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The Man Breaking Down Language Barriers in SF Restaurants

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Dino Rosso, linguist extraordinaire. All photos by Sam Devine

We’re sitting in a green room full of plants, lit by natural light in the northern region of Aztlan. Well, today it’s called the Mission District of San Francisco, but this spot was once just a small, foggy part of a massive culture that included much of California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico.

“A popular refrán,” says a tall, jovial man with a massive Gandolfian beard and hippy-length hair. “Is ‘I didn’t cross the border, the border crossed me.’”

This is Dino Rosso, an outstanding linguist who’s found himself working with local restaurants, teaching Spanish to the wait-staff and English to the kitchen workers. Five employees of Tacolicious are gathered in the back room of their Valencia Street location. Coffees, juices and books are laid out on the table. It’s a few days after Halloween and Dino asks the class: “Where did Day of the Dead come from?”

Left to right: Kory Cogdill, Eric LeFebre, Dino Rosso, Christine Stein, Ben Stevenson at the Friday morning Tacolicious Spanish class.

The candy-skull holiday is often perceived as the “Mexican Halloween,” but the skeletal face painting and altars to past loved ones can be traced back to Aztec tradition. Next Rosso explains the motto of the San Francisco flag by referencing nearby Guerrero street.

“Oro en Paz — Fierro en Guerra” (Gold in Peace — Iron in War)

“It’s definitely not your regular conjugating verb class,” says Tacolicious employee Christine Stein. To prepare for today’s class, Rosso sent out an article from SF Gate on the origins of La Catrina.

“It’s important to give cultural context when teaching language,” explains Rosso, later. “Because the people that speak it are human beings and they have a history.”

In addition to teaching Spanish at a Waldorf school, Rosso teaches private lessons in Spanish, English, Italian, French and Portuguese though his company Lingo. He remains a student as well, studying Arabic, which he practices with the workers at his local grocery store. “My friend,” one of them told him recently. “For one year, we no speak Arabic to you, because we think you FBI.” Why else would a big, white, beardo be trying to speak their language? Today they call him “Aburisha,” which loosely translates to “feather-brother.” (Rosso will often wear feathers in his long hair.)

“Spanish is my bread and butter,” says Rosso of his private lessons. “We live in California. As of 2015 it’s the only Latino majority state. It was Mexico.”

One of his students, Brian Rizzo, echoes this sentiment. “I always wanted to learn a language and I figured Spanish was good to learn and maintain in California because there are more opportunities to practice than, say, Greek.”

Brian Rizzo chuckles as the charismatic Rosso explains Spanish

Growing up in Western Massachusetts, Rosso began learning Spanish at age five, when his mother enrolled him in bilingual education.

“I had a lot of siblings, so it was: ‘You get clarinet, you get football, you get Spanish.’”

He has an adopted brother from El Salvador who came to the family at age two. Rosso was much older and serendipitously the only one who could really communicate with him. “He was preverbal, but only understood Spanish, and so I would talk to him and his face would light up with recognition at the sounds of Spanish.”

He kept with his bilingual education all through school, eventually majoring in Spanish at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. After college he lived abroad, mostly in Spain and Italy, but trekking around Europe and adding Romanian to his polyglottal quiver (“It’s the closest living language to Latin,” he says). returned to the states and acquired a master’s degree in education with minors in French and Arabic from The School for International Training in Brattle Boro, Vermont.

“I’m reluctant to say I’m a native speaker. I didn’t have a community to speak with growing up ‘cause: Western Mass,” he says, using both hands in the universal ‘There-you-have-it’ gesture of laying out invisible cards on an imaginary table.

The first native Spanish speakers he met were Puerto Rican. Discussing the recent hurricane relief debacle, Rosso describes it as “beyond the pale. Possibly the most salient thing to come out of this was that Americans realized that Puerto Ricans are Americans, too.” He was surprised to find relatively few Puerto Ricans on the West Coast when he came to San Francisco. Having studied mostly Spain-style Spanish, he also had to wrangle the pitfalls of Mexican slang.

“What is this?” He asks, pointing to the straw in his drink.

Embarrassed, I admit my Spanish is not that great.

“’Paja.’ That’s in Spain,” he says. “In Mexico it’s ‘popote.’ There, asking for a paja’ is like asking for a hand job.’”

Rosso in front of Flore

We’re sitting on the patio at Flore, on Market Street. The cafe, with its dark wood, green plants and large windows has become Rosso’s base of operations. In his private lessons here, he focuses on speaking more than on writing, although there is a mixture of conversation and book work — with the exception of one gentleman that wanted to focus on writing for his PHD. He’s had a variety of students, including an architect that wanted to talk to workers on job sites and a woman who simply didn’t want people to have to pardon her French when she visited Paris.

“It kinda helps with your English, too, in a weird way,” says Kris Pozzi, a Mexican-American hair-stylist who is studying Italian with Rosso in order to talk to her husband’s parents. How often do we think about whether we’re using direct pronouns or indirect pronouns? Or imperfect versus preterit. “He’s kind of my history teacher, too.”

Lingo student Kris Pozzi

When the cafe came under new management recently, restaurateur Terence Alan hired Rosso to translate their first staff meeting.

“You and I can have a pretty nuanced conversation,” says Alan. “But if I speak ten words of Spanish – or what is called Kitchen Spanish — I can’t really explain the nuance of what we’re trying to do here, the brand that we’re building, how important that particular individual is to this entire process. So that’s where someone like Dino comes in.”

Another restaurateur, Tacolicious owner Sara Deseran, who had been studying with Rosso, decided to attempt her long dream of providing language lessons to her staff. So Rosso gave the workers six-week-long crash courses. On Friday mornings, he taught restaurant Spanish to the front of house staff (who each paid about $12 per class). In addition to things like “Necesito platos” (“I need plates”) and “Alergico a nueces,” (Allergic to nuts”) he also taught them how to say common niceties, like “¿Que onda?” rather than the pervasive but impersonal “Hola.”

He then gave the class an opportunity to learn phrases that interest them. “How about: ‘How was your weekend?’” Asked Eric LeFebre. So Rosso taught them: “¿Que tal tu fin de semana?’ He also explained that a lot of native speakers will cut the phrase short, saying just: “¿Que tal tu fin de?”

For the kitchen staff, free lessons were taught every Friday evening.

‘”What are you here for?’ I asked one of the students,” says Rosso. “Many young people can’t plan for next month but he said: ‘I’m coming to these English lessons because I don’t want to be a lavaplatos for the rest of my life. I want to be a server one day and I know I need English skills for that.’”

Many of these workers had been going since 4 a.m. and went to other jobs after his lessons finished. “San Francisco is really pretty good at offering free English classes,” says Rosso. “[But] immigrants are such hard workers — many of them are sending money back home — that they won’t go downtown regularly for a class. If they can work, they do work.”

As a result of this constant hustle, kitchen-worker attendance for the English class petered out. They’re planning to do another round starting again in January and are trying to figure out how to incentivize the staff. The question arises: could it be possible to pay the workers to attend classes?

“We had done these classes with hotels,” says Kim Wildman, who teaches Spanish for Napa Valley Adult Education. “And there was a direct correlation between attendance and if the the employees got paid and if they did not.”

Wildman estimates that she’s done around fifteen Spanish-English courses for wineries over the years. She takes a pragmatic view of language education in the workplace and sees key differences between vineyards and restaurants.

“I think it was Franciscan, where they also had a kitchen there and, [there] was a chef that was giving orders to them, bam, bam, and the non-native English speaker didn’t want to say that they didn’t quite get it all. So one of the solutions for that, aside from the language, was to have daily lists written out.

“A lot of times it’s questioning more investigation: ‘What exactly are the issues? Why do they feel they need this class? And then, what’s the best way to deliver it? Where are the issues, and maybe it isn’t everyone that they want to target, at least for the first round. Maybe it’s just a prep person and only one, who knows? I think it’s worth delving into that.”

Even having one person around that is bi-lingual can make a big difference. One of my neighbors who asked to remain anonymous) works at a nearby fine dining restaurant. She grew up with some Spanish in the household and then became fluent while living abroad for years in Mexico, Argentina and Spain.

“I feel like I joke around a lot with the back of house, I mean, there’s obviously useful things, like how to say ‘trays’ – ‘charola.’ But I feel like, in terms of useful phrases, just being able to say ‘Hey, can you clean this for me?’ or ‘Can you fire this really quickly?’ It’s just being friendly,” she says. “There’s an obvious separation between front-of-house and back-of-house and it’s most often English speaking versus Spanish speaking … Everyone’s very aware of that but no one talks about it. And then when you can speak Spanish people are like ‘oh, it’s so sweet that you can talk to them,’ or like, ‘I wish we could all communicate.’ And there’s a certain sense of community that’s built when you can talk to people.”

Dino Medardo Rosso at teaching at Tacoliscious.  Photo @tacolisciousSF

Tacoliscious employee, Kory Cogdill, shares the same sentiment: “I think it’s more building community than it is building communication, if that makes any sense. Just knowing that the English speakers want to learn how to communicate with the Spanish speakers and vice versa. And that there’s a platform that our company has given to employees to do that is pretty exciting. There’s more effort, too, where the front-of-house and back-of-house are correcting each other and trying to teach each other their common language.”

Rosso feels that the Bay Area is special in its desire and willingness to build multi-lingual communities. In many parts of America, the predominant attitude is that immigrants should learn English. “Why should people learn Spanish? They’re in America.”

“What we take for granted when we come to the City is the hospitality industry,” says Alan. “The majority of that is being done by people from outside the country… They’re the ones that are taking care of our number one engine of the economy in our city and that’s tourism… I think we owe those people the ability to communicate to them as they learn our language, otherwise there’s a big wall, and it makes it harder for those folks to acclimate and become a part of the community.”

Rosso points out that the benefits of language education go far beyond just the workplace.

“When you help people learn the lingua franca,” he says. “You help them avail themselves of other services. They vote, report crime. You have immigrants that are more civically engaged than they otherwise would be.”

One of Rosso’s flyers prompts you to help get a lost axolotl home by learning Spanish.

So the question remains: will Bay Area restaurants be willing to pay workers to learn English?

Tacolicious is actually already putting money towards education.

“We have quite the crazy philanthropic arm for our restaurant group,” says Cogdill. “On Tuesdays, all of our locations donate fifteen per cent of our proceeds to local public schools. We’re actually approaching our one million dollar mark in the next few months, so it’s pretty exciting.”

Rosso expects other restaurants will follow Tacolicious’ lead. Flore is planning to enlist Rosso’s help for their staff soon and, through a friend at KGO, Rosso has also been connected with chef Ryan Scott, who was on season four of Top Chef.  Rosso will be appearing on Scott’s KGO radio show this Thursday, November 29 at 2pm, and hopes to connect him with more of the restaurant community.

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Sam Devine

Sam Devine

Sam Devine is drawn to art, bikes, song and drink like the proverbial moth to the moth-heroin. He plays music, tends bar, and makes silly animations. In addition to writing for he's appeared in several publications, including MotoSpirit, SF Bay Guardian, Motorcyclist magazine, SF Weekly, and The Kiteboarder. Check him out at