Get our free newsletter
Daniela Moreira knows what it’s like to work in a kitchen where you don’t fully understand what your colleagues are saying. “I experienced how awful it is not being able to communicate,” says the chef and partner of casual hits Timber Pizza Co. and Call Your Mother. She moved to the U.S. from Argentina in 2010 at age 20 to learn English and continue a career in cooking.
When Moreira landed an au pair job in the District, she tried to enroll in English classes at Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School, but didn’t gain admittance through the school’s lottery system. Instead, the school accepted her into its culinary arts program in 2011 even though her English skills weren’t where they needed to be. She was at level two not level four, but promised to study.
After winning a scholarship to continue her studies at the Culinary Institute of America, Moreira moved to New York where she also worked a five-month stint at Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan. Moreira returned to D.C. with a plan to continue working in fine dining, until Timber Pizza Co. partner Andrew Dana intercepted her at a farmers market. The strangers met while fighting over the last carton of eggs at one of the stands.
Now the duo are business partners, romantic partners, and part of a group of restaurateurs on a mission to improve work culture by offering employees language lessons. Some provide free English classes while others encourage their English-speaking workers to learn Spanish since Salvadoran, Honduran, and Mexican immigrants man many D.C. restaurants. Dana and Moreira are doing both.
“For a long time we only had kitchen managers who spoke English,” Moreira says. “Kitchen workers would come to me saying they didn’t like how the kitchen managers talked to them. It was just the tone. When you don’t understand the language at all, it can come off as rude or not polite.”
As a result, she says, “Everything fell on me. All of the translation. We were never able to delegate, even though we had a director of operations and managers. The Spanish speakers still came to me. When we opened Call Your Mother, I couldn’t be in two places at once.”
Sending workers to Carlos Rosario wasn’t a viable option because students must be D.C. residents. “Most of my employees live in Maryland and Virginia and they have two jobs, three jobs, and families,” Moreira says. She arranged for an English tutor from the school to come to Call Your Mother for weekly lessons. The restaurant covers the cost, and so far, 15 employees are participating in the class that started this month.
Moreira also connected with CEDA—a nonprofit that fundraises for communities in need in Argentina. One of the organization’s programs is an eight-week Spanish course taught at the Argentine embassy. Eleven students from Call Your Mother and Timber Pizza Co. are currently signed up, including Dana. “I need to learn Spanish so that I can communicate with [Moreira’s] family when we visit Argentina now that I’m her main squeeze,” he jokes.
The partners will cover the cost of the course so long as employees attend at least 75 percent of the classes. To develop an impactful curriculum, the Spanish language instructor visited the restaurants to learn what phrases might be most useful to improve communication between an English-speaking front-of-house and a predominantly Spanish-speaking back-of-house.
“There’s everyone from a mobile pizza maker to me, the owner, to a front-of-house manager taking the class,” Dana says. “The thing about the Spanish classes is that they’re almost in solidarity with the people learning English. Learning a new language is super hard … Why is the onus on one side of the restaurant?”
So far it’s a hit, according to the partners. “They’re already talking to each other and trying to practice,” Moreira says. “I think people are always looking to better themselves across the board,” Dana adds. “They’re more excited to go to class than to work. A little effort goes a long way. They also see us in the class. They see me in there speaking my broken-ass Spanish.”
Chef Cable Smith’s Spanish is coming along “fantastic,” according to his teacher. The executive chef of The Royal in LeDroit Park has been studying for a year and a half, and moved to D.C. from Texas in March 2016. “There are a lot of Latin workers in Texas, but everyone speaks English,” he generalizes. “I was surprised when I got here that 90 percent of my staff doesn’t know a word of English. It was incredibly hard to be an effective leader.”
But Smith soon learned of an ace in the hole. The Royal’s co-owner, Paul Carlson, has a Colombian mother who taught English for more than 40 years. “I found out that Gloria used to teach CIA and FBI students Spanish and they’d be fluent in five or six months,” Smith says.
Gloria Carlson, who is also a co-owner at The Royal, taught Spanish around the world throughout her husband’s foreign service career, including a long stretch in California at a specialized language school used by the government. She was also the star of Let’s Speak Spanish with Gloria, a local cable access show that aired in Ventura, California, in the late 1970s.
“We started doing one class a week,” Smith says. “She had her old notebooks that she used to teach out of.” They began with basic Spanish and verb conjugation before tackling specific situations that might occur in a professional kitchen. Smith has homework, and sometimes he and Gloria go on field trips where they can only speak in Spanish.
“He has to study a little bit since we don’t have class every day,” Gloria says. “We don’t have the time we need, but he’s doing excellent … I tell him he has an excellent accent. It’s fantastic. He’s doing fantastic.”
Smith says some of the cooks have joked that it was easier to share secrets before he could understand them, but for the most part, they appreciate that the chef is making the effort. “Most of the problems with the industry is this lack of communication,” Smith says. “It causes a whole bunch of problems. Even with things like harassment—people feel nervous communicating about a problem that has happened.”
“I’m very surprised sometimes about how people work without being able to communicate,” Gloria adds. “Probably a lot of restaurants in the restaurant world should do something similar. I wish we could get somebody to teach English too. It’s important.”
Two of D.C.’s major restaurant groups agree. Both JL Restaurant Group and ThinkFoodGroup offer free English classes. “It’s important for personal growth for the employees,” Jamie Leeds says. The restaurateur has 300 employees across the four Hank’s Oyster Bar locations, plus Hank’s Cocktail Bar and Hank’s Pasta Bar. “It was something that was brought to my attention that they wanted. I want to provide things they want to improve their lives.”
Staff can pick where they’d like to take classes and JL Restaurant Group will reimburse the cost of the program up to $500 per person per year. An enrollment form recommends classes at Teaching House Washington and Washington English Center, both in Northwest. Leeds says she implemented the program four months ago and while no one has signed up yet, several staff members are researching their options.
The English classes could be considered a work benefit—something the restaurant industry isn’t known for due to a number of factors from slim profit margins to high employee turnover rates and the fact that many restaurants still staff their dining rooms and kitchens with part-time workers.
As the industry continues to shed its reputation as a stopover point instead of a place to have a long professional career, access to benefits should increase. Leeds, for example, says she’s already providing parental leave; giving hourly workers vacation time; and is working to implement a 401K program by year’s end.
Offering such benefits, including the English classes, can help with employee retention. “It’s an important part of our world right now with the competition for good employees and staff,” Leeds says. When an employee improves his or her language skills, restaurant groups can promote from within, propelling an entry-level employee to a role with managerial duties.
ThinkFoodGroup is hoping to do just that—help employees grow within the company that locally includes Jaleo, Zaytinya, China Chilcano, Oyamel, barmini, minibar, and Beefsteak—with its new English language program. The first class, which has been in development for 18 months, kicks off this week with 16 participants and targets back-of-house employees such as dishwashers and cooks as well as food runners who bring plates from the kitchen to diners. While there were no real restrictions, ThinkFoodGroup invited long-tenured employees to participate first.
“In the long run it helps ThinkFoodGroup because we want to bring these people into the next role,” says human resources manager Donna Giarratana. “We can’t move [them] from one role to another if they’re struggling. My goal is once this goes through, I’m going to monitor and see where the employees go with us. Like if a line cook becomes a sous chef.”
ThinkFoodGroup teamed up with the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia’s Destination Workforce initiative to implement the 16-week course that meets twice a week at ThinkFoodLab on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Like CEDA did at Call Your Mother and Timber Pizza Co., Destination Workforce visited the company’s restaurants to speak with employees in various roles to learn how to best customize the course. “But it’s everyday stuff too,” Giarratana says. “We want to help them at home too.”
The ThinkFoodGroup course will culminate in a graduation ceremony. Meanwhile, the Timber Pizza Co. and Call Your Mother team plans to party. “The Argentinian Embassy said they’d throw a mixer at the end where we drink Argentine wine and speak Spanish to each other,” Dana says.
Moreira responds, “Mas vino, por favor.”