We spend a lot of time, here at Squid Ink, writing about restaurants and their food. How it tastes, how it smells, how it looks. Sometimes, we even talk about where that food comes from. Maybe we celebrate the chef who cooked it. One thing we almost never discuss: The people who, day-in and day-out, make that food and bring it to your table. Amid the belt-tightening of the recession and the belt-loosening of Valentine's Day (the single biggest restaurant day of the year), we think it's time to shed a little light on the line cooks, waiters, runners, servers and dishwashers who often work grueling hours for little pays so diners can enjoy grilled octopus with palm hearts or steamed duck with lemon verbena or a towering burger.
35-year-old Gilbert Solorza, who grew up around Norwalk, works 90-100 hours per week at three different restaurant jobs. He's a busser and runner at a hotel, a food runner at an upscale restaurant in downtown LA and is in training to work as a busser and runner at a mid-city restaurant set to open next month.
He says he gets paid $8 to $8.50 per hour at each job plus whatever he gets tipped out by his servers, which adds up to $60 - 100 per day. He knows that soon, he'll have to give up one of his jobs, leaving whichever job gives him the fewest hours. Each job is part-time, so he has no health care benefits, no vacations and no sick time. That means when he's sick, unless it's so bad he can't walk, he usually goes into work. So does almost everyone else -- not just at his restaurants but at nearly every restaurant in the city.
"It's very, very common," Solorza says. "We ain't got not benefits. But we gotta do what we all gotta do because we all got rent and bills."
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In fact, he missed two shifts earlier this week because of a nasty flu, i.e. 13 hours of lost income. "I'm afraid to call in sick. I'm afraid to take a day off. Sometimes they let me make it up. But I don't like taking sick days unless I really, really need them."
Solorza has been in the restaurant industry since he was a teenager, working at diners, pizzerias, sports bars and various mom-and-pop restaurants. He shifted to fine dining a few years ago because it's more stable and the restaurants less likely to close. "The fresh food, the ingredients, the quality. I've noticed the difference going from the little fast-food places to fine dining," Solorza says.
Gordon Ramsay is his hero, but Solorza prefers working the front of the house, and loves talking with people. He hopes to graduate to waiter this year. "I start at the bottom and work my way up. I know every restaurant runs differently, so I get to know everything and everyone around me. I like to earn my stars and stripes." To that end, Solorza has been studying menus, carefully shadowing his servers, learning about wines and helping out by taking orders from customers when the waiters are busy.
Why does Solorza stay in such a demanding industry? "I have a passion for food."