The word fasulo means “bean” in Italian. It’s a regional variant of the formal Italian word fagiolo, which shares a Latin root with the Spanish word frijol. If you live in California, chances are you know frijoles.
The intertwined roots of Italian and Spanish make the drama unfolding at Davis’ Fasulo Osteria even more mystifying. (Osteria means “a restaurant serving simple or inexpensive food.”)
Francisca Perez, who cooked at the restaurant for 11 years, says she was fired last year after the owner berated her for speaking Spanish. According to a story by The Bee’s Benjy Egel, Perez alleges Leonardo Fasulo “screamed at her, pounded a table, mockingly asked if she wanted him to add burritos to the menu and told her she needed to learn English to keep her job — all in front of her 11-year-old son, who had just walked in.”
When she defended herself, she says Fasulo responded: “You can get your ass out of my restaurant.” She left, as did a fellow co-worker who witnessed the racist abuse and backs up her story. Now, Perez has filed a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing and is demanding her final paycheck.
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Fasulo isn’t saying much — but he says he doesn’t owe Perez a dime.
Let’s start with the obvious: bucatini, fettuccine, penne, ravioli – the list goes on. None of these words is English. Ordering from an Italian menu requires a basic primer in the language. But since this is America and Italian food is delicious, we learn it, happily. There isn’t one kid in this country who doesn’t know pizza and spaghetti.
And let’s not forget dim sum, enchiladas, bahn mi, bratwurst, tandoori, sashimi, lumpia, shakshouka, hummus, kimchee, injera, pad thai, pupusa, kabob. If it tastes amazing, you’re probably ordering it in a different language.
And if you’re eating at a restaurant in the United States, chances are a Spanish-speaker is cooking for you. Latinos — especially Mexicans — do a disproportionate amount of restaurant work. Immigrants compose 31 percent of restaurant workers, according to Pew. Most of them are Latino.
“As any chef will tell you,” wrote Anthony Bourdain in “A Cook’s Tour,” “our entire service economy — the restaurant business as we know it — in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers.”
In my early twenties, I worked some kitchen jobs. My experiences were mostly positive, but Perez’s story brought back a painful memory. Once, I walked out on a restaurant job after the chef launched into a racist anti-Mexican rant because he thought the dishwashers were late. In reality, they were out back unloading the produce.
I was a college graduate who could afford to quit. Most kitchen workers don’t have that privilege. Abuse and ingratitude simply come with the job.
They endure grueling days and low pay to feed us. The restaurant business is a high-stress, low-margin grind that can put a brutal strain on the mental health of managers, cooks and workers alike. Drug and alcohol abuse, depression and suicide plague the industry. So do explosive temperaments like that of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, who humiliates restaurant staffers on TV for entertainment.
Toxic personalities are a big problem in the modern workplace, and not just in restaurants. A 2017 study by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that nearly 20 percent of workers have experienced bullying, verbal abuse and harassment in the workplace.
The number is likely higher. Many of us know the type: The unpredictable boss with a hair-trigger temper who berates, terrorizes and emotionally batters employees for sport. Unfortunately, many workers have no choice but to put up with abuse — and maybe it’s time for a #MeToo-style movement to cut bullying bosses down to size.
It can follow the example of Francisca Perez, who took a stand for dignity.
Her boss won’t talk, but it seems unlikely that an 11-year employee like Perez would suddenly leave for no reason. Besides, she has witnesses. While we can’t say for sure what happened, Fasulo needs to clear the air.
It was a busy dinner shift and Perez says Fasulo was beefing with other employees before he confronted her. Perhaps, like many bosses, he was having a stressful day. That doesn’t excuse racist or disrespectful behavior. But if he found a way to own up, apologize and pay Perez what she says she’s owed, people might be willing to forgive him.
Or maybe it’s time for the enlightened diners of Davis to say adiós to Osteria Fasulo.