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Meeru Dhalwala.
Meeru Dhalwala.

OPINION

No English? In the kitchen, it’s no problem Add to ...

The Globe and Mail has sought out columns from thought leaders in Western Canada, people whose influence is shaping debate, but whose names may not be widely recognized. This week, restaurateur Meeru Dhalwala writes about the growing confidence of the immigrant women she employs in her kitchens, characteristics not in keeping with a meek stereotype. Ms. Dhalwala is co-owner and co-creator with her husband, Vikram Vij, of two restaurants in Vancouver, Vij’s and Rangoli, and Shanik in Seattle. She and her husband have also partnered on two award-winning cookbooks.

There are two groups of working women in my world: the educated, fluent-in-English women, and the uneducated, non-English speaking immigrant women.

Both groups have the same needs, desires and struggles, but at much different levels. I belong to the group of educated women, and I hire women from the second group.

At the Vij’s companies, I run three restaurant kitchens in Seattle and Vancouver. I’m responsible for my entire kitchen staff – 55 women in Vancouver and 14 in Seattle – and food costs. We have two men plus Vikram who run the overall front of house and finances, and I joke seriously that they tend to form a male triangle at the top.

I am amazed to see how my kitchen managers and staff, in their broken English, communicate so firmly and openly with them, especially with our financial officer, Oguz, who speaks no Punjabi or Amharic.

In Seattle, my kitchen consists of half Ethiopian and half Punjabi female immigrants. Some of my Ethiopian staff come from refugee camps. In Vancouver, my entire kitchen consists of Punjabi women. English is minimal, but according to the position, a working level. They all have the drive of an immigrant woman who takes nothing for granted but knows how to figure and get what she needs to succeed.

I will give one example, yet she represents virtually all of my kitchen staff: “Sarbjit” has worked as my dishwasher/kitchen helper for more than six years. Further education is not part of her life equation. Making it legally to Canada was her passport to life.

During her first month, Sarbjit barely spoke and worked fast and carefully. After three months, she told me, firmly, that I had to give her a raise and she needed to exchange Monday for another day because of child care. No initial small talk about the weather or our children. She called me over to the dish pit and talked while working – showing me her skill and talking from her workplace of confidence.

A year later, there was an opening for a line position, and I offered it to Sarbjit. She said no, but asked to be paid the same as the line position. “Think of how smoothly everything runs during service when I’m dishwasher. I love my job, but if I can’t pay my bills, I’ll have to get another job and I’ll be tired at this one.”

The way it works at Vij’s, Oguz and Vikram approve any changes in overall labour costs and can forbid raises if the costs are not in line with what they should be. We have had hours-long discussions and negotiations. One of my favourite meetings was years ago when a group of my kitchen staff met with Oguz and Vikram about raises and vacation allowances. Oguz went on about the financial logic as it pertains to the overall success of the company, and Vikram eventually lost his temper when my staff kept on persisting on the benefit. Amarjeet, my manager, turned to Oguz calmly and said, “Oguz, sorry but you will have to.” And then she turned to Vikram, “There is no reason to yell. We are all in this together.”

The confidence of my kitchen staff is also rooted in a shared responsibility for the long term. When I first opened our Seattle restaurant, I was training an Ethiopian woman on the grill. This was her first job in the United States. Her English was not strong, but she asked me questions. “How much restaurant cost to build?” “Where you get money from?” “How long lease is?”

She did not like grilling, but I bribed her, suggesting that once she got the hang of it, I would give her a raise. A few weeks later, I offered her the raise. She took my hand, “No, Meeru. First you pay bills. I need job for long time and don’t want you close restaurant. Once you can pay bills, then you give me raise. “ She is now one of my managers in Seattle.

Globe and Mail Update Mar. 12 2013, 12:50 PM EDT

Video: The secret ingredient in chef Vikram Vij's kitchen? His all-female staff

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