Monica Marulanda regularly arrives to work at 5:30 a.m. at the renowned No. 9 Park, where she prepares the award-winning pasta. Originally from Colombia, she got a foot in the door at the restaurant and, through the guidance and support of her mentor Barbara Lynch, has risen as a prized contributor to the local culinary scene.
Across town, Marcos Che Cucul bikes from his rented apartment in Allston to his job as prep cook in a restaurant on Boylston Street. He also washes dishes at a Commonwealth Avenue restaurant near Boston University. The immigrant from Guatemala works about 12 hours a day, six days a week for barely the minimum wage, making about $550 weekly. He only takes Saturdays off.
Every so often at a fancy restaurant in Boston the kitchen door swings open as you walk by. If you catch a glimpse inside, chances are many of the kitchen workers, pivoting in the hot and tight clutter seemingly a world away from the elegant dining room, are Latinos.
It’s an open secret, something generally understood but rarely talked about publicly in the local food industry. Immigrant labor from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Brazil is the engine behind much of Boston’s booming dining scene, great and not-so-great restaurants alike. The entrepreneur, or the chef, gets the credit. But it’s Latinos and other immigrants doing most of the work.
And it is tough work, to say the least. Latinos take the kitchen jobs because it’s often the best work they can get. There’s little to none of the glamour that’s often associated with running a restaurant. And, given that they are the low men and women on the totem pole, it’s common for restaurant owners to take advantage of them.
The financial exploitation is rampant. That’s because immigrants often aren’t aware of the labor rules and often feel they don’t have the leverage to defend their rights even when they know they are being cheated. All the same, there’s a growing backlash and a litany of cases brought against a broad swath of restaurants in greater Boston by the US Department of Labor. A year ago, the department reached a settlement with Marc Kadish, who owns a trio of Boston restaurants, including the Sunset Grill, for $675,000 in back wages and liquidated damages for wage law violations, including failing to pay overtime.
But with so much potential talent circulating in Boston’s growing number of restaurant kitchens, occasionally an immigrant worker finds a champion, a smart owner or manager who puts an employee on the path to culinary success, as in the case of Monica Marulanda, who started at the bottom. But Monica is an outlier, lucky that the business-savvy Lynch had the instincts to recognize her potential. A disproportionate percentage are overworked and underpaid. So, one fair question for the restaurant industry is: Does it have to be feast or famine for its workforce?
The closest thing to a champion Marcos Che Cucul has found in Boston is a nonprofit agency that has helped try to recover thousands in lost wages when the restaurant he was working at a food preparer stopped paying him. Che Cucul, 36, came to Boston six years ago and found work at Mumbai Chopstix on Newbury Street in 2010.
He said he was getting paid a salary of $375 a week — in cash — working 12 hours per day, six days a week. “Then, after about three months, the problems started,” he told me. “They just didn’t pay us. They’d say mañana, mañana, mañana. I kept working. What else could I do? We didn’t have any other jobs.”
What could he do? Eventually, after a few starts and stops with Mumbai Chopstix, which went out of business last year, and failed attempts to get his back pay, he learned about Centro Presente, a community organizing group for immigrants. Last October, Che Cucul and six other workers filed a federal lawsuit, which was still pending as of Thursday, to recover what they claimed were $183,500 in unpaid wages, minimum wages, and overtime at restaurants part of One World Cuisine, a group owned by Amrik S. Pabla of Lexington.
“I haven’t thought of what I’ll do with the money if they pay me. I think they’ll pay. We have been fighting for this money for a while. They have to pay us,” Che Cucul tells me while looking away, almost to convince himself that they will in fact pay and justice will be served.
Pabla, after I reached him by phone, denied One World Cuisine has done anything wrong. “We’re immigrants . . . we are a family business and have been for more than 40 years,” Pabla told me. “We have all the proper documents, we have not done anything wrong, and we will prove that in court.” He then referred all questions to his lawyer, John Lewis, who added: “There is litigation pending and if we agreed on things, we wouldn’t be having a lawsuit. Our company complies to every applicable law.”
During the summer, Centro Presente staged a protest outside the home of Pabla in Lexington. Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, said her group distributed flyers to the neighbors “so that they know who these people are.” Pabla’s home, she said, is valued at about $2 million. One World’s current holdings include Bukhara Restaurant in Jamaica Plain, Diva Indian Bistro in Somerville’s Davis Square, and Dosa Factory in Cambridge. Montes said Centro Presente already had settled a smaller case with One World before they were made aware of Che Cucul’s.
Meanwhile, Che Cucul is back working in the kitchen and though he says he is undocumented, he is fighting the system all the same. After being asked if he’s lost the fear of getting deported if he fights for his rights, of speaking up, of giving Spanish-language TV interviews, he says, chuckling: “Not at all. I am still afraid of speaking up, even though I’ve spoken up and stood up for myself a lot during this campaign.”
There was a time when Monica Marulanda would have been hard pressed to speak up for herself, as she was also undocumented in her early years on the Boston restaurant scene. Marulanda, 42, came to Boston 21 years ago from Colombia. Her first job was at Weylu’s on Route 1 in Saugus.
“Back then, pretty much all of us working at Weylu’s were Latinos — Colombians. We started working in restaurants because it was an easy job to get, we would get hired easily,” she says. “It wasn’t a lot of money but that kind of job opened the doors and it was a start.”
She added: “I was also working at a factory. I always had two jobs. In the morning from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the shoe factory and then starting at 5 p.m. in Weylu’s until midnight or 1 a.m.”
After a few restaurants jobs, including working as a busgirl at Figs and Olives for Todd English, she learned that Barbara Lynch was about to open her first restaurant, No. 9 Park on Beacon Hill. Marulanda had become intrigued with food prep, and Lynch brought her on and eventually taught her how to make pasta.
“We were so busy when it started. Everything Barbara told me, I would write it down,” Marulanda said. “I still have that notebook. Because my English wasn’t that good, she would repeat things to me. But I would get involved and do everything she’d say. She says that what she saw in me, outside of being a hard worker, was my attitude and that I had potential. She would say, ‘I want to explore that potential.’ That’s when she started teaching me the pasta stuff.”
Marulanda does not hedge when she talks about Lynch’s role in her life: “I am what I am because of Barbara. She is my mentor. She taught me so much, she has helped me so much. I have my green card because of her. She sponsored me. When she realized they were about to give me my green card she said, I have a present for you. It was tickets to go to Paris; she flew me there in 2004.”
About sponsoring Marulanda, Lynch said: “I didn’t second-guess it, I didn’t second-question it. I had the potential to know lawyers who could help her. Any right-minded person who has great employees would look at that. I try to do that with all my employees. It’s not about me, it’s about growing them.”
Marulanda eventually was offered a great job at the Four Seasons. She currently maintains the two positions: pasta chef at No. 9 Park — where she daily prepares its prune-stuffed gnocchi, named one of the five all-time-best-dishes in the city by The Boston Globe in 2009 — and at the Bristol Lounge in the Four Seasons. Marulanda has also helped Lynch launch the other restaurants in her group, often training other chefs how to make pasta.
About the simmering Latino potential in Boston’s kitchen, Marulanda said: “We are all undercover. Some Latinos are focused on just making money and return to their home countries; they have another mentality. There are a lot of dishwashers that are excellent, have good presence, and are hard workers — why can’t they progress more? Many because of the language, many because of their lack of papers, many lack the vision to stay here and make a career. They want to go back.”
Still, there is room for fairer treatment of workers in the kitchen. “I think I was able to give Monica self-esteem, pride, dignity. If you can give a person dignity, and show them that you care, they’re going to work for you no matter what,” said Lynch. “A lot of restaurants aren’t like mine,” said Lynch. “I’m not a flash in the pan. I have to make a living out of this. If I’m going to work 110 hours, I want to work with the people I want to work with. And I want them to be treated just like I want to be treated.”
Marcela García is a special correspondent at Telemundo Boston and a contributor to the Boston Business Journal.