It took 20 minutes into my first day of my first real cook job for the chef to start yelling at me. How was I supposed to know I was supposed to bring my own knives? They don’t teach that in culinary school. After he berated me for 10 solid minutes, the chef straightened his hat, told me to borrow a knife from someone else, and stormed off. I already felt no confidence at all. I wasn’t really qualified for this job. Now I had to ask one of the other cooks for a knife. On my first day. I didn’t know whether to ask the scary woman from Texas who looked like she could bench press me, or the old woman in the pantry station who had worked there for 30 years and told me she had little patience for “all the new idiots they keep hiring.”
I was cringing in the corner, trying to work up my nerve, when I heard a voice from behind me.
“Here,” he said.
I turned around and saw a short man with glasses. He put a knife on the table next to my cutting board. Before I could say, “thank you so much!” he stepped to the left of the board, pulled out another knife, and started to help me chop carrots.
His name was Claude. He was one of the dishwashers. Later that night, I made him a badass sandwich for his dinner. Over the next few weeks he helped me prep whenever he was caught up with dishes. I made him food, and did my best to make his job easier. Claude was my first friend at the Sheraton. On one memorable occasion, the power went out in the hotel. It was South Florida during hurricane season. It happens. Claude and I were the only two who volunteered to stay. We spent a few fun and very strange hours making sandwiches for the hotel guests by flashlight.
During the next few months I made many more friends among my coworkers. It turned out the scary Texas woman and the pantry veteran were both very nice, once they realized I could handle myself. More employees joined the crew: a few fellow culinary students some temps from South American and Romania, and a new, much nicer, chef. By the time I got my first employee review six months after my hire I was friends with nearly everyone there, and legitimately close with a few of my fellow cooks.
My friendship with Claude, however, never went beyond that casual camaraderie we developed during those first few weeks. It was sad, but not surprising. Another data point in a pattern I noticed before, but never wanted to admit to myself. Claude was Haitian, and his English was about twice as good as my French. My French was terrible. Also, he didn’t speak French. He spoke Kreyòl. Claude was not the first example, but it was the first time I really accepted it: I couldn’t be genuinely close friends with someone who was not fluent in my language.
For me, friendship is all about conversation. Whenever I take an online quiz about what Muppet or Lifesaver’s flavor I would be, I always mark “great conversations with friends” as my ideal way to spend a Saturday night. I fell in love with my wife because during the early part of our relationship we spent hours into the night talking and giggling about anything and everything. My favorite leisure activity is tabletop roleplaying, because a good session of a roleplaying game is just a fantastic conversation where you have superpowers and you get to double cross your friends with no consequences. I can have great conversations with people with vastly different backgrounds, opinions, education levels, or political worldviews.
But it’s impossible to have a great conversation with someone when you don’t speak the same language.
I have always considered this a character flaw. I am one of those people who likes almost everyone, even people who I should probably avoid. Not only did it bug me that I couldn’t get close to a non-English speaker, it made me uncomfortable. It always felt vaguely racist or something, even if I couldn’t exactly say why. It’s the kind of thing you might think, but you aren’t supposed to say out loud or admit to. Especially since it is difficult for many of us not to make emotional judgments about the intelligence of people who struggle to communicate in our language, even when we know intellectually that those judgments are unjustified.
The culinary industry is full of non-native English speakers. Claude was not the last person I felt I could have been good friends with, if I didn’t have this block. There was Ivan the Romanian cook, and Vicente the Mexican dishwasher, and many other coworkers, associates, and classmates over the years. I never wrote off these friendships as impossible. I kept trying, only to be disappointed and frustrated each and every time.
Salvatore was a Mexican dishwasher who was promoted to be my assistant when I was promoted to lead prep cook and baker. His English was close to non-existent. Nearly all of the cooks at this particular high-end steak house (think $40-$96 dollars for a steak with no sides) were Mexican, and nearly all of them started out as dishwashers. This included the sous chef, the lead broiler, and the lead saute, who were three of the most competent people I have ever worked with. Salvatore was the best dishwasher they had at the time. That meant he got promoted.
He was a nice guy and a hard worker, but I was hesitant at how well I could communicate what I needed to him. Fortunately, the daytime dishwasher, Grande, spoke English and Spanish both fluently, and so was available to translate. It was rarely necessary.
Salvatore and I immediately had a good working relationship. He was a visual and kinesthetic learner. When I needed him to do something he had not done before, I showed him. After one or two demonstrations he picked it up.
While we worked, Grande translated some of the jokes that I made to Salvatore, and some of the jokes he made to me. Grande wasn’t going to win any awards for translations, but it was enough to make the prep shift a fun work environment. Plus, some jokes did not require translation, including the reigning lord and ruler of line-cook humor: the dick joke. I could put two oranges next to a baguette and have Salvatore in stitches. Or make references to “me pinto,” Mexican slang for “my penis.” It didn’t take long before I knew words for various body parts and sexual acts in Spanish, and Salvatore knew them in English. When I was young and pretentious I found this kind of humor beneath me. In kitchens, in the thick of it all, I learned to love it.
I taught Salvatore other English words, as well. He was a quick study. Rising the ranks at this restaurant explicitly required learning English, and Salvatore wanted to learn. Since the kitchen was made up mostly of Mexicans, Spanish was also necessary, and I wanted to learn. I taught him about food, and American culture, and he taught me about the Mexican slang and cultural elements I needed to ask for help and fit in with the rest of the cooks.
One day, about six months after Salvatore and I started working together, I came in to find a punishing prep-list. 12 hours of work to do in an 8 hour shift, and it absolutely had to get done before dinner service. I pulled Salvatore aside when he got there, and told him what we needed to do. Over the next few hours the two of us flew across the kitchen, slicing and buttering bread, forming crab cakes, cooking lobster, and making sauce after sauce after sauce. We worked like two arms on a single body, as fast and as hard as either of us had ever worked before. By the end, we both collapsed, laughed, patted each other on the back, and each told the other he was awesome in a mutated combination of languages.
That was the moment it struck me. Salvatore was my friend. Not like Claude had been my friend. Or Ivan. Or Vicente. He was a real friend, more than any of my native-English speaking coworkers with whom I had enjoyed some splendid conversation. It happened so gradually I didn’t notice my barrier disintegrating. I didn’t see that my stupid rule was thrown out the window. I had a friend, and neither of us could communicate with the other – verbally, at least – on anything higher than a 4th grade level.
It was easy, after that. Once a barrier like that is gone, it’s gone. I find non-verbal friendships a lot more accessible, now, and I probably always will. I don’t know if there was something about Salvatore that did it, or if I just had some growing up to do.
It doesn’t really matter.