The story of Judy Forman, politics, activism, liberation, bacon and eggs, and how she put together a musical
Thirty-five years is a long time. It is longer than Google has been around, and the same can be said of anything else with a .com or .org at the end of it. Rubic’s Cubes are not 35 years old. None of the CDs in your CD collection are 35 years old. And though it seems as though you have heard about her and seen her forever, Britney Spears is not 35 years old (She’s 34).
As I write this, 35 years ago, in 1980, Mount Saint Helens erupted, flattening forests for miles around and sending a cloud of ash 45,000 feet into the sky. Ken Follett’s The Key to Rebecca, and Firestarter by Stephen King topped the New York Times Bestsellers list. Moviegoers saw another crazed Jack Nicholson character in The Shining, and they rollicked along as Jake and Elwood saved the day for the Penguin in The Blues Brothers. Mark David Chapman shot and killed John Lennon in New York City. Exactly one year after the beginning of the Iranian hostage crisis, Ronald Reagan defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter for the presidency.
And 35 years ago Judy Forman became the proprietor of the Big Kitchen.
If you’ve been around San Diego for any length of time, you’re probably familiar with “Judy the Beauty on Duty” (the cafe persona Forman embraced long ago) and the Big Kitchen, even if you haven’t ordered up an omelet at her cafe. Larry Himmel featured the South Park eatery on his show a lot, and Forman has made her mark on her neighborhood and San Diego with her relentless civic involvement.
“When I first took over the restaurant, I didn’t know anything,” Forman says. “If someone got hurt, I thought that they just got Workman’s Comp; that that was how we took care of people when they got hurt and couldn’t work. I didn’t know that I would be the one to pay for it.” Along the way Forman also learned all the other ins and outs of running a successful restaurant.
There has been something of a celebratory air at the Big Kitchen throughout 2015, but Forman is marking this anniversary with a big celebration at her restaurant on the 14th of this month. The 35 years of the Big Kitchen are also being lauded on the stages of San Diego. Big Kitchen: A Counter Cultural Musical, which is based on Forman and her restaurant, has been wowing audiences at the San Diego Fringe Festival, the Cygnet Theater, and Spreckels Theater downtown. A review of the music from this musical can be found in the CD review section of this month’s Troubadour.
With a simple premise—after decades at the helm of her restaurant, Forman is retiring and there is a search for the right person to fill her shoes—Big Kitchen recounts through stories and music the lives, political causes, and all the life that has been part of the Big Kitchen.
“To get the material for the songs, we interviewed 30 people: employees, people who used to work here, regulars, neighbors. You know that there are people who grew up at the Big Kitchen? We talked to them,” Forman says.
The resulting 22 songs of the production give a musical sketch of what anybody will tell you is an institution that is much more than a neighborhood cafe and that Judy the Beauty on Duty is much more than a restaurant owner who knows how to sling a good cup of coffee.
Forman has been at the vanguard of civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights. She has been involved in after-school programs, rehab programs for drug abusers, shelter for homeless folks, and care for those who are HIV positive. Big Kitchen: A Counter Cultural Musical, with that play on words, gives us a view of Forman’s work in building a truly equitable world, all the while serving some hash browns on the side.
Besides the politics, the Big Kitchen has served as a civic hub where even your Sean Hannity-loving right-wing friends might feel at home. Serving bacon and eggs and coffee in a neighborhood that has not always been the upscale hood that South Park is today, the cafe is friendly and homey, with a personality that other establishments strive for. Memories fill the cafe as much as the smell of bacon frying and coffee brewing. For decades the life-sized cardboard cutout of Jerry Garcia has stood in the corner. Other memorabilia hang on the walls. There are Polaroids of children and regulars, and old posters from performances of the all-female improv group Hot Flashes and Whoopi Goldberg. (The star of “The View” and “Sister Act” worked as a dishwasher at the Big Kitchen in the early eighties.)
In the eighties I lived in South Park and often came to the Big Kitchen. Unlike Denny’s or Coco’s, where the breakfast crowd gets in, chows down, and gets out to go to their nine-to-five jobs, the crowd at the Big Kitchen ate slowly and lingered over their coffees. I found out that these folks were artists, musicians, and actors. “So many musicians and artists are part of our community,” she says.
And after all the civic involvement and politics from Forman, here’s the real big deal about the Big Kitchen: the food is great. Even those Sean Hannity folks should like that.
Forman has a rasp to her voice and a way of looking you straight in the eye when she is explaining something to you. And she smiles a lot. She might remind you of your favorite cousin or aunt, or make you wish she might fill that spot for you. She has been on record as saying that her business of the Big Kitchen was not intended to make money but to make a community.
After spending her childhood and adolescence in upstate New York, Forman spent ten years as a social worker in Detroit. She moved to San Diego when she realized that it was possible to live in a city that was one of her favorite vacation destinations. She had poor fortune, however, landing in San Diego during one of the bleakest economic downturns in history. Though she had ten years’ experience in social work, Forman could not find a job. “So I washed dishes,” Forman says of getting work at the Big Kitchen. “I hadn’t worked all that long before Margaret, the owner at the time, came to me and said, ‘You’re the worst dishwasher I’ve ever seen!’ She then asked me if I’d ever waitressed. I lied. I told her that I had.”
The shift from kitchen to front counter suited Forman and her outgoing personality. “I remember I got a quarter as a tip. You know, as a social worker, there had not been any way for people to tell me that I’d done a good job. There wasn’t any direct feedback. And here somebody had left me a quarter. You know how good that made me feel? Then I got tipped a dollar!”
With a little finance help from her parents, Forman bought the restaurant. She retained the name, Big Kitchen. One of the first changes that Forman instituted was a revamping of the menu, changing what had been a vegetarian restaurant into one where you can get your bacon and eggs.
Ever since I first walked into the Big Kitchen I’ve been stupefied as to why there is such a large kitchen, while the front, the counter area and where there are a few booths, is slightly larger than a matchbox. Forman explained that the building, which was first erected in the 1920s, was a horse carriage business. The back, which is where the kitchen is now, was where the carriages were built, while the office was up front where the counter and booths are now.
“In the thirties was when the cars started coming in and carriages went out. So somebody came along and turned the place into a restaurant,” Forman says. She shares a photo taken shortly after the transition. Above the familiar doorway is a sign. “The Best Cafe,” it says.
Forman looks at the photograph, looks up and smiles. “The best cafe. I Like that.”
Big Kitchen 35th Anniversary Celebration w/ Sue Palmer and her Motel Swing Orchestra, plus cast members from the musical, will take place on Saturday, November 14 at 3003 Grape St. in South Park, 4pm. $10 suggested donation; CDs will be available for purchase.