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The struggles of one cook provide a deep look at an industry — and maybe a society — in crisis

 

The first time I meet Chris Preston and his son, Ty-Jon, it’s in the Smith’s parking lot. The one on Sahara and Maryland. He asks if he can help me load my groceries for some change. I have 20 12-packs of sparkling water and a heap of groceries in my cart, and I have some cash. I appreciate the help. I want to get everything loaded, get in the car, switch on the air-conditioning.

I know the minute I see Chris in the sun of a full-throttle Vegas summer, heaving soda into my car, that he is a cool guy. He is not afraid to work, obviously. And his eyes are kind. Sweet and dopey. In fact, it’s his eyes that relax me and prompt me to ask questions while he loads 12-packs into my trunk. Sweat is dripping down his face. And my back. It’s 115. I’m just standing in the parking lot chatting.

“I’m a cook,” he says, grabbing bags. Ty-Jon joins us. “I got laid off at my bar.” Chris worked at Foothills Tavern in North Las Vegas until COVID changed everything in the middle of March. He introduces his son. I’m not sure if Ty is a teenager or a young adult. Turns out he is in his early 20s and has a serious babyface.

“I’m tryin’ to get enough money together to move my family out of Motel 6 and into a weekly.”

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It is not lost on me that improving your life shouldn’t involve moving into a weekly, as if that were something to aspire to. But my privilege is showing. This family had lived in their 2003 Saturn sedan for weeks before moving to a Motel 6. That motel had to feel like paradise, at first. A minute to breathe. Sleep in a bed. And think about next steps, like putting together a plan to move into something permanent and safe, where you can pay the rent without cannibalizing your food money, without stretching yourself so far it’ll be just a few days until you’re again scheming to come up with the cash to keep your family in the safe place.

This is how people are living. There’s no respite.

Right now, the restaurant industry is in a shambles. Two out of every three restaurant workers have lost their jobs during the pandemic, according to the National Restaurant Association, and it’s projected that as many as four of every 10 restaurants will close permanently.

At the same time, COVID has exposed the restaurant industry as a dysfunctional system in need of a major re-do. Washington, D.C.-based chef Kwame Onwuachi talks openly on Eater.com about how the restaurant industry was created on the backs of unpaid and underpaid labor, mostly Black, during Reconstruction. “That’s why it was a profitable business. Because they didn’t have to pay for labor. They didn’t have to pay servers. They didn’t have to pay their cooks. They just had to pay for their food.” Even the tipping system is steeped in these racist traditions of not properly paying staff.

As eaters and patrons, we are complicit. We care about where the food comes from, what farm grows the beets — by God, is it organic? — but not so much about whether the porter gets health insurance or the server can make rent or the chef has seen her husband in three days. We care more about the rainbow carrots and the wagyu than the people who grow, pick, slaughter, transport, and prepare our food.

But we can’t look away now.

There’s a cook in a parking lot — not in a restaurant — asking for money. A professional in an industry I love. He is not opening a restaurant. He is not unionized. He is not being written about in the Los Angeles Times. Or the Review-Journal, for that matter. No one cares about a dish he is creating that can be shot and published in a magazine. He has not been carried by the restaurant-business PR machine to a place of visibility.

Most chefs and professional cooks are not celebrities. They aren’t rich or even necessarily making ends meet. They are craftspeople. They work for $10, $12, $15 an hour in boiling, cramped spaces with other cooks who make the same kind of money.

Restaurants off-Strip tend to be private, small businesses. Personnel issues can get sorted in kitchen walk-ins, not HR offices. Until very recently, when #MeToo raised the visibility of inappropriate workplace behavior, restaurants were notoriously difficult places to work, rife with verbal and physical abuse, racial and homophobic slurs, overtly sexist interactions with women chefs, and almost no support for trans chefs. The celebrated male bravado, the coke-fueled bad-assery of being a chef, written about so brutally by Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential, was exalted and respected, even encouraged. Black people, like Chris Preston, and brown and/or undocumented people, struggle to get hired and promotions, and are paid, on average, roughly 56 percent lower than white colleagues. Only recently has there been an industry-wide emphasis on wellness, health, and even sobriety.

The pre-COVID structure of the restaurant business, without benefits and safety nets, left whole categories of workers vulnerable. Undocumented porters and tip-dependent servers evaporate when times get tough. Health insurance is a pipe dream.

How difficult is it to fall from being a hard-working cook to being the guy who approaches people in the Smith’s parking lot asking for money to load the lady’s soda into her trunk in 115-degree heat?

It’s easy. Security in the restaurant industry, and maybe everywhere, is an illusion. 

I hand Chris a handful of bills and my number. We start texting immediately. 

Chris Preston, his son, Ty-Jon and partner, Melinda, have had to live in their car and with family, but they’ve managed many of the challenges by sticking together.

“That was a rough day for us.”

Chris is talking about the day we met. I am sitting with him, his partner, Melinda, and Ty at a picnic bench in a mostly treeless park in North Las Vegas. We cannot go to his house. Because he has no house. They are living with Melinda’s brother for awhile, out of necessity. It’s toxic as hell. But their choices are car or family.

That relationship takes up a lot of our conversation, because the wounds are so deep and humiliating right now. One of the pitfalls of COVID isolation and joblessness is managing forced relationships with family. Unable to pay rent or buy groceries, people are moving in with family and friends at alarming rates. This year, one in five Americans, roughly 22 percent, moved in with someone else or knew someone who had because of COVID, according to the Pew Research Center. This means families are central to keeping people afloat right now.

But it’s hard to be dependent on family.

Melinda’s brother — we’ll call him Darryl — says he wants to help them, but there are decades-old hurts that keep interfering. He is angry. About a dog that ran away when a door was left open, about $200 that someone took or didn’t, about who took care of Maw-Maw when she was dying. Their relationship is family, and bonded, but it’s also mired in old trauma that becomes a series of explosions when they live together. Melinda is stressed.

“My priority is this woman right here, my mom.” Ty puts his hand on Melinda’s shoulder, while Chris nods silently.

She is pretty, in her 40s. But tired. Afflicted with chronic diseases. She keeps a balled-up tissue in her fist and occasionally has to get up and cough a few feet away. She is fragile but still carries a lot of the weight for her family.

“I hate the way my uncle treats her,” Ty says. “She is too good for that, and so is my dad.”

Chris and his dad are tight. The love and respect are obvious. They have the weariness and connectedness that grows when you’ve both seen all the bad things and lived to tell the stories. Despite the scarcity, there is great richness in this family.

Everyone wants them out of Darryl’s house. But Chris and his family are stuck. Because poverty sticks you.

***

The idea to help people load groceries in a parking lot came when Chris decided to use his natural gifts for talking to people. Mostly a man of few words, he is funny and sweet when he does talk.

“I used to sell food, you know, in a cart,” he tells me. “I was born with a seasoned hand.” They came here last year from West Virginia on a Greyhound trek that Chris says was “the longest, most horrible trip ever.” Ty joined them in July. “I came to Vegas to cook,” Chris says. “I heard cooks make decent money here on the Strip.”

In West Virginia, Chris had a hot dog cart he positioned outside of a Save-a-Lot. His fish sandwiches were popular, as were his chili dogs. He sold hamburgers off a flat top, with chips and soda. 

“I use the same things in a parking lot as I used to (operate) a food cart,” he tells me. “I get a conversation going, communicate with people, tell ’em my story.” 

They were down to bologna sandwiches and cold cereal. It felt like do or die. He was bringing in $125 a week in unemployment.

“Pop coached me so many times. I haven’t got the salesman thing down,” Ty says. They laugh about how hard it is to approach strangers in parking lots, to make yourselves vulnerable in the darkest hours of your life.

“You can’t be prideful,” Ty says. “You have to let that go sometimes. Pops taught me that.” He nods to Chris, who has his head down, listening. 

Pride is a big issue for people in the wake of COVID. Many laid-off workers have never been in dire financial straits before. They do not see themselves as poor, have never had to accept help from strangers to put food on the table, and there is great shame attached to asking for it. 

Before moving into Darryl’s house, where they have a room and Ty sleeps on the couch, they slept in the Saturn. An unemployment check got them from Darryl’s to the Motel 6. The money from the parking lot got them from Motel 6 to a weekly on Harmon Avenue. 

It’s exhausting just to consider all this upheaval and moving. I can’t imagine what it must feel like for someone as sick as Melinda. 

“We were in the ghetto,” Melinda says of the weekly on Harmon.

But Chris tells me that seeing other folks on the street around the weekly, not able to rent a room, helped him see that they were lucky. 

COVID created this new group of poor and financially unstable people, who had never had to wait in line at a drive-through food bank, or know what giveaway happens on Wednesdays but not Saturdays, or hit a circuit of food charities on any given day just to feed their children. This is the stress of poverty and instability. How can I scheme today to get what we need?

Cooking, a highly pleasurable act for me, is a stressor for food-insecure households, because you have to cook the spaghetti squash that comes in that food-bank box. You have to make it into something your kids will eat. And maybe you know how to make it with tomato sauce and piles of cheese, but maybe they didn’t put sauce or cheese in the box today, so you are screwed for dinner. If you are financially unstable and dependent on the pantry system, you are playing a game of Chopped with a mystery box every night. It’s not challenging or fun. You can’t say “screw it” and click on Postmates.

Which brings us back to pride.

“The pride is what you give up,” Chris explains. 

For many, not being able to provide for their family is soul-crushing. It alters self-esteem, alters what you know about yourself. It colors everything. It reminds you that you are dependent on others, on the community. That you can lose it all. That this your life. In Las Vegas, and specifically in the restaurant industry, there are thousands of Chris Prestons.

 

***

When COVID sanctions lift at the end of summer, Chris is back working at Foothills Tavern in North Las Vegas. He is making $11 an hour, but his district manager, Chris Biscoe, offers him a shot to become a kitchen manager, giving him a 90-day trial at $12. The whole family is excited. This is nothing short of life-changing for them, and they set about making plans to move again.

Foothills Tavern is a neighborhood gambling bar. Their customers are mostly locals. Biscoe tells me that it’s mostly the familiar faces, regulars, who keep the bar going. He’s happy to have Chris come back and to train him for the kitchen manager job.

“It’s hard to find kitchen managers because of the pay,” Biscoe tells me on the phone. They don’t stay long for $12 an hour. “But Chris is eager to learn. I want to teach him how to run the kitchen, do the ordering, staffing, budgeting, so in a couple years, if he decides to leave, he can take these skills with him. I get excited teaching him because he cares.”

Biscoe talks candidly about the narrow margins of the business. 

“We’d be happy to have the kitchen break even,” he said. “We make our profit from gaming, and that keeps the kitchen running.”

This excitement of being back to work, for Chris, is multiplied when Ty lands graveyard work at a 7-Eleven. Things are looking up. They find a small studio in a Siegel Suites on Bonanza Road. It’s nothing pretty, but when I visit them, there is a small kitchen with sink, stove, oven, and fridge. The living room has a huge fold-out bed, and Melinda is sprawled there under blankets, her head propped on pillows, the nightstand cluttered with 7-Eleven cups and a CPAP machine. She is watching TV. 

She was just released from the hospital. She had passed out again. 

“I’m going to get those tests,” she assures me when I ask about her cancer. 

See, I found out in one of our talks that Melinda has a cancer diagnosis. But when I ask her about it, it seems as though she is completely removed from the conversation. She is ambivalent about the healthcare system. For good reason. She has been beaten down by paperwork, credentials, verifications, and records that are barely possible to manage when you’re living in a car and a succession of motels and weeklies. She needs to make calls, book appointments, deal with bills; someone needs to be actively involved in managing her cancer, pushing the process to get labs, tests, and diagnostics. And regularly filling up the car with gas. But it feels overwhelming. She is exhausted by it all. 

Like many poor families, Melinda and Chris use the ER system for doctor visits, which is expensive and financially unrecoupable for the hospital, and it means she is only treating the symptoms, not the disease. 

And most of her doctors are white. There is substantial evidence that this matters in a life-and-death kind of way. When doctors and patients share similar races and ethnicities, they spend more time together, patients are more apt to take medicines correctly, the wait for treatment is decreased, wellness screenings increase, cancer risks decrease, and a patient’s comprehension of their diagnosis improves. But this is a tough ask; only 5-10 percent of doctors in the U.S. are Black. 

Melinda is barely represented by the system. 

This healthcare issue is huge for Chris and Melinda. She has cancer on her thyroid, a cyst on her pancreas, and a few chronic and serious diseases, such as diabetes. She is not getting better. She does not receive consistent treatment. Chris and Ty are terrified to lose her. It is a constant stress. 

For now, she has a bed to rest in. A TV to occupy the hours. Some peace. Some relief — for now.

 

***

It’s the last Saturday of the month, and Chris and Ty come by my house, where my husband, David, and I run a small community fridge and pantry. We pick up boxes from grocery stores and food-drop locations, and take donations from the generous neighbors here in the Huntridge area, who keep the fridge stocked with fresh foods.

I meet restaurant workers at the fridge all the time.  

I hand Ty a pile of plastic to-go containers holding dinner — lemongrass and coconut-braised brisket with coconut rice and a cumin-scented, cold broccoli salad. The cookbook club from The Writer’s Block bookstore — we call ourselves Please Send Noodles — makes more than 150 dinners on the last Saturday of every month for anyone who wants them. That last weekend of the month is tough for many folks, with benefits running out. These meals are a little band-aid on a gusher of a problem. 

I give Chris a box of produce to tide them over. I put a lot of the more obscure vegetables in his box, some broccoli rabe, some celeriac, as well as chicken breasts, avocado, cheese, greens, pasta, oranges, and dates because I know he can cook whatever I throw at him. 

I am in the middle of unpacking 30 boxes. Some are gallons of milk, others are boxes full of yogurt, potatoes, onions, hardboiled eggs, cooked chicken patties, and squash. Emilie and Chantal show up, too. They are regulars and pull their tan Suburban up to the curb. They and all their kids pile out, which brings my kids and dogs out, and the next thing I know, everyone is scouring through boxes, calling friends to see what they need, kids are petting dogs and riding scooters, folks are taking what they need and putting what they don’t in the fridge. Everyone is masked and aware of COVID and not on top of one another, and it’s all happening outdoors, but, man, it almost feels social, almost like a party. It feels like we are all alive and in it together and somehow prevailing. We are all talking and laughing while we hold up bags of onions and ask who needs them. 

Chris tells me Melinda has a date to get some tests done. They are in a better place now to fight for her. There is momentum for them, and I know that the momentum is everything. They might be able to ride that flow into a more stable life.

I check my phone and see a note from someone who had just been to the fridge. She worked as a server at Momofuku in the Cosmopolitan before it closed in March. “Just wanted to tell you, I, like many of us, have had some super hard luck as of late,” she writes, “and finally accepted that I am poor enough to utilize your pantry, and I took care not to take too much, but just having produce and the generosity of it all brought tears ...”

I wave as Chris and Ty drive off. 

We live in an age where the people who feed us, cook for us, serve us, are being driven to their knees by the scarcity of even the most simple and foundational of food. 

 

***

Chris has nothing but lovely things to say about his bosses at Foothills Tavern. “They take care of me,” he says. This makes sense to me — people who feed people are generous by nature. 

And I know that as a small business, Foothills Tavern is being as generous as it can be — offering him a raise, a promotion at $12 an hour without benefits, maybe a small cut of a customer’s gaming win. But it doesn’t feel like things have been set right with the restaurant business, as much as it has been pried open and exposed by COVID. This industry still has so much work to do to keep its workers off the bread lines, to make sure they have health insurance, days off, a healthy life, a livable wage, a focused and positive work environment, while still allowing operators to thrive and make money within their slim margins. And we guests have to care as much about people as we do about provenance, including being open to paying more for our food experiences to help cover those costs. 

There are no easy answers. 

For his part, Chris Preston’s goals for being a chef are eminently doable. Or should be. 

“I want to have a normal life. I want to make my bills. Take care of my family. Have a place to sleep,” he says. “That’s it. I just want to cook for people and enjoy my life.” 

 

Kim Foster’s neighborhood food pantry is located at 1041 Sweeney Avenue.

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