“Cookie! We missed you Cookie!”
That’s how Javier the pastry cook greeted Mike the garde manger cook, returning from a few days off. My sous-chef turned to me and asked, “Why do you guys call him Cookie?” I explained, “Whenever he walks by the pastry station looking for handouts, he says ‘Cookie? Cookie?’ So Javier just started calling him “Cookie.”
I’m not sure if it’s true for other kitchens, but where I work everyone has a nickname. Maybe it’s cultural, but the Spanish-speaking cooks rarely refer to one another by their given names. And we gringos are not excluded either.
Some nicknames are pretty obvious. Anyone of Asian descent is immediately dubbed Chino or China. Not actually Chinese? Well then after a few reminders, one might be re-assigned Koreano or Japonesa. One dishwasher from Guerrero, Mexico proudly goes by Guerrerensé, meaning both a person from Guerrero, and a warrior. Another dishwasher, barely a hair shorter than Guerrerense, is known as Enano, meaning dwarf or little guy. Then there’s el Gordo, the fat prep cook, and Flaca, who used to be really skinny before she had kids. The butcher, an older man, is Tío, or uncle, and Javier who’s also an older man is sometimes called el Padrino, or “the Godfather” both names clear cultural indicators of respect.
Other nicknames present themselves after a cook has been around for a while. Aside from Cookie, there’s one tall, lanky cook sometimes called Kiko, after the Spanish sit-com character. But he does not like to be called Shaggy, as in Scooby’s sidekick. Most of the time I’m called China or Chinita, which is fine with me, but there was an instance when el Gordo tried to call me Pocahantas which was not cool.
Most nicknames are terms of endearment or friendship. But there are some nicknames that won’t be said to your face. One sous chef often called Sonambulo or “Sleepwaker” got fired after bungling his way through a busy Sunday service clearly impaired by booze and prescription pills. Sonambulo dos wasn’t able to win us over either. Line cooks who can’t cut it are are called burro or “donkey.” The team has little patience for sonambulos and burros who can’t carry their weight, so they don’t usually stick around.
It may seem strange in our over-sensitized politically correct world, that el Gordo and Enano aren’t offended being called “Fatso” or “Midget.” In fact they prefer it. One runner doesn’t blink an eye at being called Boludo which means “jerk” or “prick.” It’s sarcastic because Boludo is actually the sweetest guy on the floor. So what’s in a nickname? El Gordo knows he’s fat, Enano knows he’s short, and Boludo can appreciate the sarcasm. Maybe nicknames used in this way, by the friends who love you are not insults, but rather signs of acceptance. I know we’re friends when I call Enano by his real name, he says “No China, Enano, please.”