What and when San Diego chefs eat

Sweat cuisine

Chef William Rivera (left) and Jef Eatchel (center) on phone.  "For a lot of these people, this is their main meal, and it's usually two: one before or after your shift, one on your break."
  • Chef William Rivera (left) and Jef Eatchel (center) on phone. "For a lot of these people, this is their main meal, and it's usually two: one before or after your shift, one on your break."
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

You're out for dinner. Your waiter, hovering tableside, recites tonight's specials while you feign interest, a captive listener with a frozen smile on your face. You might wonder, as he rattles on about the wonders of the mango-chili sauce, if he's already eaten. Whether you're in a hotel dining room or a downtown bistro, your wait-person, your busboy, the dishwasher, and the prep cook all have a right to eat. What and when they'll eat and how much it will cost is another matter.

Jef Eatchel, secretary-treasurer for Local 30's Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, does not let our interview stop him from making calls, taking calls, smoking cigarettes, ordering tickets to out-of-town basketball games, and discussing the kids with his wife, Nancy Browning. She is the business manager/representative for Local 30, an attractive brunette in a suit who's just walked in the door. The activity of this office includes keeping track of what restaurant's being picketed, who's refusing to ante up for health benefits, and what contract is in negotiation. I just want to know what the people in his union eat for lunch.

Eatchel, over six feet, in jacket and tie, with trimmed brown beard and mustache, looks more hotel manager than union official. Though he doesn't believe food-service-employees are deprived — "If you're in the service industry and you can't get something to eat, you should be slapped" — he does believe in he industry's past deprivations.

"Two years ago employees of the Holiday Inn petitioned to get better food." Eatchel props his feet on the desk and shakes out another Marlboro. "Nancy went down there. Employees kept telling her, 'You gotta go to the cafeteria.' She took a plate of food — some roast beef with a rainbow color to it, balled-up rice, and string beans that were falling apart — she put foil over it, refrigerated it, walked into the general manager's office the next day and said, "Would you like to eat this?' He ended up making changes." Those changes included hiring full-time cafeteria attendants to monitor food quality.

"Our problem is places that charge employees for meals. They can deduct out of the hourly wage rate — $2.10 for breakfast, $2.50 for lunch, $2.95 for dinner. Our argument with them is, if they're gonna do that, then you gotta give [employees] menu food. Or half-price off."

Union rules dictate that employees be allowed at least one meal per shift; if employees are not charged for meals, they still must pay taxes on the value of the meals. "Basically, they take a couple bucks a month out to pay the state of California."

Eatchel has developed a philosophy about feeding service employees from his own experience. Fifteen years ago, he was a cook at La Costa. "For a lot of these people, this is their main meal, and it's usually two: one before or after your shift, one on your break. When I worked at La Costa, the chef used to say, "Feed 'em good, they'll work good." They really cared that the employees were getting something good. When the butcher would break down the beef and pieces were left over, he'd say, "You see all that beef stuff that's left over? Cook it." And it was good — we're talking about nice beef — filet, New York. I'd cut off the fat, grill it, deep-fat fry it, bake it, put a nice sauce over it with green peppers and mushrooms and serve it to the employees."

I ask Eatchel to relate a typical shift. "I got to work between 2:00 and 2:30, lunch was getting over. On the back row, by the chef's office, would be stuff you could eat. We got this, this, this and this. You sample it. You inspect it. If it's not good, throw it away. At that time of day, housekeeping was eating, maintenance, front desk, waiters and waitresses, bellman — I did between 350 and 425 meals; there was no employee cafeteria.

"I wasn't going to put anything up that I wouldn't eat. I tried to serve employees the best stuff I could find. 'Look what we're serving the customer," our chef used to say. 'We need to serve our employees likewise." At the end of the night, waiters and captains would eat. Whatever we had a lot of left over, the chef would cook. One night, we're offering tournedos of beef in the main dining room, served maybe 450 out of 660 meals. The chef comes in and tells me, 'We have to serve it.' I have this beautiful filet, and the employees are going, 'Man, all we're getting is this leftover shit.' It wasn't like it was served and nobody ate it, and they brought it back. This stuff never left the kitchen."

So much for the image of half eaten entrees whisked from elegant tables, plates scraped of their nibbled portions, remainders brought to hungry help. The term "leftover" bears rethinking.

"Or let's say you have a banquet. Chicken Kiev and vegetables and potatoes, 600 people. An hour before the banquet starts, you find out it's down to 500. You've got 100 leftover half-cooked chickens, blanched at noon — that means partially cooked — to be served at 6:00. A whole reach-in refrigerator of blanched chickens. If you owned the company, what would you do? You'd serve the damn chicken to the employees."

In the days before employee cafeterias, Eatchel often accommodated employees' wishes. "You have to look at what people eat when they're at home. When I was cooking at La Costa, one of the real popular employee dishes was menudo. We used to buy Mrs. Friday's Fish Fillets just for the employees. That's what they wanted — long, wide fish sticks. When housekeeping would come in, if I had rice, potatoes, pasta, vegetables, chicken, I would see them choose rice and potatoes — not much pasta — and a vegetable. Double starch. When the chef gave me huge pieces of fish, I would take some fish, chop up some green peppers, onions, yellow and green chilies. They liked that. For the front desk, the bellmen — same fish, but maybe mushrooms and garlic. Throw in some rice or potato. That's not a bad meal."

Service employees reflect a range of ethnicities, income brackets, classes and cultures. Since the days when Eatchel was a cook at La Costa, employer meals have changed. "Today, when you walk through big hotel employee cafeterias like the Del and La Costa," Eatchel says, "you see the [employee] diversification in what kind of food they serve."

To get a firsthand look, we visit La Costa's Conference Center Plaza on an early summer afternoon, Eatchel maneuvering the grounds as if we were in his back yard. We cross the world famous resort's palm-treed walkways and rolling lawns, passing by graceful stucco cottages. Jef recognizes staff: gardeners shake his hand, maintenance men wave as they roll by in carts. He is friendly and unruffled for the most part — maybe a little edgy, he says, because he wants a cigarette. We wend our way toward the employee cafeteria, located near the main kitchen, passing by cavernous walk-in refrigerators connected by a maze of pathways.

La Costa's employee cafeteria, dubbed Fernando's Hideaway (Fernando's the chef), sees about 900 employees a day. The cafeteria is open from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. (it closes for one hour) with lunch including a salad bar and five or six hot dishes. Today we have meatballs, fettuccine Alfredo, pizza, potatoes, squash and broccoli and a hot soup. On the other side of the cafeteria line, plump hot dogs rotate on a metal tray next to fixings for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a late breakfast of muffins, fresh fruit, bagels, juice.

"They like the theme days," says personnel manager Christie Whitman of the employees' favorites. She slides her tray through the line, her business suit standing out amidst the employees' uniforms. Tall and blond, Whitman is pleasant but has the preoccupied air of someone with too much paperwork on her desk. "The most popular offerings are carver days; it's like Thanksgiving — the chef stands over there and slices roast beef or turkey to order. I like carver day too." As I peek over the protective glass to view the choices and survey the setup, I notice the only thing separating this cafeteria from any other is the absence of a cash register.

La Costa's spa food isn't served to employees, but health consciousness is down here for the common folk. In addition to a daily salad bar, lower fat options, such as skinless chicken or poached fish, are often on the menu.

Beyond the steam tables, a 1000 square foot room reveals a dozen tables positioned end to end. Against one wall, four beverage dispensers, ice machines, ice cream and yogurt machines, ice tea, coffee, fruit drinks, and water. At almost one o clock, an assortment of uniforms sit in various stages of lunch. Some employees wear the green polo shirts of housekeeping, others sport maintenance jumpsuits or brown housekeeping aprons, and a few wear security's navy jackets. They sit or slump in plastic chairs, eating or smoking or gossiping before going back on shift.

How is it? I ask a young woman whose pager spills out of her pocket. "It's a pizza day," she says, delicately picking at the crust, "It's pretty good."

She's right: crispy crust, rich sauce, more cheese than my legal limit. Does she have a favorite meal?

"I like when they have carver day. I wish they'd have it more often."

Christie, Jef and I walk with our trays through the sliding glass door to the patio and sit at one of eight umbrellad tables covered in forest green tablecloths. A six-foot high wooden fence conceals the million dollar grounds. Before Christie can pick up another fork, another woman stops by to discuss a scheduling conflict. Christie is polite and patient, reminding the woman that she, too, is at lunch. "I'd've been thrilled to have a cafeteria like this when I first started," she says, checking her watch. "And the food is great"

What's their biggest complaint?

"If they offer claim chowder, they want chili," she shrugs. "If they've got chili, they want clam chowder."

As we leave, Jef waves goodbye to the chef and grabs a toothpick. "Hey — if we served lobster and steak every day they'd complain."

We step into the afternoon sunlight. No stars spotted along the fairways nor between parked limos. Larry King is supposedly dining upstairs; I wonder if his waitress is at the Hideaway having her lunch first.

Next stop; Hotel del Coronado, "Too much greasy food," deli manager Larry Peskin tells me when asked what an employee opinion survey revealed. "Now we always offer one low fat entree , poached or baked; we don't touch butter and I'm not heavy on margarine. If we do use fat, we use canola oil."

In March of 1996, Peskin circulated a questionnaire to employees about the cafeteria. On a scale of one to four, the statement "The employee cafeteria serves good food most of the time" garnered a tepid two. "The employee cafeteria is better than last year" barely nudged two and a half. Time to upgrade.

"They wanted more plain pasta dishes, more fresh fruits, a wider variety of fountain drinks." And they wanted their own food. "If you count up our employees ethnically, it's split in thirds — a third Hispanic, a third Filipino and a third Caucasian. William Rivera, our chef, makes tacos every Tuesday. Now we also have pancit and lumpia. We want to be fair to everybody." In that spirit, today's chef special is knockwurst and sauerkraut.

If you were strolling the Del's promenade, taking in views of sand and sea from the Ocean Terrace deck, you'd walk right past the employee entrance, a narrow passageway that charts a slow zigzag down a cement ramp to a basement level below the Victorian hotel. Bustling along white-walled cement hallways, service employees punch timecards, read bulletin boards announcing union meetings, and check out who's employee of the month while on their way to change into uniforms or eat lunch. The Del's cafeteria comprises two brightly lit rooms that seat 30 tables of four at maximum capacity. A hundred employees walk through these rooms during hot breakfast hours (beginning at 5:30 a.m.), where they can order eggs and bacon or the simpler fresh fruit, bagels and sweet rolls. Lunch serves around 400 employees, "depending on how busy the hotel is," says Peskin. In the evening, around 160 have dinner (the cafeteria opens at 6:00 a.m. and closes at 10:00 p.m.).

"Our employees like Wednesdays — torpedo sandwiches," says Peskin, although every day can be sandwich day, one of four walk-in refrigerators cases displays bologna and cheese, tuna, chicken salad, and sliced roast beef on french rolls. Sitting prettily to the right, two cases of pastries — éclairs, napoleons, tarts, and what appears to be tapioca pudding.

I ask if any of the upstairs restaurants' leftover food ever works its way down here. I barely get the question out before Peskin interjects, shaking his head, "We never use leftovers. Maybe if they order too much meat, we will take the fresh meat and prepare it down here. Williams and I both stay in touch with the upstairs chef and he tells us what's coming. but we never take cooked food."

Five of us sit down at a round table — Eatchel, Peskin (who handles the complete deli operation and it's outlets), chef William Rivera, general manager, Jerry Ramsdade, and I. A quick survey of lunch choices: my salad bar (including fresh broccoli and cauliflower), one stuffed tomato, the German combo, and fajitas, which Jef raves about. Two vats of fresh salsa are made daily, and when I compliment Rivera on the chunky texture with its chopped cilantro biting through, he looks pleased.

After lunch, Eatchel guides me out of the underground web, past another kitchen of clanging pots, hanging utensils, and laundry carts. The rooms are cloyingly warm, almost humid with the steam of machines, the hiss of water. We emerge through receiving, where trucks' supplies are unloaded and dollied away. As we head west toward the Windsor cottage, Eatchel points to a modest building, and says, "That's where President Clinton stayed — one year, anyway."

Just as big hotels have learned to alter employee meals for an ethnically diverse staff, staff must adjust to the menu of a new restaurant.

Kemo Sabe's terra cotta-colored walls, copper braided pillars, and stainless steel tables speak to eclectic tastes. The restaurant's decor combines Asian and Southwestern influences, much like the food that Chef Deborah Scott serves. Diners know they're in for complex, original cuisine. But would dishwashers or busboys be as fond of the ancho-sesame barbecue glazed ahi?

"I've had some employees that just couldn't stand the food at first," Scott tells me. "They looked at the menu and said, 'God, I would never eat that,' But now they've acquired a taste for it. They're eating everything on the menu."

"I ate the ravioli until I was sick of them," says a prep cook, referring to the Anasari ravioli in smoked chili sauce mixed with spices and heavy cream. "I love that sauce. Sometimes I'll just put it on the pepperdelle noodles." What do kitchen workers eat? "Most of the time we'll make up a burrito for the dishwashers. It's fish now. They told me, "No more polio." Another dishwasher didn't like the pasta so he always asked for skirt steak. If we get something unusual they look at it like it's funny, and then they'll say, 'Oh well,' and eat the whole plate anyway."

Other than seafood and fillets, which are off limits, workers can cook whatever they want for themselves. "Most of them eat the skirt steak — the like Skirts on Fire, our trademark dish," says Scott. "It's hot and spicy." When do they eat? "At the end of the night when we're getting slow, we'll make the dishwashers a meal, and they'll go sit out back and eat." It gives them a break before they start cleaning up. The waitstaff eats before or after the shift; they pay half of the price listed on the menu.

"One of the restaurants I worked at years ago had an employee meal — pizza or spaghetti or something," Scott recalls. "That's ok, but not everybody's always hungry at the same time, and not everybody likes the same thing."

Scott believes it's smarter to feed employees what they want. "People in the kitchen — you lose money by not allowing them to be full and to eat during their shift. If I didn't feed them, you'd have them back there sneaking food. I never see that in my kitchen because they're allowed to eat what they want to eat. They're never hungry."

And they're never idle. "They not only cook the food, they offer suggestions. If it works for me, I'll adapt it. One of my employees from Alpine is an artist, he's great with plate decorations. I've got another guy that's my sauce man, and he's also an artist. He works with me on the specialty dinners."

Part of Scott's success at Kemo Sabe could be the lack of single subject job descriptions. "The dishwasher knows how to prep; the pantry person can work a position on the line; the line people know hot to do the prep. Everyone's intertwined, they can go anywhere."

In his five years as a waiter, Eliseo Jimenez has worked for a chain of Mexican restaurants (Garcia's), a tourist attraction (Cafe del Rey Morro in Balboa Park), and now two upscale eateries, (Mission Hills Cafe and Montanas). As he moves up, so does the employee food.

Eliseo and I sit at a table in the patio of Diedrich Coffee in the Uptown District. In his mid 20's, he wears jeans, white T-shirt, and black high tops, a welcome change, he says, from the tuxedo-like uniform he wears as a waiter. Close cropped black hair peeks out through his backwards baseball cap.

"At Garcia's, there were set times and set foods you could eat, your food was deducted from your paycheck. It was a little more relaxed at Cafe del Rey Moro, but not much variety; you couldn't just go and choose something. We tended to get stuff that was...older. If I worked Saturday, I'd see the banquets, see what they served. The next day I'd come to work and see the same food: Saturday's pre-made enchiladas served Sunday. It's as if they thought, 'What do we need to get rid of? The food wasn't bad, but we didn't get a choice."

At Mission Hills Cafe, where he worked the lunch shift for less than a year, "You could eat any time and deduct half an hour off your hourly shift. They limited what we ate -- no fish, no steak -- but you could sit and eat with your friends if you wanted to."

At Montanas, waitstaff is expected to eat in the back of the restaurant or at two tables in front by the bar (out of uniform). But when it comes to food, "We pretty much can eat anything on the menu. I'll have the specials or a skirt steak sandwich — "I love the angelhair pasta. I can eat a half-hour before my shift or half an hour before they close."

What happens to food that comes back to the kitchen partially eaten? One North County waiter who asked for anonymity says he's seen kitchen help — often Hispanics not fluent in English or aware of health code violations — fed differently. "Lets say a customer ordered something like a T-bone, took a few bites out of it, and decided they didn't like it. The waiter takes it back to the kitchen. The rule is your supposed to throw it away. But sometimes [the cook] will give it to these guys (in the kitchen). Some of them don't speak English well. They don't know it's against the law. And they're not going to say anything. They need this job."

For Eliseo, being Latino has its advantages — especially when the cooks are also Latino. "Everywhere I've worked so far, all the kitchen help has been Latinos. When I wanted something special at Cafe del Ray Moro, they'd prepare it for me. If I needed something fast, I'd just yell it in Spanish over everyone else."

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