Monday, September 24, 2012

The Real Hell's Kitchen

A Real Hell’s Kitchen
By: Chef Cristian Feher 

The purpose of this article is not to vilify restaurants. For the most part, restaurants are run by good, honest people just like you and me, for the benefit of those around us. In fact, I would say that 95-98% of restaurants are good, legitimate businesses.

But what about that other small percentage? I’d like to give you an interesting look inside the underbelly of the restaurant industry from my point of view.

I remember eating at a certain restaurant in Toronto years ago. It was an Italian take-out and grocery store located in the middle of a somewhat-industrial area of town, and although it wasn’t a very busy place, it was open 24 hours. The food was really good, very plentiful, and best of all, it was dirt cheap! You could buy a 2 pound piece of thick, rich, meat lasagna with garlic bread for about $3. Have you ever eaten at a place like this and wondered how they could afford to serve such generous fare and still make a profit?

It was sort of understood by most people that this was a “Mafia Restaurant”. And whether this was true or not, all signs pointed to money laundering. Criminal organizations around the world have used restaurants to clean their dirty money since restaurants have been around.

To give an example, Big Boss makes $1000 selling drugs on the street, so he sells ten sandwiches at his restaurant and puts down $1000 profit in his accounting books. The sandwiches only cost him $10 to make, and the actual profit was $50. But now he can deposit the $1000 in his bank account, pay taxes on it, and spend that money without fear of attracting attention from the cops. After all, the IRS is not really able to find out if he sold ten sandwiches or two hundred sandwiches that day - especially if the sandwiches were paid for in cash.

Take another place we will call Don Jose’s in California. The place is open 24-hours, accepts cash only, and you can get a really good burrito the size of a baby with all sides for $2.50. It also happens to be close to the border between US and Mexico. Is the owner really just a philanthropist who wants to spread happiness around the world one giant burrito at a time? Probably not.

And what about the uber-cheap Chinese buffet with fifty items on the menu? Kitchen has twenty or more “employees” (smuggled immigrants paying off their debt by working for pennies in the kitchen), owners look like a walking advertisement for Gucci, Prada and Versace. Cash only, and a couple of really expensive Mercedes parked out back? Probably a money laundering operation.

Yes, it’s true. Maybe watching too many crime dramas prompted me to write this article. But when I was a young chef, I got a job at an Italian restaurant. The boss was a cocaine-addicted rich kid, and his dad was the owner of a couple of food manufacturing factories in town. Every week I would notice some guys walk through the restaurant - one swarthy little guy in a suit with his two big apes dressed in Puma deck shoes, Adidas running suits and gold chains to match (You can’t make this stuff up!). They would meet for a while in a back room, and then spend some time at the “Italian Social Club” next door. The apes would walk the little man into his fancy Cadillac and chauffeur him to his next destination.

One day I was sitting in the dining room on my dinner break enjoying a plate of pasta when the doors were smashed in by the ETF (the Canadian version of the SWAT team). A piece of pasta dangled from my fork as I froze at the sight of a pump-action shotgun wielded in front of my face by one of the agents. “Stay right there.” He said to me. I had no argument.

A while later some casino slot machines were wheeled out from the back of the restaurant and the doors were put back on the frames. I was let off early that night. And I quit shortly after without asking any questions. It felt like working for The Sopranos.

Money laundering aside, have you ever wondered who cooks your food? It’s no secret that your average kitchen staff often resembles a pirate crew rather than a group of clean, upstanding citizens. And that’s OK. I’ve known several “pirate crews” whom I’ve been very happy to work with. But if you live in a state like Florida, you may not be aware that the guy who flipped your burger might have also robbed a bank, or kidnapped some kids.

Businesses in Florida get big tax breaks for hiring ex-felons. In fact, a restaurant owner can get up to $8500 per year in tax credits for each ex-felon on his payroll. Something to think about the next time you send back your sandwich for not having the crusts cut off!

Do you have a dubious restaurant story of your own? I would love to read about it. You can email me at

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