Nemr Aljabra doesn't speak English or Spanish, but he's fluent in Kitchenese. In late March, the 33-year-old dishwasher, prep cook, and Syrian refugee was featured on the Miami-based Instagram account Humans of the Kitchen. "Nemr is a grinder," says Pablo Zitzmann of No Name Chinese, where Aljabra and two other refugees have worked in the kitchen since the place opened. When Aljabra started, it wasn't easy; he had to communicate with the rest of the kitchen through Google Translate. Over time, he picked up the daily routine and has, as Zitzmann put it, become the glue that holds the kitchen together.
"Nemr and the rest of the guys are an example for the whole industry," he says. "They never call in sick, they always show up on time, and when you tell them to do something you know they'll get it done."
The 3-month-old Instagram account was started by three friends — Beto Ortiz, Michael Kelsey, and Julian Buitrago — who, after working in a number of kitchens and other parts of the industry, decided it was time people learn about those who toil endless hours on their feet in unbearable heat under oppressive fluorescent lights.
"Normally, they always show pictures of the chef. That’s not bad, but they never show the team behind them," Ortiz says. "These peoples' stories have values and can teach us all a lot."
In this dining era, content with the lowest value seems to perform the best online and on social media. Instagram is rife with grilled cheese and cheeseburger pulls, each of them drawing attention to follower-buying influencers eager to submit to the will of almost any restaurant for a few bucks. The modern world, it seems, is skewing more and more toward the superficial while ignoring the critical.
The three friends were also inspired by the work of the late Anthony Bourdain, whose career as an author and television host was built on celebrating those least visible in the restaurant industry. The most famous among them was Justo Thomas, the fish butcher at New York City's Le Bernardin who each day singlehandedly breaks down about 700 pounds of fish. When he goes on vacation, it takes three people to do his work. Here in Miami, the Dominican-born Fernandez brothers, whom New Times profiled in the summer of 2018, are legendary for their ability to produce thousands of portions of fresh pasta in unbelievably short amounts of time. Together they are behind the fresh pasta at Macchialina, Scarpetta, and RWSB, the restaurant that replaced the Dutch at the W South Beach.
So far, Beto and company have visited with and offered up brief profiles of workers in the kitchens of Cantina La Veinte, Itamae, Bakan, Pez, Obra Kitchen Table, and B Bistro + Bakery. Hopefully, they will also venture west of I-95 to celebrate those restaurants and employees that might never make a list, but are the kind of neighborhood places everyone should keep in their dining rotation.
If you'd like to meet and thank a prep cook or a dishwasher, Ortiz, Kelsey, and Buitrago are hosting a happy hour at Churchill's Pub from 2 a.m. to close on June 8 to celebrate their work alongside the life and legacy of Bourdain, who died by his own hand June 8, 2018.
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