That we are a nation of immigrants is clearly evident when looking at the restaurant industry. “If you were to take all the immigrants out of restaurants in Minneapolis, there wouldn’t be any functioning restaurants,” said Daniel del Prado, chef at four-star Burch Steak and Pizza Bar in Minneapolis. He would know. He’s an immigrant, from Argentina. Hardworking immigrants have been a key power source for the local dining scene since Minnesota became a state, and thank goodness for that, seeing as how they are constantly invigorating our insular, snow-covered culture by importing flavors, customs, ingredients and ingenuity from every corner of the globe.
Contemplate the 1970s and 1980s, when an influx of Southeast Asian refugees had a profound impact on the way Minnesotans ate, and on so many levels: through exposure via restaurants and supermarkets, and farms and farmers markets.
On a more micro level, consider German-born Eberhard Werthmann, who enjoyed a long and fruitful career as a cooking instructor at what is now St. Paul College, where during a 32-year tenure he trained an estimated 1,500 professional cooks.
Or Maria Elena Hoyos of Colombia, she of Maria’s Cafe in Minneapolis, famous for its cachapas, fresh corn pancakes. Or Patrick and Azita Bernet, a French couple who have vastly improved the previously barren pastry and bread landscapes of Richfield and Maple Grove. Or Bea Karngar, who introduces West African flavors and traditions through her City Afrique Restaurant in Minneapolis.
Or Kieran Folliard, who built and sold a collection of Irish pubs, then built, and sold, an Irish whiskey brand (yes, he’s from Ireland), and then founded a pioneering craft-foods incubator in northeast Minneapolis that he dubbed the Food Building.
The list could go on and on.
That’s not even including the countless laborers who wash dishes, mop floors, bus tables, scrub vegetables and perform the grunt work necessary to maintain the busy, complicated world of restaurants.
Anoush Ansari — an Iranian immigrant and a founder of Hemisphere Restaurant Partners, which operates nine Twin Cities restaurants — is puzzled by aspects of the current immigration debate.
“It’s funny to me, because the true Americans in this country are the natives,” he said. “Everyone else came from somewhere else, and everyone comes here for the opportunity.
“Just look back a generation or two, and you were coming here on a boat, and you didn’t speak the language. I worry about America, which has always been the good guy. Now, we’re not always perceived that way.”
According to the National Restaurant Association, Minnesota has nearly 270,000 jobs in the restaurant/food service industry.
There’s no data on the number of immigrants working in those jobs, but given the cornucopia of languages spoken in restaurants, the figures can’t be insignificant. Why? Universal access, says Luis Patino, chef/co-owner of Cafe Racer Kitchen in Minneapolis, and a Colombian immigrant.
“Food is itself its own language,” he said. “Go anywhere and you’ll have the same focus on meats, vegetables, starches, sauces, flavors, crunchy, salty, savory and sweet. This is the language we all speak. I don’t need to actually talk to you to communicate. That’s one reason why an immigrant might approach this industry with ease. It’s because food connects us more than anything else.”