Not long after starting my first job in a professional kitchen, I learned an important lesson – you probably won’t be speaking much English.
Depending on the restaurant, you might find yourself awash in a sea of Farsi, Italian, French, Spanish or Chinese, or a combination. One friend who spent time in Tunica, Mississippi, casino kitchens told me most dish rooms there spoke exclusively Senegalese.
In Chicago, I’ve found that Mexican Spanish is the most common kitchen language. In high school, I suffered through two years of Spanish, but that didn’t really prepare me for having to converse everyday in a fast-paced, dangerous kitchen where I was the only one who didn’t speak the common tongue.
I had to learn on the fly, and I did, mastering the essential curse words first. They were directed at me often enough, so that part was easy. Learning a handful of other commonly used Spanish phrases (“Get the hell out of the way!” “Why are you just standing there?” “Put out that fire!”, among others) brought me almost up to speed. Emphatic gesturing and pantomiming took care of the rest.
In one kitchen, a Mexican radio station blared day and night, and I soon became an aficionado of the top ten popular songs, often singing along when one of my favorites played (Check out Gloria Trevi, one of my favorites from those days, chewing up the scenery in the video below). In another, I celebrated when the Bulls won two world championships in Spanish (“Los Toros son campeones del mundo!”)
But the language barrier worked both ways. I once worked with a small-statured dishwasher named Nardo. Like many Mexican men, he had a very macho attitude and,
perhaps because of his size, he constantly tried to impress with his swagger and masculinity.
One day, Nardo pulled me aside and asked me in Spanish, “How do you say, ‘I’m a
tough guy, a macho man?’ “ I whispered a few words in his ear.
Not long after, Nardo planned to return to Mexico. On the eve of his departure, he came to say goodbye dressed in brand new cowboy boots, a frying pan-sized belt buckle, a beautiful pearl-buttoned cowboy shirt, all topped off with a shiny suede ten-gallon hat. As the restaurant staff gathered in the kitchen to say goodbye, Nardo gestured for silence.
“I am a drag queen!” he announced, to howls of laughter.
Sorry, Nardo, I couldn’t resist.
Here’s a Mexican-influenced recipe that was one of my favorite during my bachelor days. It’s fast, easy and super inexpensive – nothing is cheaper than rice and beans. Plus, you can put just about anything you want in it and it’s going to taste great, with just the right amount of heat. I still love to make this whenever my wife is out of town.
Frijoles Negros y Arroz (Black Beans and Rice)
½ white onion, diced
1 jalapeno, ribs and seeds removed, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 TBS EVOO
1 cup whole grain white rice (not instant, please)
1-3/4 cup chicken stock (or water plus tsp chicken base)
1 can black beans
2 ea chorizo sausage (or any kind of sausage)
½ tsp chili powder
½ tsp cumin
1 tsp dried thyme
1 TBS hot sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Heat small pot until hot, then add EVOO. When it gets to smoking temp, add onions and jalapeno, stir and cook until onions translucent, about two minutes.
2. Add dry rice and stir until every kernel is coated in oil. Cook for about one minute until you smell a nutty aroma. Add the chicken stock bring to boil. Stir, reduce to simmer and cover. Cook until all liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes.
3. While rice is cooking, sauté chorizo, either whole or remove from skin and cook in chunks. Meanwhile, drain and rinse black beans. When sausage is cooked through,
add black beans, garlic, cumin, chili powder, thyme and hot sauce. Heat through. Fold in rice when it’s ready. Season to taste with S&P.
Serve by itself, or with tortilla chips or small corn or flour tortillas, slightly warmed.
If you have leftover corn on the cob, cut it off and add it in. Have a small can of diced tomatoes? Great. Both go great with this.
This can be served either as a side dish or as the main entrée. It’s very inexpensive, with chorizo or whatever sausage you use being the only relatively costly item. I priced the whole thing at $2.35, feeds two.
I am a drag queen! Still cracks me up.