My story is today’s paper is about how the Hamburger Hamlet restaurant chain helped create a Oaxacan kitchen workforce that is now essential to upscale dining in Los Angeles.
I found this out as I began interviewing Zapotec Indians from Oaxaca, Mexico about why there were so many of them in the kitchens of Los Angeles’ best restaurants. I ran into many who told me they started at El Hamlet.
One thing led to another and I discovered that one guy, Asael Gonzalez (pictured above with his wife, Emma, who also worked at El Hamlet), was responsible for grabbing a beachhead there in 1968 and over the next 30 years hiring hundreds upon hundreds of men from Oaxaca’s Sierra Juarez mountains who got their first jobs washing dishes or busing tables at Hamburger Hamlet.
One thing that didn’t make it into the story is that Gonzalez converted to evangelical Christianity in the mid-1970s. When he did this, he changed the religious life of many Zapotecs in L.A. Many converted as well. In the 1970s and 1980s, at least a dozen churches were formed, in Pico-Union and Mid-City, with congregations of Zapotecs who worked at Hamburger Hamlet.
These churches acted as reception centers for arriving immigrants for Oaxaca, where they knew they could find kind words, help finding work, maybe some food and coffee and possible lodging.
All of which makes Gonzalez an enormously influential figure in LA during this time for the way he transformed his own community and parts of the city. I interviewed him and his wife, but family illness kept me from pursuing his story with sufficient depth.
So the story focuses on Marcelino Martinez, who was hired by Gonzalez in 1970 and later became supervisor of kitchens as the chain expanded, training in the kitchens the hundreds of men Gonzalez hired.
When they were amnestied in 1986, they left the Hamlet and spread out to other restaurants, some leaving food preparation entirely.
As the story says, Martinez is still at it, 43 years later. Amazing….
Today, in LA, there are so many Oaxacans with so much skill and experience that they keep restaurant costs low by allowing owners to dig into the vast Zapotec labor pool to quickly replace workers who are leaving, and with almost no training costs.
Zapotec Indians, from a peasant culture where only women prepared food, now make up some of the best chefs and kitchen workers in Los Angeles.
It’s all in the panorama of today’s L.A.
Photos: Emma and Asael Gonzalez