Seventeen years ago, I enrolled at the oldest public university in the nation to pursue my childhood dream of becoming a journalist. Just down the road from my classes at UNC-Chapel Hill, Luis Ortega was cutting his teeth as a line cook at Crook's Corner, the Southern landmark that gave North Carolina a coveted spot on the national culinary stage.
I didn't know Ortega then, but our lives intersected in ways that are typical in a college town. We are exactly the same age; back then, we were teenagers nearing adulthood. We caught live music at Local 506 and the defunct Go! Studios, and picked Breadmen's breakfast the next day as our preferred hangover cure. We both worked in high-volume downtown food establishments. I studied Spanish and practiced it with a Greek accent at my job, rolling burritos for gringos. Luis picked up English with an eastern North Carolina drawl from chef Bill Smith and spent hours perfecting that classic, award-winning shrimp-and-grits recipe in a very crowded high-end kitchen.
Ortega and I realize all this when I first meet him in his hometown of Celaya, Guanajuato, during the summer of 2015. After several years at Crook's, Ortega returned to Mexico in 2007. He grew tired of waiting for policy reform, of feeling trapped without the mobility to ever see his family again, or even to drive just fifteen minutes into another town, for fear of getting stopped without a license and getting deported.
A sense of nostalgia creeps into his cadence when he talks about "Celaya Hill," or the Chapel Hill he and his compatriots made their own. During the day, sunlight shines on the butcher block at his carniceria in the Las Delicias neighborhood. In the middle of the shop, a clothesline supports dozens of hanging chorizos. A massive illustration of the Virgen de Guadalupe peeks through the links, her hands pressed in prayer, blessing the butcher. It's there, in the midst of plucking sausages from the line, that Ortega confesses how much he misses grits. Some Southern recipes, he says, can be amended with Mexican ingredients. He can find the white wine to make the brine for Crook's Corner's green Tabasco chicken. And the beets, too, for Smith's beet salad, another favorite. But not the grits. He misses the grits.
At Crook's, Ortega steered dinner service with other Mexican cooks, side-by-side with Smith. The way he speaks about food is the way my hipster generation talks recipes: with a nerdy zeal, sharp criticism, and an insatiable desire to talk the subject to death. Cooks like Ortega navigate the world of fine dining and become an integral part of it; they represent a growing sect of a creative class obsessed with food. But, as Smith once told me, his cooks "feel invisible."
In fact, the men and women behind the kitchen door are quietly leading the pack. They are part of a famed coterie of food artisans and entrepreneurs, chefs and farmers. Ortega earned the enviable tutelage of a beloved chef in one of the South's most revered restaurants. And in a place completely unfamiliar to me, I could relate to Ortega through food about our shared experience of a place once completely unfamiliar to him.
Smith can do the same, with a much deeper intimacy. When Ortega drove home to Mexico after many years in Chapel Hill, Smith took the thirty-six-hour drive with him. Smith visits when he can slip away from the restaurant, often on his birthday, most recently this winter. His connection to his fellow cooks is based on a sense of equity he feels in his heart. He understands them as we all should, with nuance, humanity, and zero expectations.
Many cooks come here for a "better life," a uniform identity to which we are socialized. But with that comes complexity and layers. For Ortega, there was also a youthful sense of adventure, the kind that propels any American teenager with a passport to see the world. He wanted to measure himself against something greater than what he already knew.
Food is not just nourishment or art. It is a commodity, and it relies on a structure of labor. The restaurant industry is the second-largest and fastest-growing market in the U.S. economy. The latest Pew Research Center statistics indicate that 1.2 million workers in the restaurant industry are undocumented—somewhere between 12 and 16 percent. With a more draconian immigration sweep under President Trump, the South could lose many of these workers. Most rumors about ICE raids in restaurants have turned out to be false, but the worry among chefs and cooks is palpable.
Without immigrants, the restaurant industry cannot survive.
The growing demographic of Latinos and immigrants in the South in public places like schools, health clinics, and city parks is obvious. The visual cues of change that we see in our public spaces—like tiendas and restaurant kitchens—are the result of this massive, decades-long migration. Between 1990 and 2000, the Latina/o population in North Carolina increased by approximately 394 percent.
Food has been our immediate gateway to other cultures, and the immigrant in food service is often seen as one who works for other people or owns a food-related business that adds vital diversity to the community.
But the conversation around ethnic chefs and cooks is often skewed toward the contribution of the immigrant. And even when that contribution may be a reflection of their voices and their entrepreneurial capital, it is still made for the consumption of a white majority that's unfamiliar with the culture and often unwilling to familiarize itself beyond what it can consume. A Mexican immigrant cook through a white person's lens is usually portrayed as working with previously learned skills, rather than inventing or initiating the art in question.
It would be remiss not to draw a parallel to the work of Toni Tipton-Martin, a journalist who researched hundreds of African-American cookbooks lost in, and shielded by, history for centuries. She not only points out the racist "magical" trope regarding African-American cooks, but also argues for the humanity, intelligence, agency, and creative talents of African-American men and women who contributed to the American/Southern culinary canon.
A discomfort and negotiation is expressed in our history, with patterns of exploitation that we must confront. Labor and food are symbiotic. But the disconnect between the realities of restaurant kitchens and the accommodations of their patrons is troubling. We are surrounded by food culture, yet completely disconnected from the actual experience.
In exploring the expansive theme of food as a journalist for almost a decade, I've made it my mission to seek out stories that shed the layers with which we've insulated ourselves and others. When immigrant workers are given agency, we can talk about their work in Southern food with the respect and consideration it deserves, understanding its value as an expressive language, as art, as cultural capital, as intellectual property.
I wish this weren't an essay, that I could have instead shared the myriad stories of cooks like Ortega who are still here, making fantastic food with artistry and pride. But our democracy is dangerously swaying toward what resembles a regime. And cooks in the South are keeping their heads down, today more than ever.
Food may be a tool for economic survival in America, but culinary skills have limited power. We are actively participating in a consumer culture that keeps its blinders on, focusing on American generosity and its semblance of opportunity. We celebrate the wonderful food of immigrants, lick our fingers clean, and ignore reality. The cooks who feed us, who run our vibrant food culture, don't have the same rights as eaters.
If we don't acknowledge that, we are feeding into a politics of fear and disempowerment.
Back in Mexico, Ortega and I tear through warm tortillas and fold each piece between our fingers, scooping chicken mole into our mouths at his mother's kitchen table. He hands me a can of Tecate Light just as Mama Conchita presents her copy of Bill Smith's cookbook, Seasoned in the South, which she has stored in her dining room armoire. She shows me Smith's handwritten dedication to her on the title page.
Before I can put my beer down, Ortega grabs the book from his mother and skims quickly through the pages to a recipe for blueberry soup. "Read this," he says, pointing to Smith's introduction, which reads: "'I have tasted your blueberry soup. It is terrible.' So pronounced one of my cooks, Luis Ortega, when I put this soup on the menu."
Ortega can't stop laughing. "Have you had it? It sucks," he says, drawing out the uh like a Southern teenager.
Ortega and I are talking food again, the way any food writer and chef would. I wish he could be here to tell you all about it.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Immigrant in the Kitchen."