By Paul Croshal

I recently had a conversation with my nephew, who is set to start high school in the Fall.  While my high school music advice (Van Halen, Night Ranger, Bon Jovi) fell on deaf ears, he was interested in what I had to say about friends and coworkers. Here was my advice; “When you start high school, start working and continue on to college, make an effort to learn from and befriend people that don’t look like you.” He happens to have blonde hair and blue eyes.

This advice made a world of difference in my life. By the time I was 17 I was already onto my third kitchen – where I met my first chef.  At the time, there were 18 cooks in that kitchen; only three of us weren’t Latino.  It was the first time I had ever been in the minority.  It was a little intimidating at first; I had never heard so many words in a foreign language before.  But after making the effort to learn a few words (Caliente being my first) they realized I wasn’t like the other white guys in the kitchen, I was interested.

Soon after, during my morning shifts, I was invited to join them in family meals.  It was the first time I’d ever tried Arroz con Leche.  I still remember the spice of the cinnamon mixed with the heavy starch and milk, – It was glorious.

As time went on and I started learning more Spanish and pulling more shifts with that crew, my mind opened up.  I always thought I knew a thing or two about hard work – my parents are Irish and Portuguese, not lazy role models, but when I started learning phrases like “ya me voy a mi otro trabajo” (I’m going to my other job), I suddenly understood what a solid work ethic was.  I discovered that unless I was working an 80-hour week, I had nothing to bitch about.  This also taught me to take better pride in my work.

They showed me that I truly had a Kitchen Family.  They took the time to scold me when I spoke too familiarly with Lupe, an 85-year-old former Mexican Federale with a knife scar from his navel to his sternum. “When you talk with Lupe, you say coma ESTA, not estas.” They taught me better techniques to be more efficient and get more done.  This crew was as refreshing as the cold side of a pillow, – when things would get insanely busy, everyone kept their cool.  This was particularly true for Flaco (which I later learned means ‘skinny’ – aliases are important in the kitchen).  Chef explained to me how Flaco would come back to Napa after living for a year or so in Mexico.  He would work for a stretch, save all his paychecks and go live like a King back home.  That always sounded like a fine life.  When we weren’t working, they always invited me to have barbecues in the park. I was very fortunate.

I have a thousand more memories from those days.  Generally speaking, everyone was good to each other.  But in every family it’s normal to have disagreements every once in a while, right? These were some of my first steps on this journey, and I wouldn’t trade them in for a kingship.

Peace and Chicken Grease.