Viva Jaxicano! No matter the cuisine, Latinos rule local kitchens
JACKSON HOLE, WYO – He looks like Santa Claus. Or a bear. Or maybe a Latino Santa Claus bear.
Fluffy’s dark hair, thick and wavy with only the faintest hints of grey, frames a wide, white-toothed smile and expansive cheeks. The smiles are frequent and the cheeks quick to color, especially when Fluffy talks about something that excites him, particularly food.
For valley foodies, Fluffy, (real name Miguel Angel Gonzales), is better than Santa Claus and bears. Since opening in May, he has been the head chef at Persephone Bakery Café.
Fluffy was born in Mexico City and grew up eating and cooking traditional Mexican food. During his 21 years in Jackson Hole, he has prepped food and chefed in professional kitchens including The Lame Duck, Cadillac, The Range, Rendezvous Bistro, The Kitchen, GameFish, Rising Sage Café, and, now, Persephone, where he creates decidedly non-Mexican items such as brioche French toast and truffled baked eggs.
And Fluffy is not alone. Today, Latinos rule the valley’s kitchens, from fast food to fine dining.
“When I started working for Gavin [Fine, founder of Fine Dining Restaurant Group], 14 years ago, it was me and one other Latino guy in the kitchen,” says Jorge Checker, who still works for Fine. “Now, all of the guys on the line in all of the kitchens are Latino.”
Joe Rice, founder and owner of Blue Collar Restaurant Group, which includes The Merry Piglets, Sidewinders, Pizza Antica, Bubba’s, Café Dolce, and Ignight, confirms the trend. “I think I was one of the first guys to hire Mexican cooks.”
Rice began hiring Mexican cooks in the early 1990s and now employs more than 100 in his kitchens.
Today, with the exception of the group’s executive chef, Michael Burke, and Pizza Antica’s head chef, Alex Demmon, 100 percent of Blue Collar’s cooks and chefs are Mexican.
“Without Mexicans, we wouldn’t be able to survive,” Rice says. “There’s not a workforce we have to choose from other than Latinos.” Prior to the influx of Latinos, Rice says he had “high school kids” and “ski bums” to choose from.
“Across the board, the Mexican guys who work for me are much better employees,” Rice says. “Their work ethic is unparalleled – ‘hard worker’ doesn’t begin to describe them – they’re prompt, they listen, and, unlike some others, they always show up. And, man, do they want to work.”
As head chef at Persephone Bakery Café, Fluffy is working only one job for the first time since he moved to the valley. “I have two whole days off now,” he says.
“All of my guys work in at least two of our restaurants,” Rice says. “They all want two jobs. If you don’t give them two jobs, they’ll go somewhere else. I have some guys who work at three concepts.”
Allison Cohane, managing owner at Persephone Bakery Café, agrees. “We’re in the off-season now and white people are really excited to have some time off so they can travel,” she says. “The Latinos who work for us, though, they don’t want time off. We’re trying to find elsewhere for them to work – in our wholesale or bakery – to keep their hours up so they don’t go elsewhere.”
Checker, who worked at Kmart and Teton Motors before being hired by Fine Dining Group, today works at Rendezvous Bistro and Q. “Sometimes I’ll also do Osteria and help out with catering,” he says.
“In the summer, I don’t have any days off,” says Checker, who has lived in Evans Trailer Park for about a decade. “But I don’t want any off. I have a wife and three kids. My son is 17 and almost finished with high school. I’m saving money for his college.”
Rice’s longest-working employee, Miguel Enriquez, was able to buy an affordable home near Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis, and send a son, Sahir Enriquez, to college. Sahir also works for Blue Collar.
“Eighteen years ago Miguel started with me as a dishwasher and now Sahir sometimes works as a server at Sidewinder’s, when he’s not away at school,” Rice said. Sahir attends University of Montana and wants to go to physical therapy school, “so Sidewinder’s is just a very temporary job for him,” Rice says.
Mario Morales is another second-generation employee at Blue Collar. His father, Francisco Perez, works at Bubba’s. “During summer, I work seven mornings and six nights. My night off, I rest,” Mario said.
Mario is saving money to open a restaurant of his own.
“My dad inspired me, as did watching my grandmother cook when I was a kid,” Morales says. “I knew I wanted to be a cook. When I wanted a restaurant job, a friend, Nacho, was working for Joe at the time, and told me I should come in and talk to Joe. So I did.”
Rice hired Morales after a weeklong test run. “When I first went to talk to him, he told me to come in for a week, and we’d go from there,” Morales says. “It worked out.”
“Mario is only 21, but he runs Ignight’s kitchen most nights and is our most naturally talented guy,” Rice said. “His presentations and the dishes he puts out – whoa.”
If he wasn’t a chef, Mario, who moved to Jackson from Mexico with his family when he was eight, says he would be a Web designer.
Instead, he hopes to grow his culinary career. “In five years, I’d like to have my own restaurant,” he says. “It would be a traditional Mexican place; I’d make the fresh, traditional food I grew up with.”
Although Latinos far outnumber whites in Jackson Hole kitchens, white men still hold nearly all kitchen management and executive chef positions.
Blue Collar is an exception. Yes, Chef Michael Burke, formerly of Teton Pines and Burke’s Chophouse, is the group’s executive chef, but Enriquez is the kitchen manager at Dolce at The Merry Piglets and the night manager at Sidewinder’s.
Ignight’s kitchen manager, Ignacio Espanazo, is also Latino. It is there that Morales has been able to influence the menu, creating a couple of sushi rolls. His Semper Fi roll is carne asada, cilantro, jalapeno, Scottish salmon, avocado, and siracha soy sauce.
“I work with a great group and watching what they do inspires me,” Morales says.
Fluffy is another exception. Gonzales earned the name “Fluffy” because he was always yelling after the family’s dog, named Fluffy. “The dog never listened to me.”
While Fluffy finally rose to a leadership position, Cohane says he is the exception. “It seems to me that the Latino workforce is kind of on the line and not many have stepped into the position of running a line and influencing a menu.”
Cohane says Fluffy got the job despite not having the experience with French cooking other applicants demonstrated. “I fielded applications for three months from lots of very qualified people.”
However, “Fluffy has lots of experience in Latino cooking and lots with the kind of cooking he had been doing at the Kitchen – Asian fusion – but, in the end, it was his commitment to this valley and his life here and his eagerness to try new things and to grow with us that sold us. In this transient town, Fluffy is obviously here to stay.”
After getting the Persephone job, Cohane says Fluffy “devoured” French cookbooks. “He was eating it up and so excited to get going with it,” she says.
Last week, the two were collaborating on an updated fall menu. “He’s definitely bringing a Latin influence to it,” Cohane says. “We’re looking at how to incorporate that into something French.”
Don’t be surprised if there’s soon a spicy bean soup on Persephone’s menu. “We’re looking at a French twist on that that would work: maybe substituting French beans for black beans, while keeping the same spices,” Cohane said. “Fluffy’s excitement over trying new things is inspiring us to do the same.”
“Ever since I started in kitchens here, I’ve been fortunate to have people who have helped me and pushed me,” Fluffy says. “I want to keep getting pushed and continue to get better. I think that’s what all of us want to do.”