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Even Being a Legal Immigrant Is Complicated in the Restaurant Industry

Contra chef Fabian von Hauske on the challenges of coming to America to cook

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Daniel Krieger

Fabian von Hauske is one half of the team behind New York City’s Contra and Wildair, two of the buzziest restaurants on Lower Manhattan’s fine-dining scene. The 2014 Eater Young Gun is also an immigrant and is intimately familiar with the struggle of holding that status while working in the restaurant industry. Von Hauske recently stopped by the Eater Upsell and talked to hosts Helen Rosner and Greg Morabito about how hard it is to become a legal immigrant while working in restaurants and what has changed for immigrants like him since the election.

“The day after the election was the saddest day I’ve seen in a long time,” says von Hauske, who is originally from Mexico City. Although he tries to make Wildair and Contra places people can go to have a good time and momentarily forget about politics, the chef says he has never been more informed, or more worried. “I’ve lived in the States for about 10 years now and I think I’ve never thought about moving back home up until maybe couple months ago,” the pastry chef and baker says.

Von Hauske feels it’s particularly difficult to obtain a visa to work in the United States as a worker in the restaurant industry, which is unfortunate, given the amount the restaurant industry depends on foreign workers — as Eater reported last year, roughly 10 percent of the restaurant workforce is made up of immigrants, including undocumented immigrants.

Wildair’s chocolate peanut tart
Nick Solares

Although immigrants in other creative fields can apply for an O-1 visa “for the individual who possesses extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics,” it’s harder for cooks to make the case that they have either specific expertise or extraordinary ability. Von Hauske says, “You apply for a visa and [immigration is] like, ‘There's a thousand cooks in New York alone. There's millions in the States. Why do we need you? Why are you necessary for this environment?’”

The O-1 visa has become a particularly popular way to for immigrants to work in this country over the past few years. According to the Atlantic, the number of times people have used this kind of work permit has almost tripled over the past decade. But it’s harder for chefs, especially those just starting out, to sell themselves as extraordinary in their field. When von Hauske first opened Contra with Jeremiah Stone after leaving culinary school, he applied for an investor or EB-5 visa. To stay in the country, he had to borrow money from family to invest in Contra and prove to the government that the budding business would provide jobs. Now, he’s awaiting a green card.

The election has yet to affect his status as a legal immigrant, or that of his employees who are also legal immigrants. And although von Hauske believes his “job is to give people a place where they can forget about their problems,” it’s hard to ignore that for some immigrants, the future is unclear. “It’s just kind of weird to have that idea that you might have to leave or you might have to go back or something,” he says.

Hear the complete interview with Fabian von Hauske below, as he discusses the evolution of New York City’s restaurant landscape, his admiration for wd~50, and how he makes his restaurants’ perfect sourdough loaves. Subscribe to the Eater Upsell on iTunes, or listen on Soundcloud. You can also get the entire archive of episodes   right here on Eater.

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