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A Recipe for Success : Retired chef helps low-wage restaurant workers learn English and move up to skilled jobs. : HEARTS OF THE CITY / Where dilemmas are aired and unsung heros and resiliency are celebrated.

November 01, 1995|ABIGAIL GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the restaurant business, there are two coexisting worlds.

There is the English-speaking front-room world, with higher-paying positions that offer opportunities for promotion. And there is the mostly Spanish-speaking back-room life, with low-wage, nearly invisible, dead-end jobs.

Bridging the two are Fermin Lesaca and his English lessons.

A former head chef at L.A.'s famed Brown Derby restaurants, the 69-year-old native of Spain's Basque region spent more than 40 years in the restaurant business in Europe and the United States.

Now, in his retirement, he is on a mission to share what he has learned with everyone from busboys to sous chefs in hopes that they can prosper here as much as he has.

The first lesson he teaches is the importance of learning English.

"Better communication means a better life," Lesaca tells prospective students. "Otherwise you will be a busboy forever." Since April, Lesaca has been visiting restaurants four days a week in Pasadena, where he lives--he has been to roughly 200 so far--recruiting new students and encouraging old ones to keep working at their language skills.

A member of the San Gabriel Valley Literacy Council, Lesaca shepherds his flock to the council's Pasadena office for classes and holds tutorials in restaurant dining rooms in the pre-mealtime hours.

Abel Cardenas, 30, the head chef at the Holly Street Bar & Grill, started informal English lessons with Lesaca five years ago, when Cardenas was a prep cook and Lesaca was the restaurant's head chef. Now Cardenas takes pride in passing on what he's learned, from English skills to cooking tips.

A few weeks ago, as Lesaca watched, Cardenas demonstrated his teaching skills by showing a new prep cook how to clean calamari.

The newcomer, 26-year-old Sergio Telles, watched Cardenas' technique and practiced separating the blackish tentacles from the white covering. The two, dressed in crisp kitchen whites, spoke English as they worked, with Cardenas gently correcting Telles' attempts.

"We speak a little bit and a little bit more every day," Cardenas explained. "I am teaching him the way Fermin taught me.

"Without English I might be a busboy or washing dishes making $4.25 an hour," Cardenas added. "If you don't speak English it's very hard to make good money."

Lesaca watched his student--and his student's student--with pride. "What happened to me is happening to Abel," Lesaca said. "You can improve yourself and your situation."

Until recently, Lesaca was a student at the Literacy Council. Although his English was good, he had always worried that his accent--which sounds like a heavy, French lilt--got in the way.

Still, his early years in the restaurant business in the United States were easier for him than for many of his students, he said, since he spoke Spanish and French, and initially worked in French restaurants.

When he gained more confidence in his English, Lesaca and the council began to formalize a free restaurant training program.

English is only part of the instruction. Lesaca--a fast-talking, faster-moving man--is hellbent on teaching good hygiene, passionate about proper food preparation and tyrannical about taste.

His students are taught to dress appropriately, center their tablecloths, inspect glasses for lipstick and clean their food expertly. The lessons are meted out with the patient tone of someone who has uttered each instruction a thousand times.

"When you make something, you taste," Lesaca told the Holly Street kitchen workers. "If it's not good for you, it's not good for the customer. You be proud of what you make.

"Bad food takes the same time and the same money to make as good food," he added as he made his way out of the kitchen.

But cooking skills, Lesaca believes, ensure advancement only when coupled with language skills. Without English, he says, a worker with the finest techniques and the best attitude in the world might never be promoted.

Lesaca thought he was done with the restaurant business when he retired from the Brown Derby 10 years ago. That is when the owners of the Holly Street Bar & Grill asked for his assistance in training the staff and taking on the title of head chef. He agreed and the result was spectacular, the owners said.

"He trained a lot of dishwashers into pantry cooks and trained pantry cooks into chefs," said Alexis Nassif, a Holly Street co-owner. "He's helped everyone."

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The Beat

Today's centerpiece focuses on a retired chef who helps restaurant workers learn English. To get involved in similar ESL or literacy programs, call:

The San Gabriel Valley Literacy Council, Ellen Herring, (818) 795-7987.

In Los Angeles, the Library Adult Reading Program, William Byrne, (213) 228-7540.

The San Fernando Valley Literacy Council, Violet Hutchens, (818) 781-3884

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