Chef Mustafa Ozkaya and Aung in Anatolia Grill's kitchen Jessica Dodds photo
Twenty-five days into his job at a new Turkish restaurant, Aung is already entrusted with chopping vegetables and cooking French fries.
"After three or four months," says his boss, chef Mustafa Ozkaya, "he's going to be a chef. I'm going to make him a chef."
Much like southern-Turkey native Ozkaya climbed from dishwasher to line worker to chef and restaurant owner in Brooklyn, N.Y.'s dining scene, Aung is working his way up the ranks at Anatolia Grill. He had looked unsuccessfully for a job the past several months before his foster mother's hairdresser, Ozkaya's wife, gave him the heads-up.
"I am helper," says Aung, before enthusiastically naming the Mediterranean staples prepared and kept chilled in the Chester restaurant's kitchen: baba ghanoush, hummus, stuffed grape leaves, moussaka and more. He keeps bins filled with bite-sized pieces of lettuce, as well as chopped tomatoes, onions and marinated red cabbage. When an order comes in for French fries, Aung quickly plunges potatoes into a deep fryer.
He wears black-and-white checkered chef's pants, a black chef's coat and a maroon apron on a Sunday afternoon, as his boss and the sous chef, also named Mustafa, prepare kebabs and other orders, both to go and to eat in.
Aung started as a food runner, but Ozkaya switched him to kitchen work after a week or two because of his occasionally shaky English. The kitchen itself is a stew of languages, from the dishwasher's Spanish to the chefs' and waitresses' Turkish. Aung jokes that sometimes the only way to communicate is through "sign language."
"When I got in here, I didn't know anything," he says, but now he's tried many of the dishes and has learned how to efficiently slice vegetables, a skill that eludes many a home cook. Besides working on weekends, Aung's at the restaurant from 5 p.m. to closing on some school nights, arriving home by 10 or 11 p.m., and then he's up the next morning at 5:30 a.m.
Aung admits he gets sleepy at school, and he misses playing soccer, which he quit to take the job. He and Ahu also don't get to spend as much time together, because Ahu's often at soccer practice in the afternoon, and then he's asleep when Aung gets home from work.
Janey Neff, the boys' foster mother, says the decision to take the job was Aung's and that she hopes it's not too much for him to balance work with school, although he does his homework in the afternoon. She adds that driving him to work gets a little complicated, but this problem should be solved pretty soon, once Aung gets his driver's license. He took the job so he can send money to his grandmother in Myanmar.
Aung says he likes working at the grill, and Ozkaya has promised him more hours this summer. "Am I right, brother?" the chef asks Aung, receiving a quick nod in response.