Berkeley restaurants

200 years of service: the professional lives of 5 El Cholo employees

Anyone who works in a restaurant will tell you: it’s not easy. And it’s increasingly rare to see restaurateurs not just making a career out of their calling, but staying in a restaurant their entire professional life (if only because most restaurants don’t survive more than a year).a few years).

But El Cholo, the venerable Mexican institution founded nearly a century ago, is a throwback in more ways than one. Many employees stayed. And stayed. At the Western Avenue location, there’s a hand-drawn chalkboard honoring more than a dozen employees who belong to the “20-year-old club” — and that doesn’t include longtime employees working at other places.

A sign acknowledging and celebrating El Cholo employees with more than 20 years of service hangs inside the dining hall at the Western Avenue location.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

Ron Salisbury, grandson of the founders of El Cholo (who himself ran the restaurant for nearly 70 years) attributes the restaurant’s ability to retain employees, in part, to the cultivation of an egalitarian culture. “I want everyone to feel that we are all important. Not just as a cog that keeps the restaurant running, but respect each other. And that’s how we try to get through life,” Salisbury said.

I spoke with five of El Cholo’s longest-serving employees, who collectively gave more than two centuries of their dedication and hard work. Together, they did just about everything a restaurant could do: cook, serve, carve, manage, prep, and even do maintenance.

In an age that has seen the gig-ification of work culture and waning loyalty between employer and employee, especially in such a physically demanding environment, this kind of longevity is rare. And it may not be something we’ll be seeing again anytime soon.

“I don’t think we’ll see people sticking with you for 40, 50 years,” Salisbury said. “They came differently.”

Sergio Ochoa, chef

Sergio Ochoa seated at an outdoor table, in front of an ornate mural.

Chef Sergio Ochoa of El Cholo.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

Sergio Ochoa, the chef of El Cholo, has worked for the restaurant for 41 years. Originally from Michoacán, Ochoa followed his father, who periodically traveled to the United States in the 1960s and 1970s as a seasonal farm laborer. “At that time it was easy to travel,” he said.

The eldest of seven children, Ochoa wanted to earn money for his family. In late 1980, when he was 17, he hooked up with a dishwasher job in El Cholo through a cousin.

It lasted a week. He had skills working in agriculture and was promoted to prep cook. “I was able to wield a knife and learn quickly,” he said.

Sergio Ochoa standing in a kitchen.

Sergio Ochoa.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

“I was making $3.25 an hour when I started,” Ochoa said. But a manager noticed it and dropped it to $3.50. “He said, ‘I like the way you work. ”

Another opportunity presented itself when a line cook went to Mexico and did not return. Within a year, Ochoa had gone from dishwasher to line cook. By 1992 he had become a chef and was invited by the owners in 1997 to open the restaurant in Santa Monica.
When asked why he chose to stay in El Cholo for so long, Ochoa stopped. “When I came here to the United States,” he said, “in my mind, I was like, I want a job where I can grow. I want to find a job where I can earn money. money to buy my mother’s house, or my own house, or buy my own car.

He had had work experiences in jobs with little prospect of advancement. But in El Cholo, he felt the restaurant could help him achieve his goals: “Supporting my family; to help my family.

Now with her own family, Ochoa does not regret her journey. “My dream came true. Because I’m still working here, 40 years old.

Moises Torres, cook

Moises Torres seated in a booth at El Cholo restaurant.

Moises Torres has worked at El Cholo since 1982.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

A cook at El Cholo’s Western Avenue, Moises Torres started working at the restaurant nearly 40 years ago. Originally from the Mexican coastal state of Nayarit, Torres came to California to work picking oranges before following in an uncle’s footsteps to work in El Cholo. With no cooking training, he worked under the tutelage of other cooks and El Cholo’s chef at the time, Joe Reina, to become a prep cook and learn how to butcher meat.

Torres has quite enjoyed his time at El Cholo (“I never thought of leaving,” he said), but he’s pragmatic: “If I had another job, it would be the same,” a- he declared. Work is work, so why waste a good thing?

Moises Torres standing in a kitchen, stirring something with his right hand while looking at the camera.

Chef Moises Torres has worked at El Cholo since 1982.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

It could be a bit of seniority: when I ask Torres if he ever misses home, he answers from the bottom of his heart: “Yes. Yes. That’s why I’m going to retire in December and go… [I’m] 62!” (His manager has since indicated that Torres plans to retire before then.)

He said he can’t wait to get home, see his family and enjoy his favorite comida Nayarita: pescado zarandeado.

Jaime Cornelio, food runner

Jaime Cornelio seated at a table, with a circular mirror on the wall behind him.

Jaime Cornelio has been an employee of El Cholo for over 40 years.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

Jaime Cornelio started working at El Cholo at the age of 18, following his older brother, Antonio. He worked for 40 years entirely at the Western Avenue site, but has no immediate plans to retire.

A close up of Jaime Cornelio's shirt, which reads

Jaime Cornelio.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

“A lot of us have been here too many years already,” the courier said, laughing as if to say, what’s a few more?

Cornelio is married with children to a woman from the same town where he grew up – Villamar, in the state of Michoacán. He always thinks about food from back home, especially the sweet corn tamales called uchepos (El Cholo’s most famous dish is also a sweet corn tamale, made with cheddar cheese). Overall, he doesn’t think Mexican food in the United States is much different than in Mexico, but he notes one major difference in the food back home: “It’s spicier. There’s a lot of chili.

El Cholo is known for the stream of celebrities who have eaten at the restaurant over the years – I ask Cornelio to drop me a bit of a name and he doesn’t disappoint: Elizabeth Taylor, Magic Johnson and Don Francisco of “Sabado fame Gigantic.

Justino ‘Tino’ Romero, Director

Justino Romero standing between two tables and in front of a wall with a colorful plant fresco.

Justino Romero.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

In 1979, when he was 20, Justino Romero went to work with a friend who was serving tables at El Cholo. A manager asked him if he wanted a job. Fast forward 43 years, and the Jalisco native has worked most of his life at the La Habra location of El Cholo. He now works as a manager and day server.

“I’m happy to be here,” Romero said. “I see the business as my own business. If you don’t see it that way, you’re in the wrong business. According to him, the business has helped him support his family over the years and he said he felt obligated to repay that loyalty. “I feel like part of the family,” he says.

Justino Romero leaning against a wall at El Cholo restaurant.

Justino Romero.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

Originally from the town of Rincon de Mirandilla, Romero is the third eldest of 22 children.

Meal times were simple. “We barely ate meat because it was impossible to have it every day,” he said. “Practically eggs or beans, rice and my mother’s tortillas.” On special occasions, the family ate cocido – a beef and vegetable soup.

When he was 17 or 18, Romero left home to come to the United States. Like many who made this trip, his goal was to earn money to send home and help support his family.

“It was sad. It was scary,” he said. “When you cross the border without papers, it’s very scary. Now it’s worse. But at that time it was hard In the trunk of a car: Close it It was hard.

After a short stint at another restaurant, Romero landed at El Cholo. Over the decades, he has seen the restaurant’s children grow up and have children of their own.

“You can see the first, second, and third generations pretty much every week,” he said. “Families.”

Sue Killian, server

Sue Killian standing in front of a table stand at El Cholo restaurant.

A mother of four, Sue Killian started working night shifts in El Cholo with the aim of being home with her children during the day while her husband was at work. 47 years later, Killian, now 80, works only part-time at the restaurant while caring full-time for her ailing husband.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

In 1975, Sue Killian and her husband were looking for a way to earn some extra money to support their four young children. Killian’s husband worked during the day, so the logic was that she could work in a restaurant in the evenings and they would swap babysitting duties.

Killian recently celebrated his 47th year working at El Cholo. She also recently celebrated her 80th birthday. Killian has always been a restaurant waitress – with the exception, she notes, of her first six months on the job, when she was a hostess. She currently works a few days a week and has no plans to retire.

When Killian, who is from Coldwater, Michigan (“They only have one season, as far as I’m concerned, it’s liveable,” she said), moved with her husband to warmer climes. tempers from Berkeley in 1964, she admits to having suffered a culture shock. “It was crazy for us,” she said. “We lived in a small, small town.” In 1969, they moved to Southern California when her husband was transferred.

Sue Killian sitting in a restaurant booth, looking out the window.

Sue Killian.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

Over the years, in addition to El Cholo, Killian has worked for the California Farm Bureau, done payroll for a construction company, and opened a tanning salon.

“I’m very bored at home,” she said. “I like seeing people; I don’t like to be [cooped] at the top.”

Killian spoke of the joys of seeing people grow in the restaurant over the decades, as well as the dedication of his colleagues at a time when staffing challenges are plaguing the industry.

“I drive down the street and pass these really good restaurants that are a chain, and they’re having a hard time finding people to work for them. El Cholo doesn’t have that problem,” she said. “At least this one doesn’t.”