Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Ryan McCaskey, the chef and proprietor at Chicago’s Michelin-starred Acadia restaurant, was evacuated from Vietnam as a toddler. Here’s why he shut down his restaurant in support of immigrant workers.
On Thursday, restaurants in at least a dozen U.S. cities halted service for a “day without immigrants” demonstration.
Among them were mom-and-pop counters and far-flung franchises. Sweetgreen, the salad spot that sates lunchtime crowds, zipped up all of its D.C. locations. The swanky Italian joint Eataly didn’t shutter, but broadcast a message of support to employees who opted to participate, tweeting a photo of wavy lasagna noodles, marbled meats, and olive oil, underneath the message #WeWereAllImported.
Unlike last week’s bodega strike in New York or the broader Sanctuary Restaurants campaign—in which more than 240 establishments have pledged to foster environments infused with dignity and respect for all diners and employees—this strike hasn’t been shaped by a particular group. “There's a lot of self-organizing that's going on in the immigrant community,” the community organizer Carlos Rojas Rodriguez, of Movimento Cosecha, told The Atlantic’s Bourree Lam. “This is a call from the community, from business owners, and immigrant families,” he said.
CityLab chatted with Ryan McCaskey, the chef and proprietor at Chicago’s Michelin-starred Acadia restaurant, about why he closed up shop. Here’s what he told us:
“I came to Chicago at 13 months old through Operation Babylift, right when Saigon fell. I pretty much escaped; I was one of the last children to make it out. They were blocking runaways so people couldn’t leave. So, when I was adopted, I became a little bit of celebrity baby: I was in newspapers, I was on The Phil Donahue show.
Then I had a green card up until 5th or 6th grade. I remember the process. It was kind of daunting for a kid. I had to go to court, and there was a lot of paperwork, and a lot of meetings.
I grew up in Chicago, that suburban lifestyle. I had awesome opportunities and exposure to stuff. We would take family vacations, we would eat at cool restaurants. I was always outside playing, skateboarding, whatever.
I remember coming up in a lot of mostly Hispanic kitchens. It was normal to have fake Social Security numbers, and to be paying people under the table. Acadia doesn’t have any undocumented employees right now, but a large number in the rest of the industry are. I remember those stories, talking to Mexican line cooks saying their families are here, and they have to send money back.
Acadia has 15 employees right now, and we hire a lot of people on visas—work visas, student visas, you name it. They take a lot of risk, honestly. If they fail, or they don’t do well, they get sent back. They’ve been really hard workers.
I try to make sure they do well, and teach them a lot. We end up teaching them about American culture, too, not just cooking—going to football games, or basketball games. A lot of really American things. We kind of give them the whole intro. One year, we went to Cracker Barrel. We had one kid from Korea. I taught him ‘80s slang, like ‘what it is, homie?’ A few times we’ve taken them to Hooters.
We hired an attorney to work on extending the visa for a guy from India. We’re going through the whole process, kind of sponsoring him.
As soon as I heard the strike was happening, it was an easy decision to close the restaurant. When there were bans and protesting at airports, that hit me hard. I was like, ‘They’re stopping and detaining people with green cards? Are you kidding me?’ If I tried coming here now, that would have been me. It was emotional for me. If I didn’t escape and come here and get adopted, I wouldn’t have even had the opportunity to be doing this. The mere fact that I am is amazing to me all the time.
Today, some employees are at rallies, and others are just happy to have the day off—we had a busy Valentine’s Day. With restaurants doing this across the country, it’s a loud scream to the administration, saying ‘we should be tolerant.’ I wanted to be a part of that. I felt like it was just the right thing to do.
I feel really blessed and lucky to be here. Hopefully these kinds of things will have a ripple effect. At the end of the day, it’s about the right thing to do and treating humans like humans.”