How can ethnographic research shine light on the reproduction of social inequality in upscale Los Angeles restaurants? In today’s episode we talk with Dr. Eli Wilson, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of New Mexico, about his fieldwork in three LA restaurants. In the new book Front of the House, Back of the House, Race and Inequality in the Lives of Restaurant Workers (NYU Press, 2020), he takes readers inside the social hierarchies of upscale restaurants, where mostly white and college-educated servers and bartenders may make three times as much as the mostly Latino immigrant cooks and dishwashers who work hidden away in the back of the restaurant. Eli explains how his fieldwork emerged from his firsthand experience with the privileges of working in the front of the house. He describes the divisions between the two groups, and how he was able to build relationships with back of the house workers. He also talks about the discomfort that came from his own advantages as a tip-earner, and how he explained and managed his dual role as worker and ethnographer.
Two unequal worlds of work exist within the upscale restaurant scene of Los Angeles. White, college-educated servers operate in the front of the house—also known as the public areas of the restaurant—while Latino immigrants toil in the back of the house and out of customer view. In Front of the House, Back of the House, Eli Revelle Yano Wilson shows us what keeps these workers apart, exploring race, class, and gender inequalities in the food service industry. Drawing on research at three different high-end restaurants in Los Angeles, Wilson highlights why these inequalities persist in the twenty-first century, pointing to discriminatory hiring and supervisory practices that ultimately grant educated whites access to the most desirable positions. Additionally, he shows us how workers navigate these inequalities under the same roof, making sense of their jobs, their identities, and each other in a world that reinforces their separateness. Front of the House, Back of the House takes us behind the scenes of the food service industry, providing a window into the unequal lives of white and Latino restaurant workers.
Eli Revelle Yano Wilson is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of New Mexico. His research examines how social inequalities are both reproduced and challenged in urban labor markets.