ROJER UCANPEREZ SINKS his hands into a metal tray of 100 icy prawns. Half a foot behind him, chicken carcasses bob in a broth bubbling on a black stove crowded with pots. "Caliente!" shouts a woman, pushing through the space with a giant hot tray of pasta.
Every chair in Ciao Vito on NE Alberta is empty, but behind the bar counter that separates the customer space from the kitchen, everyone is hurrying, hurrying. In just 90 minutes the first customers will sit down and order a plate of the Sicilian-inspired prawns with almond butter, and Ucanperez, one of Vito's staff of three Mexican prep cooks, still hasn't gotten all the legs and shells off the gourmet buggers.
"There's a lot of dirty work in the kitchen, let's face it, and these guys work their butts off," says Chef Vito Dilullo, who worked at Higgins, Café Mingo, and Bluehour before starting his own upscale all-organic Italian place five years ago. "They're the last ones out of the kitchen."
Ucanperez gets his hands into everything in the back of Ciao Vito—before skinning iced prawns he chopped veggies with a giant knife and after the prawns he'll move onto carrots.
Vito and Ucanperez agree that prep cooks in Portland are almost exclusively Latino, mostly Mexicans. "We're all Mexicans, even in the Peruvian place," says Ucanperez in Spanish, gesturing to the Peruvian restaurant up the street. Ucanperez's cousin also works at Ciao Vito as a prep cook; they're from the same village—Mani, in the Yucatan.
"Once you get your core group in, you don't need to search for anybody else," explains Dilullo. In a red ballcap and chic designer glasses, Dilullo has the peculiar habit of moving through the kitchen sporadically shouting exclamations in simple Spanish, but he good-naturedly refuses to learn the language. "It screws up my Italian and French," he explains. Dilullo says he has no problem promoting Ucanperez and the other Mexican prep cooks, but they need to master English first. For his part, Ucanperez seems pretty content where he's at.
"They treat me well and no one says anything bad to me," says Ucanperez, making some headway on the 100 prawns. Plus the pay is good—$12 an hour. He used to have a second job, but now working full time at Ciao Vito is enough. The days are long—showing up at 2 or 3 pm and closing out the kitchen—but it's manageable and he can talk with his cousin. Sometimes Ucanperez takes English classes in his time off, but he hasn't made learning the language a top priority. For now, he lives with seven family members in a big enough house just two dozen blocks away from Ciao Vito. All the men work in the backs of restaurants now.
"I didn't like Portland when I arrived, because I didn't know the city," he says. "But it's much prettier than my town." On his days off, Ucanperez, who has dark hair and a quick smile, hangs out at the house or heads down to the river with his uncle, who used to own a restaurant back in Mexico. The family all came to the US three years ago because there were no jobs in little Mani. Ucanperez has not been back since—even when his mother died recently.
It's a good life here in the kitchen, but Ucanperez does not plan to stick around forever. After he saves up enough money, "I'm going to return to Cancun and open a fruit stand."
But right now, Ucanperez has to worry about the dinner rush. "It's worst from seven to eight—everything is fast, you get burned," he says. Sous chefs rush around him, shouting warnings about hot plates and boiling water. Steam rises from freshly cooked artichokes in the sink and a chef skims a thick layer of fat off the top of the chicken stock.
Ucanperez keeps his head down and focuses on the prawns. They don't stand a chance.
Rojer Ucanperez doesn't normally go out to eat, but his family is fond of the occasional picnic. When they decide to take a day to enjoy the sun they find themselves on the welcoming lawn of Vernon Elementary School (2044 NE Killingsworth).More of the FOOD ISSUE here!