negotiations to have his family join him he needed to take a day off, some competent person would show up to do the job, punching in on Rajah’s card and working the shift like a regular. He never left us in the lurch. 

When we expanded our hours to include dinner service and we needed to hire another dishwasher/prep cook, Rajah wanted to work all the shifts; he wanted to hold them, “Son coming” he said.

I explained that if we allowed him to work that many hours we would have to pay overtime wages, something that we couldn’t afford to do. So he arranged to cover the shifts from his network – first came his son-in-law Vara, organized and serious, then his nephew Ravi, with a broad smile and an easy laugh. They both quickly became integral members of the staff, moving from the dishroom to full time prep.

We were breaking one of our established rules – not to hire family or partners of staff. Family dramas can get played out in the dining room and it’s tough to discipline one partner without antagonizing the other.

Yet even as Vara and Ravi moved to prep, and while we waited for the son to arrive, dishroom shifts were always covered from Rajah’s network. Many of those who came to work were never really interviewed by us. We paid them but they answered to Rajah. Staffing the dish room had never been easier.

Gradually we did get to know most of them and their struggles and aspirations, but there were still occasional humbling surprises. Coming in the back door one afternoon I saw Rameelan, a recent hire, leaning on the freezer and writing in his notebook while he waited to begin his shift. The page was covered with neat lines of the most elegant script.

“What is it?” I asked

“A poem,” he said, blushing slightly, then added “In Sri Lanka I am a poet and a teacher.” He delivered this proudly with a slight smile and a head wobble.

“Wow.” I said,  “If it sounds half as good as it looks, it must be stellar. Do you write in English too?”

He laughed, “No, twenty-six letters not enough for me. In my language alphabet there are two hundred forty seven and still I have trouble.” 

He was probably not the first poet to hone his craft while scrubbing pots and taking out the garbage, but I couldn’t help feeling the injustice of it all.

There was an excited buzz in the kitchen. Rajah was beaming and shaking hands with everyone.

“What’s up?” I asked,

“Segar’s coming tomorrow.” said Donna

“Who?”

“Rajah’s son”