Mike*, one of our garde manger cooks just took a few days off to help his girlfriend move from Syracuse to Brooklyn. When Mike returned, Javier, the Spanish-speaking pastry cook greeted him with a loud and enthusiastic “Cookie! We missed you Cookie!” The sous-chef turned to me and asked, “Why do you guys call him Cookie?” I explained that whenever Mike walked by Javier’s station, he would scan the area for handouts, saying “Cookie? Cookie?” So naturally Javier just started calling him “Cookie,” and once everyone else heard it, the name stuck.
I’m not sure if it’s true for other kitchens, but at my current workplace pretty much everyone has a nickname. Maybe it’s cultural, or maybe it’s just easier to remember a descriptive nickname than one’s real name, but the Spanish-speaking cooks rarely refer to one another by their given names. Gringos are not excluded either, and most of us have nicknames assigned to us by the Spanish cooks, that are used by all.
Some nicknames are pretty obvious and present themselves immediately. For instance, 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 of the dishwashers is very proud of being from Guerrero, Mexico and insists on being called Guerrerensé, meaning both a person from Guerrero, and a warrior. Another dishwasher, although he stands head to head with Guerrerense, is known as Enano, meaning dwarf or little guy. There’s el Gordo, the fat prep cook, and Flaca, the line cook who apparently was really skinny until she had two kids. The butcher, an older man, is referred to by the younger guys as Tío, or uncle, and Javier is sometimes referred to as el Padrino, or “the Godfather” – both names that also imply some level of respect.
Other nicknames present themselves after a cook has been around for a while, such as the case with “Cookie.” Wil, who has been working at the restaurant for several months now, has even more than one nickname. He apparently bears striking resemblance to a character from a Spanish sitcom named Kiko, and being tall and lanky, has also been called Shaggy (as in Scooby’s sidekick). He wasn’t too thrilled about the second moniker and has since threatened the life of the el Gordo, the cook who first called him Shaggy. 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. Now he has two hits out on his life.
For the most part, the nicknames are accepted as terms of endearment or friendship. What you don’t want, however, is a nickname that won’t be said to your face. Sonambulo or “Sleepwaker” was one sous chef who got fired after bungling his way through a busy Sunday service while his abilities were clearly impaired by booze and prescription pills. Despite a grand effort, the sous that followed was never truly able to win over the Spanish-speaking staff and was dubbed Sonambulo dos. Burro or “donkey,” universally accepted as the world’s worst line cook, was eventually fired for being completely MIA for one of his scheduled shifts. I’m sure all three had to have a clue but never got called to their faces.
So it may seem strange in our over-sensitized politically correct world, that el Gordo and Enano never seem to be offended by being openly called “Fatso” or “Midget.” In fact they prefer it. One runner doesn’t blink an eye at being called Boludo which means “jerk” or even “prick.” Ironically Boludo is in fact more of a sweet mama’s boy. So what’s in a nickname? El Gordo knows he’s fat, Enano knows he’s short, and maybe Boludo can see the irony in his nickname too. They accept it, so by using their nicknames openly and without malice, perhaps in a way it shows that we accept them too. Once when I called Enano by his real name, he said “Enano, please.” Translation? My name is Pablo, but my friends call me Midget.