By Jim Miller and Kelly Mayhew
Judy Forman is a Golden Hill institution. Her restaurant, the Big Kitchen Café, has served as a center of community life and activism for many years. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the neighborhood without her or her place. I first went to the Big Kitchen myself in the eighties when I met with folks involved in the protest movement against Reagan Administration policies in El Salvador and Nicaragua.
More recently, Judy helped Kelly and me out by playing the role of Emma Goldman in the 100-year Anniversary of the San Diego Free Speech Fight when local labor and Occupy folks took over the intersection of 5th and E downtown. Over the years Forman has been active in LGBT politics, helped out with fundraisers for the Center on Policy Initiative’s Students for Economic Justice Internship program, started the New Play Café (a company devoted to helping playwrights develop their work), and offered up her “kitchen,” as she likes to say, to far too many people to name here.
Thus, to make a long story short, Forman has had her hand in much local activism over the past thirty some odd years and the Big Kitchen has always been one of the progressive hubs of San Diego and the heart of the neighborhood. It was our pleasure to interview her for this Golden Hill series. (Check out Emma Goldman’s review of the Big Kitchen .)
Tell us about yourself. When did you come to San Diego? What work have you done, both professionally and politically?
I came to San Diego in October 1979 after working for the state of Michigan as a social worker for ten years. I had graduated from Michigan State University but found that my real education took place on the streets of Detroit, working with gangs. Politically speaking I have been a civil rights activist since the 6th grade when I realized the plight of migrant workers in my county.
But what really activated me early on was the realization that I could be discriminated against merely because of my religious beliefs and/or ethnicity. My grandparents left Russia because of the pograms of Stalin and my grandmother was the only survivor of her large family after the Holocaust in Germany.
After reading The Diary of Ann Frank I realized the only way I could be safe was to ensure that everyone was safe. To me that meant being a civil rights activist. I marched in the streets for racial equality, for ending the Vietnam War, for Gay Rights, and for Women’s Rights. There is an incredible adrenaline rush that occurs for me when I am in the street screaming against injustice. I feel empowered linking arms with brave activists and watching the police aim their guns and rifles at us from the rooftops because we believe in changing the culture to include everyone, not just rich white men.
As I look back, at age 66, I must say I am pleased with the progress we have made on all the issues we have focused on. However, the pendulum swings both ways and we must be ever vigilant in our struggle for inclusion.
When did you start at the Big Kitchen and why?
When my significant other at the time, Andre Dawson, and I set out for San Diego we were certain we would be able to find employment. Our resumes were superlative. However, in 1979 there was a recession that everyone seems to have forgotten about. Even the state jobs were frozen—no one was hiring.
At first, it was a very sweet time. The Santa Anas in November sent me to Blacks Beach every day and there was lots of Yoga and lots of Bridge. And, of course, the weather was impeccable, but I realized I needed to meet people so I volunteered to wash dishes at this restaurant around the corner from my apartment in Golden Hill called the Big Kitchen.
The owner, Margaret Bender, called me six weeks after I made the offer. When I first started, I washed dishes for 45 minutes at which point she pronounced me the worst dishwasher ever and asked if I had ever waitressed? I lied and said yes!
I had never worked in a restaurant and, up until that point, had no desire to. But my coworkers back in Detroit just knew I would never make it in California and I was determined to prove them wrong. Eventually, I ended up owning the place.
How did you decide on the menu?
Margaret Bender had owned the Big Kitchen for only a short time before selling it to me. Nonetheless, she made a mighty effort to introduce vegetarianism to an establishment that had focused on everything but for 40 some years.
Over the 33 years that I have had the honor of watching over a community as “the self appointed Mayor of the neighborhood” my customers have pretty much written the menu with their favorites. We now are known for our incredible burgers, tofu rancheros, gluten-free veggie stir-fries along with our world famous breakfasts. The Goddess has blessed me with customers and employees who have known so much more than I do about the restaurant business. I have learned volumes and mistakes make you an expert eventually!
What was Golden Hill like when you first moved there? How was/is your restaurant tied to the community?
When I first moved to Golden Hill in 1979, it was a neighborhood in transition. It was the first “suburb” of downtown San Diego at the turn of the last century. The white population had fled to the suburbs leaving multiethnic families and all of the most talented people of San Diego living in Golden Hill for the same reason–the rent was reasonable.
We were all poor together: the artists, the musicians, the theater people, the activists, the healers, the thinkers. I used to refer to them as the “colorful” characters of Golden Hill. We live in a culture that honors the military industrial complex, based on destruction, instead of the healing world of creativity and peace. The Big Kitchen was a space where the latter could thrive.
So my restaurant was open from 6am to 3pm. Those had been the hours of the place for the past 48 years. All of those incredibly talented people worked nights cleaning hospitals, maintaining downtown buildings, bar tending, waitressing, and doing all of those minimum and almost minimum wage jobs at night.
This left them available to hang out at the Big Kitchen during the day–coming up with amazing schemes for changing the culture through urban guerilla art, through parades, through music, through poetry, through theater, etc. And all of this scheming was accompanied by the best food!
The chef from the Grant Grill, Bob Weir (of all names for my Deadhead friends!), was my consultant over breakfast every day. Then he left the corporate world and joined the league of the underpaid and joyfully creative–with food.
Who were some of those customers scheming and dreaming at the Big Kitchen? What, specifically, were some of the projects folks were working on?
One of my first customers was Nora Nugent, one of the first women in the Electricians Union. I was very impressed by her accomplishments and she also wrote for an OB publication. I asked her where I should advertise. She suggested The Update (the only Gay publication in San Diego at the time) so I did.
Gary Rees found San Diego upon his discharge from the Navy and was one of the activists that started the first Gay Center in San Diego in Golden Hill. And, of course, before the Center had a permanent home, my kitchen served as an unofficial home base. It was used to start many facets of the community including the first Gay Youth Group, San Diego’s Finest Freedom Marching Band, Act Up San Diego (thanks to Albert Bell!), and more.
And then the Grass Roots Cultural Center opened up next door to the Big Kitchen with its wonderful book store, performance space, and networking capability (thank you Lynn and Peter!).
So, I like to think of myself as a community activist. Once you are a social worker you are always a social worker. I believe that we are one of the first communities where all of the factions came together to improve the educational experience at Brooklyn Elementary and to think of inclusion by bringing an afterschool program that celebrated the students’ culture, not the controlling culture of the system. We did lots of things like this.
Any final thoughts?
I have never had a great deal of money yet my resources are endless. Timing and humor are essential. I am the wealthiest woman walking the earth because I am able to use my kitchen to support issues that I am passionate about. I believe that change comes from the grassroots in places like the Big Kitchen. In the 60’s, as the Robbie Robertson song says, “We could change the world, stop the war. Never seen nothing like this before. But that was when the night was young.” I still have that feeling.