Area eateries offer opportunities for immigrants
An Internet search of the term “immigration” currently generates more results—224 million—than many of the presidential candidates debating the issue (Donald Trump is closest at 215 million). As the 2016 run for the White House really heats up in the coming months, odds are that number will rise.
But no matter on what side of this hot button issue you fall, there is no debating that immigrants are a major part of the restaurant industry. Even Wilmington has its own feel-good stories of those who have come to the United States looking for opportunity, and found it in the hospitality industry.
Three that stand out include a 25-year-old Vietnamese graduate student who is part of a cultural exchange program, a Slovakian chef whose recipes dominate the menu of a popular diner, and a sushi chef whose name is synonymous with the First State’s varied culinary landscape.
Be it through work visa, green card, or international exchange, each one is making the most of his or her time in a Delaware restaurant, and the hungry masses patronizing these restaurants are reaping the culinary benefits.
An International Exchange
Tham Hong Tran is only 25 years old, but the Ho Chi Minh City University of Foreign Languages and Information Technology graduate student has already done more traveling than many of her classmates. Currently, thanks to an international exchange program, she is spending one year learning all aspects of restaurant management at Ubon Thai Cuisine on the Wilmington Riverfront.
“I’m getting a chance to learn how a restaurant works in America, but at the same time seeing it through Asian cuisines, which I’m familiar with,” Tran says. “I came here in December, and Ubon has helped me feel at home. They set me up with a place to stay, my English is getting better, and I’m really enjoying my time in America.”
Chai Milburn, creative director at Ubon, says the exchange program is coordinated through two companies: RMC & Associates, a hospitality and culinary consulting firm, and CCI Greenheart, a nonprofit that handles visa programs, short-term and long-term family hosting, and travel between the U.S. and 30 countries around the world.
“The program really is an amazing opportunity for everyone involved,” Milburn says. “We get a committed employee interested in learning every aspect of how our restaurant is managed, and the intern gains the knowledge they can take back to their home country to help them find full-time employment when they graduate.”
Milburn says this is the second year Ubon has participated in the program. This spring, they are expecting students from Nepal and the Philippines. The program is intended to bring on both front-of-house and back-of-house staff, so they are looking forward to hosting some potential Asian chefs this year.
“The Asian population is somewhat small in Delaware, and the Thai population even more so,” Milburn says. “Because most of our family is still in Thailand, we wanted an opportunity to bring in more variety and more Asian influence to our menu. This program gives us that opportunity, which is something I wish I had in college.”
Through December of 2016, Tran will continue to learn how to make the popular Asian-influenced cocktails served at Ubon, and will become completely immersed in the menu and the day-to-day business operations. By September, her final “project” will require her to plan an event at Ubon—from soup to nuts (so to speak).
“I’ll be working hard all year to understand what the clientele wants and to put together an event or dinner before returning home,” Tran says. “I’m very much looking forward to creating a menu with food and drinks, and seeing everything through to the end of my internship. It’s exciting.”
A Lucky Landing Spot
Chef Rudy Tallo has also been able to create new dishes and lend his own recipes to the menu at Lucky’s Diner on Concord Pike. Since arriving from Slovakia in 2011, Tallo has won over guests with his pierogies and blintzes, and the popular diner now features a special Slovak menu seven days a week.
“When I came here from Slovakia, after five years in England, I didn’t know very much English, and worked 40 hours at Lucky’s and 40 hours at Grotto Pizza,” Tallo says. “I never really worked on the kitchen line before, but I worked as a baker in Slovakia for years, so they had me start making pastries here.”
Manager Matt Tyrawski says that Tallo’s pastries, croissants and other baked goods became very popular, and baking became his first step up the ladder. After he was promoted to head chef and kitchen manager, Tyrawski and Tallo began working on the Slovak menu.
“I do beef goulash and roasted game hen with stuffing, but I think the most popular item is the potato pancakes stuffed with sautéed chicken,” Tallo says. “I do them on Fridays and Saturdays, and start with 12 each day. But by 4 p.m., I’m making 12 more, and then it got up to 35 or 40 each day. People seem to like it.”
Tyrawski agrees, saying the potato pancakes “absolutely fly out of here,” and sales of Chef Rudy’s dishes and customer feedback have been through the roof. Tyrawski isn’t sure if Tallo would have had the same opportunity at a place like Grotto’s, but he’s pleased how things have worked out at Lucky’s.
“Maybe if Rudy had worked somewhere more corporate, they wouldn’t have handed the keys to the kitchen to someone with just a green card,” Tyrawski says. “I don’t know, maybe a privately owned company like ours offers more opportunity. All I know is that Rudy has made the most out of his chances here.”
After five years of working under green card status, Tallo can apply to become a United States citizen in May. Until then, he is studying to take his citizenship test while holding down his full-time gig, and is living a dream.
“When I first came to the United States, I wanted to see my mom, who married an American soldier and had been here for 20 years,” Tallo says. His stepfather, Fred Abel, has a son from a previous marriage, who played soccer with Tyrawski in high school, hence their connection.
“It’s turned into a new life for me,” Tallo says. “I’m so happy when people tell me my goulash is authentic, or the pierogies are the best they’ve ever tasted.” He hopes to become a U.S. citizen later this year, and then work on bringing his girlfriend, Barbara, from Slovakia, so that she too can one day become an American citizen.
Rolling with The Changes
Foodies, critics, sushi fans, festival organizers, you name it: almost everyone knows Chef Al Chu, who has been a staple behind the sushi bar at Mikimoto’s for 15 years. A Chinese immigrant, Chu arrived in the U. S. in 1978, grew up on Long Island, attended college in Buffalo, and learned the art of sushi in 1997.
“I started working in a bank after college, but got tired of it and went to work in a Chinese restaurant in New York with my sister in the 1980s,” Chu says. “So I had opportunities other than working in a restaurant, but I know that a lot of first-generation Chinese immigrants could always find work in restaurants or the garment industry.”
When Chu’s other sister invited him to work in her West Palm Beach restaurant in Florida, he began to learn the art of making and rolling sushi under Master Sushi Chef Paul Shitaki. Four years later, a friend suggested work in Delaware, where the sushi landscape was filled with opportunity.
“I arrived at Mikimoto’s one year after they opened, and two years later, I took over as executive chef,” Chu says. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve tried to offer similar opportunities to immigrants from China, either through friends of mine back home, or through job placement agencies in New York, where I still have connections.”
Chu says that over his 15 years of employment at Mikimoto’s, he’s hired cooks and chefs that have lasted as little as six months to a year, and as long as 10 years, like one of his counterparts, Chef Lee, hired in 2004.
“The best thing about working in a restaurant, especially if you are coming in from another country, is that you can work without having to speak fluent English,” Chu says. “That’s especially true in the kitchen, where you really only have to communicate with your co-workers, most of whom speak your native language.”
Chu goes on to say, however, that rolling sushi is a different back-of-house animal, in that chefs are on display and are encouraged to put on a show for guests. Learning the basics of the English language is something Chu stresses for new sushi employees, so they can interact with guests.
“Every night here, we put on a show for the guests, and you have to be part of that show,” Chu says.
Chu also says he gives his employees an opportunity to work a basic 40-hour week at Mikimoto’s, and pays them for overtime when the hours are available. A lot of restaurants in China, and even in New York, won’t do that, he says.
Across the spectrum of Delaware restaurants with international employees, it proves true that opportunities for fair working conditions and wages exist. Immigrants who take advantage of those chances are the ones who benefit most.