Is Anthony Bourdain Right About Trump and Illegal Immigrants in the Restaurant Industry?

Posted on 15 Jan 2016 00:02

Being that Anthony Bourdain gets to state his opinion, serial stereotyper that he is, and have it recounted as fact, I am going to assert my right to state my opinion here on my website. In my opinion, Anthony Bourdain's statements about Donald Trump's illegal immigration stance are neither wrong nor right. It is my opinion that they are simply the ramblings of a man who loves the sound of his own voice, and they inform us not at all.

Since I am stating opinion, let me also state that I abhor Trump. I always have. He's an ignorant jerk. He appeals to a certain dark underside of the American public, and to those who simply listen to whomever entertains them the most.

However, what Bourdain has to say about Trump's immigration policies are not based on any attempt to gather accurate statistics regarding undocumented workers in the restaurant industry. He simply says "this is what I saw." This is pretty much all he ever says.

Let me reveal a dark secret to you. The most successful nonfiction writers are actually fiction writers. That is, it is their skill at writing, their style and panache, that leads to their success, not to mention their own success at personal branding and marketing, which is unfortunately required for success at writing today. Bourdain, in this respect, is similar to another popular writer on food, Michael Pollan. Many people repeat the statements of both men as if they are fact, when they are, in fact, opinion.

Anthony Bourdain's statement about Trump and illegal immigrants in the restaurant industry
Anthony Bourdain's statement about Trump and illegal immigrants in the restaurant industry

Here is what Bordain had to say about Trump's policy:

I grew up in the restaurant business — 30 years in the restaurant business. I came out of, like a lot of other white kids, I rolled out of a prestigious culinary institute and went to work in real restaurants. I walked into restaurants and always, the person who had been there the longest, who took the time to show me how it was done, was always Mexican or Central American. The backbone of the industry - meaning most of the people in my experience cooking, preparing your food. Twenty of those years in this business I was an employer, I was a manager employer. Never, in any of those years, not once, did anyone walk into my restaurant — any American-born kid — walk into my restaurant and say I'd like a job as a night porter or a dishwasher. Even a prep cook — few and far between. Just not willing to start at the bottom like that.

I, as well, grew up in the restaurant industry, or at least in the food industry in general, including the grocery store industry. I also grew up in a different part of the country. Where I lived, most kids were willing to walk into a restaurant and take a job as a dishwasher, busboy, prep cook, etc. Bourdain says, never in any of those years did any American-born kid walk into his restaurant and request an entry-level job.

That must mean that no American-born kid ever took an entry-level job! It sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? Of course they do. Probably more than half of my readers held typical "high school" jobs. Maybe you bagged groceries. Maybe you mowed lawns. And, of course, maybe you worked in a restaurant in some low-paying position. I've done all of these and more. In fact, this American-born kid started working when he was 14. Illegally! I had more than a few friends who worked as cooks in restaurants, as well as busboys, dishwashers, etc. I remember when my own nephew told me he was going to go down the street to the Quickie (a convenience store) to get a job. He was eight years old. He wasn't planning on applying as store manager.

From what country is Bourdain? He is not from the country I am from, if he thinks that all kids expect to start at the top. But, "my America" is partly based on my personal perspective.

How would we go about figuring out where American kids actually work? Would we walk about and look to see where kids were working, and then use this information to come to a conclusion? Not all of us, after all, had mothers who worked for the New York Times and were sent to expensive private schools. Many of us had to go out and get a job as soon as we were able, often to help our families.

No. This would be a bad generalization or an over-generalization. This is why I called Bourdain a serial stereotyper. Generalization is not always a bad thing. We rely on it, in fact, to get through life. But when certain types of generalizations are based on a poor sampling, or an unrepresentative sampling, this leads to what we call stereotypes. Bourdain, among others, has produced many oft-repeated stereotypes about the restaurant industry and restaurant life. This does not mean that everything he says is untrue, only that it is not always generally true.

There is a handy credo about personal experience and generalization, which can aid all of us when evaluating such claims. Call it a rule of thumb, if you'd like: While personal experience is never sufficient to prove a generalization, all it takes is one personal experience to disprove a generalization.

Ironically a typical defense of his statements might be "he is only speaking generally." You only need to produce one specific instance to disprove a general statement. What you do need to know is just what kind of general statement is being made. Bourdain made a statement pertaining to the future. It would be hard to check this statement, based on observations, and instead, we can only rely on other facts, or premises. Our problem is made harder because Bourdain does not make a empirical statement, such as "this restaurant would shut down" but a general statement concerning the entire restaurant industry, with all its diversity. If this were a statement about the future, we might have an easier time verifying it or disproving it based on statistics. As it is, we could not hope to do so. It is, however, made all the more powerful a statement because it makes a grand prediction.

So, to get back to the problem at hand, instead of just looking around to see whether kids were working in entry-level positions, ruminating on what we saw for a bit, and then making sweeping statements about our observations, we might, for example, look for labor statistics. One source may be the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. We could do a search based on age.

But, Bourdain did not stop at the statement above. He went on to say that "if Trump were to win the presidency and deport 11 million illegal immigrants, every restaurant in America would shut down."

Every American restaurant. Bourdain seems to think that each one of those 11 million illegal immigrants works in a restaurant! It may help if a few of the dozens of popular websites reporting Bourdain's statements actually bothered to apply some type of critical thought to what he said. Let's translate the above quote into simple terms, based on the actual premises used:

Based on my personal experience, if illegal immigrants are deported, the restaurant industry will shut down. And, based on my personal experience, American kids expect to start at the top.

Does this sound a bit more absurd to you? It is in essence exactly what the man said! And consider that his statement, like most every statement he makes, is not only based on his own personal experiences, but his interpretation of those experiences.

This is not the first time that undocumented workers in the restaurant industry have been in the spotlight. In 2010, restaurants were in the news for being fined and/or shut down due to employing undocumented workers. This was after President Obama, in April 2009, put a much tougher illegal immigration policy into effect. One restaurant in particular, The French Gourmet in San Diego, was written up by the New York Times.

Owner Michael Malecot faced serious charges because he employed 12 illegal immigrants in his restaurant. At the time, there was a general crack-down and many other restaurants found themselves in similar hot water.

The Times repeated the same statistic that I found when I searched, that out of the 12.7 million workers in the restaurant industry, and estimated 1.4 million were immigrants. Not just illegal immigrants, mind you. This number reflects both legal and illegal immigrants. Basically, all foreign-born workers. Bourdain quotes the number 11 million illegal immigrants in his statement as if they compose of the bulk of the restaurant industry. Clearly, this is an gross exaggeration. About 11 percent of those employed by the restaurant industry are immigrants. The question would then be what percent of these are illegal?

Now, it is fair to question how accurate statistics can be in regards to undocumented workers, but you can be assured they are more accurate than Bourdain's personal observations based on his own experience, an experience that likely involved no knowledge about whether individual workers he glimpsed were undocumented or, in fact, legal immigrant workers.

While the restaurant industry may suffer greatly if "11 million illegal immigrants were deported" it is ridiculous to think that every American restaurant would shut down. Likely, what we see is higher costs that were transferred to the customer. Bourdain, in his apparent "support" for immigrants, says nothing of whether they are actually paid legal wages. This seems to me to be a hypocritical stance. He speaks of complex issues he seems to know little about, but has the influence to sway the public's opinion, much like Trump.

Does he know anything about, for example, how we ended up with so many Chinese restaurants? Immigration has everything to do with it, obviously, but through an ironic twist, the Chinese restaurants multiplied at a time when Chinese laborers were being excluded from coming into the U.S. to work. Many had found work stimulated by the California Gold Rush, but during the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, this ended. However, special visas were granted for certain Chinese who owned businesses. They could then come into the U.S. based on merchant status, and even sponsor their relatives to come. The result? The opening of many Chinese restaurants after a huge restriction on immigration. Would someone like Bourdain had predicted this phenomenon?

When the Lorax of Dr. Seus "spoke for the trees" he didn't speak for them partially, he spoke for them completely. Folks like Bourdain could learn a thing or two from Dr. Seus. We live in a time of celebrity causes, but few are actually willing to do more than spout off. Bourdain would not be likely to emulate someone like Ashley Judd in his 'support for immigrants.'

For that matter, he probably is not willing to go as far as Mr. Melecot, the owner of the French Gourmet, who himself was a philanthropist and well regarded by his workers, whom, according to the Times, became witnesses in the case against him.

I certainly don't have the answers to the immigration issues. I can confidently say, however, that we should not look to celebrities to get them.

You may notice that I have placed this article under the heading of "food culture" even though it obviously involves issues of law. The reason I chose to do this is because the underlying issues here are based on culture. It is culture that makes us willing to listen to the opinions of celebrities in domains for which they are not qualified. My opinions here, I hope, will lead you to think further about such statements, whether or not you agree with them.

© 2016 by Eric Troy and CulinaryLore. All Rights Reserved. Please contact for permissions.