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Bluefin chef from Puerto Rico crafts a new chapter in Minnesota

Chef Luis Cortes preps a pepper for dinner service at Bluefin Grille in Tofte. Photo by Joe Friedrichs
Chef Luis Cortes preps a pepper for dinner service at Bluefin Grille in Tofte. Photo by Joe Friedrichs

Luis Cortes is used to big water. Now in his mid-40s, the new executive chef at Bluefin Bay Resort spent most of his adult life working at restaurants in Puerto Rico. There, salty waters washed ashore every morning and island life was everything most people only dream of. And then the storm hit.

After Hurricane Maria ravaged the island in fall 2017, Cortes was looking for steady work on the mainland. He found it more than 2,000 miles away in Minnesota

Cortes arrived to the North Shore in July 2018. It was an experiment of sorts, for both employer and employee. To date, according to Bluefin Bay Resort owner Dennis Rysdahl, the situation is working well for all parties involved.

In late December, Cortes’s wife and two children will move from Puerto Rico to Minnesota and become Cook County residents. The children will enroll in the local school district and Cortes’s wife hopes to find employment at Bluefin as well. The children have never been to Minnesota, but it’s the work in Tofte bringing the family to the North Shore.  

And while it’s a new concept that staff are coming from Puerto Rico, Bluefin has been relying on workers from other countries more and more during the last 15-20 years, Rysdahl says. This started with workers on J-1 travel Visas, then H-2B visas, which allow people to stay for up to nine months. There were still expenses involved with this process, but the workforce was reliable.

Those programs were working well until 2016 when quota numbers and the process of hiring foreign workers on Visas changed. As WTIP has reported in numerous interviews in 2018, including with the directors of the local chamber of commerce and economic development authority, staffing issues remain a persistent issue for many Cook County employers. To address the issue, an effort was made similar to ones taking place in communities such as Branson, Missouri, which is to essentially recruit workers from Puerto Rico. The process has been mostly slow going, with Bluefin leading the way and finding a good success rate amongst those who travel from the island to Tofte to work and live.

Puerto Rican residents are U.S. citizens and already cleared to work when they arrive at Bluefin, Rysdahl points out. Another attribute that makes workers from Puerto Rico more appealing than hiring J-1s or H2B visa workers is that employees such as Cortes can stay on board long term. This is meaningful for both employees, employers and the community, according to Rysdahl.

Cortes says he is both thankful to have steady work and anxious about the arrival of his family. And when they arrive just before Christmas, Cortes hopes to move the family into one of the new housing units built in Lutsen near Arrowhead Electric. It’s a sign, perhaps, that both the efforts to find staff for businesses along the North Shore and then figure out where those staff will live, remains both innovative and complex.

Full audio of this story, including interviews with Cortes and Rysdahl can be found below.