Food Nation

Who Cooked That: Houston's Service Industry Thrives Thanks to Latino Immigrants

One of many protests in Houston on behalf of immigrants' rights.
One of many protests in Houston on behalf of immigrants' rights. Photo by Meagan Flynn
In 2016, at the height of the Trump campaign media storm, the late Anthony Bourdain said of immigrant workers, "If Mr. Trump deports 11 million people or whatever he's talking about right now, every restaurant in America would shut down."

A long time defender of Hispanic immigrants, Bourdain spoke often of the role that immigrants play in American restaurants. He recalled hiring exclusively Mexican dishwashers and low level help while running his own kitchens; not due to any personal prejudice, but because they were the only ones who applied for those jobs. He explained how, in every kitchen he ever worked, it was the Mexican staff who taught him the ropes, had his back, and picked up the slack for privileged, formally trained chefs like himself.

If you live in Texas, you benefit daily from the work of immigrants. More to the point, you benefit from the affordable labor provided by Latino immigrants. Whether or not you personally employ one, or even choose to do business with immigrants, you benefit from their presence in the work force nonetheless.

The acknowledgment of this fact is critical in light of our nation's immigration crisis — a humanitarian crisis created by the President's zero tolerance and family separation policies. Not the fabricated crisis of an immigrant infestation threatening national security. That crisis is a farce. Not only for the factual inaccuracies upon which it is built, but because it is fundamentally misguided in its objective. Such a policy aims to drain our nation of its most valuable human resources which in turn will mean labor shortages and price hikes on everything from homes to produce.

In Texas, Latino immigrants, many of which are unauthorized, are the lifeblood of several key industries including construction, custodial work, agriculture, and food services. They build our homes, clean our toilets, harvest our crops, and perhaps most importantly, cook and serve much of the food we eat.

They do this work for poverty level incomes (often under illegal working conditions), without benefits or employee protections. All the while serving as political scapegoats and cannon fodder for a political agenda built on xenophobia.

According to 2015 census data, nearly 30 percent of all Accommodation and Food Service workers in the state of Texas are immigrants. That accounts for nearly 350,000 workers. In Construction, the state's fastest growing industry, over 467,000 immigrants make up 40 percent of the labor pool. In total, census data found that 2.9 million immigrants make up 21.5 percent of the total state work force.

A 2015 study by the Migration Policy Institute found that in Houston, 44 percent of the city's 1.4 million immigrants are Mexican. With another 13 percent coming from other Central American countries. The study also finds that Mexican and Central American residents in Houston are less likely than any other group to be citizens. Due in part to their low levels of income and education.

Houston has, in recent years, developed a reputation as one of the nation's premiere culinary destinations. The city's cultural saturation and thriving economy make for an abundance of highly touted restaurants and world class chefs. Show's like Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown, and chef David Chang's Netflix hit, Ugly Delicious, have recently brought to national attention what Houstonians have known for decades; the city's immigrants are what make it such an exciting food scene. While both shows do a wonderful job of spotlighting the area's more obscure immigrant eateries and authentic mom and pop kitchens, both miss on an opportunity to show the immigrants who work Houston's most raved about high-end kitchens.

While Houston still patiently awaits its first Michelin Guide, the city is nonetheless home to some of the country's most awarded chefs and restaurants including James Beard award winners and semifinalists Hugo Ortega, Chris Shephard, Ryan Pera, and Ronnie Killen. These and other talented chefs employ the thousands of Latino cooks, dishwashers, bussers, and servers that make Houston the culinary juggernaut that it is. It is these unsung heroes of the service industry that give the restaurant scene its sterling reputation. Just as it is Mexican and Central American workers who made possible Houston's unprecedented growth in the past 20 years.

So, the next time you hear someone from the Trump administration refer to Central American immigrants as animals, criminals, or infestations, think about the demographics of the Texas economy. Just as the next time you sit down to enjoy a succulent dock confit, fresh pappardelle bolognese, or steaming bowl of chicken pho, ask yourself who cooked it?

Chances are good it was a Mexican.
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Houston Press contributor Carlos Brandon is a freelance writer, blogger, and self proclaimed Houston hip hop historian. He contributes to various publications and can usually be found haggling with food truck cooks or talking politics on the METRO Rail.
Contact: Carlos Brandon