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Up the Cooking Ladder


Thirty-five-year-old Gilbert Castro is from El Salvador; 25-year-old Luis Martinez hails from Mexico. Neither of them, by their own admission, had even boiled water before arriving in the United States.

But a new-found passion for cooking has pushed them steadily up the food-industry ladder, and today, sous-chef Castro and sous-chef-in-training Martinez are two of many Latino immigrants that have found their niche in the growing diversity of Southern California's kitchens.

If you think that only a French-trained chef can devise a real Bearnaise sauce, or that only an Italian cook can produce true al dente pasta, consider that according to the 1990 census, 66.73% of the cooks in Los Angeles County restaurants are of Latino descent. Those places include all the restaurants you've heard of--including Spago and Patina--and even the tiniest ethnic restaurant, from Korean barbecue joints and Japanese noodle shops to Russian delis and soul food houses.

Walk into almost any restaurant in Southern California and you'll find Latinos in the kitchen. Latinos are the supporting cast to celebrity chefs and the backbone of even the humblest hamburger stand.

Most, like Castro and Martinez, start at the bottom of the totem pole as dishwashers, one of the few jobs available in Southern California that requires limited skills and no English. From there, many become prep cooks, but few ever reach the top position in the kitchen. They chop the onions, peel the carrots, tend the sauces, work the grills, but rarely do they meet the press. The most famous example of someone who rose from dishwasher to head chef of a high-profile restaurant is Martin Garcia--he headed the kitchen at Michael's in Santa Monica for seven years.

It may be that many Latinos get their first breaks as dishwashers and prep cooks because they are willing to work for less money than chef-school graduates, but the pot scrubbers and onion-peelers who do rise to sous-chef and beyond are getting their training the old-fashioned way, through the apprentice system that is still in place in many of France's great three-star restaurants.

What follows is a look behind the scenes of two Southern California restaurants with two Latino chefs on the rise.

Gilbert Castro

Gilbert Castro is an early riser. By 6:30 every morning, after eating a hearty home-cooked breakfast, he's en route from his home in North Hills to Cha Cha Cha in Encino, where, as sous-chef, he'll spend the day feverishly cooking other people's brunches and dinners, Caribbean style.

For Castro, the ascent from dishwasher to sous-chef has taken a laborious 15 years, of which the last three--in Cha Cha Cha's kitchen--were decisive.

"I started here as a dishwasher, working a few hours a day," recalls Castro who was forced to leave El Salvador when the war broke out. Castro talks as he does the prep work for this Saturday's brunch. It is 8 a.m. and he's been in the kitchen, which he opens every morning, for nearly an hour.

Encino's Cha Cha Cha is one of three Southern California restaurants with the same name that specialize in Latin and Caribbean cuisine. The original Los Angeles branch at Melrose and Virgil and a Long Beach branch are owned by the chain's co-founder Toribio Prado, who himself rose from cook at Ivy at the Shore to prominent Latino restaurateur with a small empire of places, including Cava and Prado. Lee R. Laine, who opened the Ventura Boulevard Cha Cha Cha is now the principal owner of the Encino restaurant.

None of the dishes Castro makes at Cha Cha Cha can be traced back to his native El Salvador, but that doesn't bother him. He's too busy. Right now he's mixing batter for French toast and pancakes in one pan; in another, he's clarifying butter, and in a third, fresh tuna steaks for tuna salad are poaching in a spicy broth.

Castro, who worked as a farm administrator in El Salvador, is in charge of ordering all ingredients at Cha Cha Cha and supervising the kitchen staff (all Latinos) in the chef's absence. Today he makes sure all prep work is done by the time brunch orders start pouring in.

Prior to Cha Cha Cha, Castro worked a variety of jobs--none particularly promising--as dishwasher, prep cook and cook for a fast-food seafood restaurant.

"People always get an opportunity and mine came here," he says. "There was an American chef who helped us a lot. He said, 'learn and when an opportunity comes up I'll move you.' "

Castro moved, from dishwasher to prep cook, to bread maker to pastry chef and finally, a year and a half ago, he became sous-chef.

"I never get bored here," he adds as he tests pasta for doneness and starts chopping vegetables. "And I love to cook."

It's 10:30 a.m now and Castro has some 10 pots to watch: beans in one, rice in another, chips frying for chilaquiles in the next, seasoned chicken breasts in the oven. There's not a lot of imaginative cooking going on at this time, but rather a show of supervision and organization, something Castro knows how to do well.

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