If you’ve had the privilege of eating at a fine-dining restaurant in southeast Michigan in the past two decades and happen to be the type who pays attention, you’ve likely admired the graceful dance of the server assistants floating across the room to deliver food in choreographed unison, or marveled at them silently clearing a spent table, the dirty plates whisked away without a clink. And as you were hypnotized by the dance, another back waiter wordlessly filled your water glass before you could notice it was empty.
If, like me, you’ve been enthralled by this display of clairvoyant attentiveness and struck up enough conversations with its performers, you’ve likely realized that, more often than not, the polite man fastidiously refilling your water all night originally hails from Sylhet, a majority-Muslim region in northeast Bangladesh that has provided a steady flow of immigrants to the Detroit area for the past 20 years.
From restaurants of yore, like Tribute and the late Matt Prentice’s vast dining empire, to contemporary players like downtown’s Parc and Prime & Proper and Birmingham’s Madam, all have been propped up in part by the dependable Bengali backbone running through the region’s upscale dining scene.
“Every fine-dining restaurant has a couple of Bengali people working there — not only in Michigan but all over America,” says Mashkurul Khan, a Bangladesh-born server assistant and food runner at Joe Muer Bloomfield Hills. “We’re at least one kind of people you can see everywhere.”
Indeed, as the third-largest ethnic group in the world, behind only the Han Chinese and Arabs, Bengali people have deeply influenced the world’s food culture, though more often under the banner of another nation. Bengali people are native to the historical region of Bengal, which today is split between Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal; however, there are large populations of Bengalis across India as well as a considerable world-wide diaspora. While some Bengali immigration occurred in the 1980s and ’90s, most of southeast Michigan’s sizable Bengali population migrated here within the past 20 years.
In the middle of the last century, it was Sylheti men seeking economic opportunity for their families who turned England into a nation of curry. Today, Bengali people run most “Indian” restaurants in the U.K., New York City, and beyond. And while the Bengali impact on the Hamtramck/Detroit border is well-known — the area now officially bears the “Banglatown” moniker — acknowledgment of the community’s contributions to the wider culture by the wider culture has been in short supply.
“Most American people, they don’t know our culture,” says Jabed Chowdhury, president of the Bangladesh Association of Michigan. “They say you’re Indian.”
It’s been 20 years since The New York Times began documenting the exodus of Bangladeshis from New York City, their most common American entry point, to the more affordable enclave of Hamtramck, writing in a March 2001 article that “even the president of … a Muslim cultural center that includes the largest Bangladeshi mosque in Queens is living in Detroit.”
Chowdhury cites an old estimate pegging the number of Bengali people in Michigan at around 50,000 to 60,000. But that number is dated. It’s likely closer to 100,000 now, especially when you take into account the spread of the community from Hamtramck to Warren, Sterling Heights, and Troy. His nonprofit is raising funds to conduct a more accurate census of the community in the state, which could account for more than 10 percent of the entire country’s Bengali population.
And just as Hamtramck is a physical entry point for the chain migration of Bengali people who land here, the server assistant position is another rite of passage — particularly for the men, who serve as primary breadwinners in a traditional family unit. More commonly found in full-service, fine-dining restaurants, server assistants — sometimes referred to as SAs or back waiters — typically welcome guests, bus tables, refill water, and perform a range of duties that support the servers and other front-of-house staff. Some also double as food runners or expediters, acting as key links between the kitchen and the dining room.
Chowdhury himself worked as a server assistant for nearly a decade between the Rugby Grille in Birmingham, Joe Muer Seafood, and the former Wolfgang Puck Grille at MGM Grand Detroit casino.
His association’s joint secretary, Sumon Kobir, spent seven years as a server assistant at Birmingham hotspots of the last decade, including Chen Chow Brasserie and Cameron’s Steakhouse, while attending school to become a radiology technician.
Part of the appeal of upscale restaurant work, especially for newly arrived young men, is the flexibility, Kobir says. You can go to school during the day before working a six- or seven-hour dinnertime shift and leave at the end of the night with as much cash in your pocket as some of your peers are making working 10 or 12 hours in a factory. Neither requires much language or education. And there are cultural draws to restaurant work for Bengali people, too. For one, Bengali cuisine is the only South Asian cuisine served course-by-course, similar to the French service à la russe. The sequencing of courses is at least somewhat familiar.
“Bengali people, we have a history of really good hospitality,” Kobir explains. “And we take things seriously. We have really good work ethics, which I can say really proudly. And not just in restaurants. If you go to a manufacturing company, if there is one Bengali, within two years there’s 50 Bengali people working there.”
Khan, of Joe Muer Bloomfield Hills, points to Bengalis’ familial and cordial nature as the reason they are primed for hospitality work. “Bengali culture is kind of different than other cultures,” he says. “It is soft. Bengali want to meet people, love people, care for people. It comes from family. They know how to be restaurant people.”
Jabid Miah, a server assistant at Prime & Proper who has also worked at Parc and the London Chop House as well as upscale restaurants in New York City, points to the traditions built around those strong family bonds as a reason for the Bengali presence in fine dining.
“The way we know about this type of work is back home in our country we do a lot of wedding ceremonies,” Miah explains, noting that Bengali families are often quite large. “When someone in the family gets married, we have to arrange all of that: reservations, people, food. We’re just used to doing that, and we have a good idea of working at a restaurant, which is all about taking care of a large amount of people.”
Miah says he used to work with a lot more Bengali people in the 15 years he’s been in restaurants, but many of the older generation left the industry amid the COVID-19 pandemic-driven worker exodus, seeking better pay or less risk elsewhere.
For some, like Kobir and Chowdhury, the server assistant position is a stepping-stone to something bigger. For others, like Miah, it’s a lifelong passion. And though he hopes to become a server and even open his own restaurant someday, many of his Bengali peers persistently remain on the lower rungs of the service brigade.
Language can be one barrier preventing newly arrived Bengalis from ascending the ladder to become full-fledged servers, who take home roughly three to four times what a server assistant makes in a night despite bearing less of the physical load.
But more often than not the barrier is religious. Alcohol is haram — forbidden — in Islam, and an overwhelming majority of the Bengali population in Michigan is Muslim. Pouring alcohol for guests, much less tasting it and explaining it to them, is simply nonnegotiable, meaning some become career server assistants and stay in what is typically an entry-level role for years.
“One thing about Bengali people is when we work for an owner and company, if they respect us and our hard work and what we do for them, then we stay,” Miah says.
That’s definitely true for Joe Muer Bloomfield Hills server assistant and food expeditor Mohammed Hossain, who came to the U.S. alone in 1997 from Chittagong on a diversity visa. “It was a little bit of a struggle,” the lanky 52-year-old remembers. “It was a different language and culture and everything.”
Friends he was living with in Hamtramck at the time helped him get a job as a server assistant at Prentice’s Northern Lakes Seafood almost immediately. In 2004, he opened Coach Insignia for Prentice’s hospitality group and worked there as a server assistant and expeditor for its entire 13-year run.
When Coach closed in 2017, Hossain went right back to the same building that housed Northern Lakes Seafood, now a newly minted Joe Muer Seafood. In nearly 25 years, he’s worked for just three hospitality groups in two different buildings and is still doing nearly the same job he was when he started. That’s practically unheard-of in the turn-and-burn world of restaurant labor.
In 2010, Hossain saved enough money to buy a house in Warren, which is beginning to supplant Hamtramck as the cultural heart of Bengali life in southeast Michigan. (Chowdhury and Kobir also live in Warren.)
“When I came here, [I was] alone and almost empty-handed,” Hossain recalls. “But now I’m happy, with family, and doing great.”
The next time you find yourself in awe of the fine-dining dance, pause and observe more closely. You just might find that, at least in some places, the driving rhythm sounds a lot like the American dream.
This story is featured in the September 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition.