Although they are based on history and eyewitness account, legends thrive on hyperbole; they are products of the human spirit that mirror their times. A number of people in San Diego say that our spirit and times are currently embodied in a legendary Golden Hill lunchroom called the Big Kitchen.
UCSD political science professor and author Peter Irons got wind of the Big Kitchen long before he moved to the neighborhood. “The Big Kitchen is one of the reasons we bought a house in Golden Hill,” explains Irons. “Because the place attracts activists, it’s the focus of community life. I was living in North County when I met Judy Forman on a walking tour of the neighborhood. She contributes to social action. She’s a magnet. She drew us here.’’ The Big Kitchen and Judy Forman are synonymous. Judy is a waitress. She’s also proprietor of a funky hole in the wall — the kind that appears in life-imitates-art sitcom series or in the O'Neill genre of tavern drama, where the boss attracts disparate characters, unites them, and is catalyst for change.
Besides running the cafe and catering benefits for the AIDS Center, the Environmental Health Coalition, the Women’s Resource Center, and the neighboring Grass Roots Cultural Center, she hosted a fundraiser for Evonne Schulze and rallied a thousand Golden Hill residents behind the Big Kitchen banner at the MEND march last August. She baked hundreds of muffins and donated them to the busloads that recently headed for Los Angeles to begin the Great Peace March. In addition, she raises money and plays bass drum for the San Diego Finest City Freedom Band. Judy is mayor of Golden Hill, or so she says.
“Mayor is one of many titles I give myself,’’ she grins. Lavish with titles, Judy heralds the arrival at the Big Kitchen of one of her regulars. , ^ “Here comes the world’s greatest flute player!’’ she cheers. Although she’s been renting a modest two-bedroom place on Twenty-ninth and A streets for the past five years, Judy also claims sole responsibility for Golden Hill’s rising real estate prices. “That’s because the Big Kitchen is world famous now,’’ she says. As she reads a letter that has recently arrived from Micronesia, Judy leads with her legendary smile. “Dear Judy,’’ it reads. “You gave my wife and I free dinner because we hadn’t ever been in before. My brother Steve told me it’s the best place in town to eat. He was right. I made some candles out of seashells just for you.” Judy’s T-shirt reads, “The Big Kitchen/Where Everyone’s a Star.” When people drop in from out of state or from other countries, the cafe’s grande dame gives them one of the shirts; normally they sell for ten dollars. “Whenever they wear our T-shirts, we become more famous,” she smiles.
Fame and celebrity are part of the Big Kitchen's mystique. Among the famous and the celebrated who have turned up there are Pete Seeger. Quentin Crisp, Holly Near, David Ogden Stiers, and locals Russ T. Nailz and Larry Himmel. The names drop like pellets from rabbits. Judy goes to great lengths to bring in celebrities. When Lily Tomlin was testing new material at the Old Town Opera House three years ago, Judy left a gift certificate for a free breakfast for her at the box office.
“Lily showed up with her manager and two other women. After they ate, they went next door to the Big Closet. That was a vintage-clothing place I used to run. They spent about $250 on some very weird stuff,” Judy recalls, savoring the memory and the thank-you note Tomlin wrote. And when Baryshnikov was in town last March with the American Ballet Theatre, Judy left a card for him with the night clerk at the Grant Hotel, where the dancer was staying. “Baryshnikov never showed up,” she admits.
Window curtains, a 1906 Milk of Magnesia bottle, and a hand-painted gourd from Korea are among the presents customers bring into the Big Kitchen. Judy also receives flowers, theater tickets, champagne, original artwork, poems, and ballads. One day while she was sitting in the first booth, vocalist/guitarist Vicki Maggiore composed and performed this refrain:
- “You get up every morning
- And you stumble outta bed.
- You head down to the BK,
- Where you know you’ll soon be fed.
- They got omelets, pancakes, bacon.
- Oh, their taste is just so fine.
- One thing for certain is,
- You never get your toast on time.’’
Historically, these kinds of tributes have always been inspired by folk heroes — and folk heroes have always been central to legend. Strength, kindness, wisdom, and charisma are characteristics often attributed to them, but they also protect the innocent, shelter the homeless, and preserve justice. Of course, they are all larger than life. Something else about folk heroes: they frequently have smiles that ripple your toes and lift you through the roof.
Sunday morning at the Big Kitchen is mayhem. Besides neighborhood regulars, people from as far as North County and Jamul make the weekly Sunday pilgrimage. From their numbers, you’d think they were on a soup kitchen line. Some of them bring vacationing relatives from out of city, or out of state. Despite microwaved oatmeal and toast that arrives late, and despite the stiff eight-dollar tab for a large OJ and a Mexican omelet topped with sour cream, there’s always a crowd outside waiting to get in. Even in the rain.
Inside the Big Kitchen, artists, rock musicians, actors, sailors, nuns, former Berkeley radicals, tattooed motorcycle lesbians, opera singers, symphony players. accountants, construction workers, and cops (“I make them park around the comer so my customers won’t feel intimidated,” Judy confides) mingle with journalists, teen-agers, mystics, city council members, and the chronically unemployed. Artists sketch and trade their work for breakfast. Impromptu performers can always depend on a free meal. Cartoonist Damian Strahl, whose caricatures decorate the walls, has had a burrito named in his honor. “Even die-hard Republicans come in here,' Judy says as she stands next to a life-size cardboard figure of the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia that occupies a corner. While the kempt trade tales and information with the unkempt, a pale redhead named Jennie solicits tarot trade.
The entire place is a bulletin board. “This is where you come if you’re looking for a business partner, a musical collaborator, an apartment, a housemate, a job, a lover, or a mate,” says graphic artist Gwen Snyder. Over coffee at the Big Kitchen, the Chocolate Affair in Mission Hills was formed. So was the Chocolate Lily, an espresso bar inside the Casa de Balboa at Balboa Park. And so was a musical group called Fundi and Good Company. The Egomaniacs, an improv group composed of a former waitress and a former dishwasher from the Big Kitchen, was born at the party celebrating Judy’s fourth year as doyenne of the Big Kitchen.
“If you need something, first thing you do is come to the Big Kitchen. Chances are you’ll connect” explains Snyder. “If you need to make fifty dollars today,” she adds, “Judy will find something that needs to be painted.” During Snyder’s lean years, she painted a jungle wall in the Big Kitchen’s only restroom, and painted a sign on the door reading, “Androgyny Room.” Before improvements were made, the bathroom had no sink, so Snyder cheerfully painted one on the wall. “Judy also found me the apartment I’m living in,” says Snyder. The Big Kitchen serves other functions, too. “All my waitresses found their boyfriends at the BK,” Judy beams. “So far we’ve had two official marriages between cooks and waitresses.”
Most of the Big Kitchen’s employees live in the neighborhood. Many are unemployed actors between auditions. “At one point there was a Caucasian Black Muslim, a Buddhist, a gay, a lesbian, and a black actor working together in the kitchen,” Judy recalls proudly. As part of the crew, she categorizes herself as a Jewish princess waitress/bookkeeper. One of the regulars, badly disabled by cerebral palsy, earns his daily breakfast by being the official orange juice squeezer. “Judy’s probably saved more lives than the Red Cross,” volunteers John Shafer, whose LVN license has expired. He's been washing dishes in the Big Kitchen on and off for five years. “The minute you walk in, Judy addresses your spirit, and she either gives you hell or a healing hug. You don’t get your soul fed at Denny's,” says Shafer. “Eat first,” she tells unemployed customers. “Then you can sweep the street or wash dishes.”
Like most of the Big Kitchen employees, Bob Weir began as a customer and worked his way into the kitchen. Weir, now day manager and catering chef, was once maître d’ and second chef at the Grant Grill before it closed for refurbishing. “While he had breakfast at the Big Kitchen every day, he became my unpaid consultant. He knew much more about this business than I did,” Judy says, “and two years ago he officially joined us.” Weir says he works harder at the Big Kitchen than he did at the Grant, but he earns more. “And I can wear what I want,” he says.
Although the Big Kitchen employs fifteen people, including Judy’s younger sister Marcia, who left a secretarial job in upstate New York to serve hot cakes in Golden Hill, many are on erratic shifts and are often too busy to handle details. That means you pour your own. Custom also dictates that you pour coffee for everyone else. (Several Sundays ago. La Jollan Bill Purves, who heads the San Diego Theater League, stood behind the counter doing the honors.) There are other informalities that endear people to the Big Kitchen. Because she couldn’t keep up with the paperwork, Judy finally stopped keeping written accounts of those regulars who were running up tabs. “They keep their own records now,” she says. “Sometimes it takes a year, but I don’t worry about it.”
“Types that would normally be antagonistic toward each other harmonize at the BK ” observes John Rippo, who stumbled upon the place five years ago. “And when you run into them at other places, there’s a special nod of recognition. If Golden Hill ever declares itself a people’s republic,” he muses, “this is where it would begin.” Rippo is a personal property appraiser from Mission Hills who was responsible for getting Roger Hedgecock to campaign at the Big Kitchen the night before his 1984 election. “Any time Roger needs a job, he can always wash dishes here,” Judy quips.
The Big Kitchen walls are spattered with a hodgepodge of clippings, drawings, flyers, photos, and snapshots of the cafe’s celebrations and celebrities. There are baby pictures, too. Judy calls them the Big Kitchen Babies because she’s been feeding them before and after they were born, she says. (To accommodate her youngest patrons, Judy keeps a big toy box around. When they get cranky, she entertains them.) Although wall clippings reveal the Big Kitchen’s public successes,
Judy also celebrates the private successes of her customers. When a retired circus performer lost 115 pounds last year on a strict poached-egg regimen, Judy made sure he had everyone’s support.
But the walls tell only part of the Big Kitchen story. It’s the oral transmission that keeps the legend alive and supports this clearing-house. According to stories promoted by local historians and customers, the original building was constructed in 1926 as a carriage house. But when the need for carriages ceased, the 400-square-foot office/showroom became a lunchroom with three booths and a solid-oak counter with a dozen stools. It was the site of a series of greasy spoons, people say, and it wasn’t until the Fifties that the converted carriage house was Finally dubbed the Big Kitchen. In the Sixties, a Dakota Indian named Sarah bought the place and ran it as a hamburger and bacon-and-egg joint for fifteen years. But when she was in her seventies, Sarah yearned to return to the reservation where she grew up, so she sold it to a woman named Margaret Bender, who dreamed of converting the Big Kitchen into a vegetarian, nonsmoking, holistic community place. It was Bender who began the tradition of bartering meals for services.
That was in 1978, the year Judy Forman flew to San Diego for a vacation and went directly from Lindbergh Field to Black’s Beach. “When I saw all those naked men running into the surf and the dolphins bobbing in and out of the water,” Judy remembers, “I knew San Diego was more than a postcard. I had to live here.” When her vacation was over, she went back to Detroit, where for a decade she’d been an inner-city social worker whose clients had been disadvantaged, delinquent kids. She returned here in 1979 and found a cheap rental in Golden Hill. “I had big plans but no one would hire me. I was determined to save the ghetto kids of San Diego,” she says. “I was overqualified, untrainable, and too old. I was thirty-three.”
One day she sent her boyfriend to the neighborhood eatery for a veggie sandwich. “I had been eating out all my life. I never got around to learning how to cook,” Judy explains. “And when I tasted the cucumbers, I had to find out where they came from, so I walked over to the Big Kitchen and chatted with the owner about cucumbers. One thing led to another, and she offered me a job washing dishes. I grabbed it. That’s how desperate I was for a job — any job. But I was the world’s worst dishwasher. I lasted forty-five minutes. Then when she asked if I had any waitressing experience, I lied and told her I did.”
When Judy turned in her first order in longhand. Bender knew her new employee was inexperienced. “But she kept me on anyway,” Judy recalls, “and I was overjoyed when I got my first quarter tip. It meant they liked me. The first day I made eight dollars in tips, and I was thrilled.” Months later, on whim, Judy casually mentioned to Bender that if she ever wanted to sell the place, she was interested in buying it. “That same day she let me know,” Judy says, and she immediately telephoned her father and proposed they become cafe owners. Although the Forman family had no previous restaurant experience, Judy’s father succumbed to becoming a partner. By June of 1980, the Big Kitchen was under new management, and three years ago Judy bought out her father's share of the business.
“In the beginning it was a terrible struggle. The first day we cleared thirty-five whole dollars, we celebrated. I knew nothing about business, and the paperwork was horrendous. There’s IRS forms, social security, workmen’s comp, board of equalization — and we were audited three times,’’ she says. “And I had to fire people because the drugs they were doing got in the way. I told them they could come back when they cleaned up their act. Some of them did, and now they’re at the counter with everyone else.”
“Somehow Judy managed to give the place a delightful irrespectability,” says Richard Madsen, who lived in Golden Hill for eight years and remembers the Big Kitchen before Judy took over. Although Madsen recently moved to La Jolla to be near his teaching post at UCSD, he still returns to the Big Kitchen for his “fix.” Clippings of his successes (he’s the recipient of a 1985 Los Angeles Times book award) are part of Judy’s memorabilia scrapbook. The Big Kitchen reminds Madsen of some of the Berkeley, Cambridge, and Greenwich Village hangouts of the Sixties. “There’s a remarkable assemblage of characters, all in one tiny place. It’s the only place I know that has such a diverse compilation of Americana,” he says.
Soon after Judy bought the Big Kitchen, when she was in a Laundromat a block away, she struck up a conversation with a black welfare mother. In the middle of the dry cycle, the two women discovered they’d been dating the same man, and by the time all the clothes were folded, they were friends. The woman lived down the street from the Big Kitchen and began hanging around the counter while she was waiting for theater auditions. Like so many other customers at the Big Kitchen, she, too, wound up in the kitchen washing dishes off and on for about a year. “She was a real comedienne,” recalls a former Big Kitchen waitress. “We'd all gather around the sink, and she cracked us up all the time with her stories.”
A few years later, when her pal from the Laundromat had made it big on Broadway with a one-woman show, Judy Forman was the world’s noisiest cheerleader. “It was the most exciting time of my life.' Judy remembers. “I arrived in New York on press night and I hung around the back door until I Finally edged my way into the Lyceum during intermission. The stage manager hassled me,” she laughs, “but as soon as I found Whoopi, everything was Fine. During the second act, I sat next to Whoopi’s mother. After the show was over, I met Mike Nichols,” she smiles.
Although Whoopi Goldberg’s face now graces the cover of Rolling Stone and she makes movies with Spielberg and commercials with the Muppets and with Mickey Mouse, the Big Kitchen has not become a Whoopi Goldberg shrine. It’s clearly Judy’s arena. It's the place where she glows, where she's the eternal social worker. “The best part is that my clients don't have to be government eligible,” she laughs.
Between restoring dignity, addressing spirits, creating a social milieu, developing musical and political history, being patron saint to the downtrodden, and becoming legendary in a remarkably short period of time, Judy also found the opportunity to sample some of the male customers. The way Judy tells the story, a “gorgeous surfer” was sitting at the first seat at the counter, eating spinach and eggs. “When he finished his breakfast, he said I looked like someone who'd enjoy sailing.” That evening they sailed. Three months later, the surfer with the white VW van moved in, and three years ago, Judy Forman and John Larmer were married. “I went from being a paying customer to being an unpaid employee,” he grouses. Larmer, who has his own construction company, is responsible for the Big Kitchen’s physical expansion — for the patio that houses three (charmingly) dilapidated booths, and for the no-smoking annex next door that once housed a business called the Channel 10 Sucks Beauty Parlor.
On a recent morning, a total stranger walked into the Big Kitchen and ordered coffee. He told Judy that in the Twenties, the four corners of Fern and Grape streets were first in the entire United States to have a gas station on each of the corners. A cursory check into the archives of the San Diego Historical Society and the California Room of the main public library offered no such documentation. “Maybe he said it was in the Thirties. I can’t remember every detail,” Judy says. “He hasn’t been back in a while.” Legends are like that.