By Vince Basehart
May 16 -- Executive chefs the world over are required
to expedite as well as they cook.
"Expediting" is chef talk for standing in the kitchen
barking orders at other chefs as orders come in, ensuring a table’s
dishes are ready at the same time for pick up, and barking at the
waiters to do so before the demi-glace congeals.
Expediting is to a professional kitchen what choreography is to
a ballet, as intense as launching planes from an aircraft carrier.
It's not easy.
When it comes to expediting, none of the big celebrity chefs have
anything on Santa Monica’s Cindy Kim. She is the co-owner,
with her husband Jay, of Big Joe's, and she is a multi-tasking,
Big Joe's is the unabashedly mom-and-pop burger joint at 20th and
Broadway, which has been spewing char broiler smoke from its chimney
like a steamship for the past 50 years. The Kims are the establishment's
seventh owners and took over in November of 1999.
While Jay can be found in the back slicing tomatoes or flipping
burgers with a handful of other cooks, Cindy is working the register,
greeting customers, taking cash, giving change, taking orders, calling
them out to the cooks, announcing to the waiting customers when
their orders are ready.
The small counter where customers place their orders is always
busy any time of day. Typically, a line of office workers, nurses
and construction workers winds out the door of the well-worn building
and onto the cracked asphalt of the parking lot.
Cindy is unphased by the unending stream of hungry humanity. She
is in the zone, engaging in a unbroken auctioneers-like patter communicating
between the customer, herself and the cooks:
“Hello sir double cheese burger everything fries five dollars
please your change sir thank you your pastrami’s ready thank
you two chili fries diet Coke carrot salad okay thank you two fifty
please hello ma’am hamburger no pickles three-fifty please
thank you sir your grilled cheese hello how are you tuna salad wheat
bread toasted no mayonnaise side cole slaw thank you sir your hamburger.”
On it goes, a kind of Korean-accented, short order cook’s
Gregorian chant, for a couple of hours during the midday rush. During
this monologue she is counting cash and counting back change, and
marking the cardboard carry-out boxes with a Sharpie and sliding
them to the end of the counter. In less than a minute the fresh-made
order is placed into the box and is ready for the customer. This
is the kind of operational efficiency Henry Ford dreamed about.
On top of it all, Mrs. Kim’s preternatural ability to remember
a regular customer’s order is unnerving. She is calling out
your order -- “cheeseburger well done extra pickles no onions”
-- to the frazzled team of line cooks behind her before you have
even stepped to the counter. It’s not unusual to serve well
over 500 customers a day.
“I paint portraits,” says Cindy explaining her gift
for memorization, “so I am used to concentrating on the faces
of people. I guess that helps me remember their order by linking
their faces to their orders.”
She may make it look easy, but she admits that when she and her
husband first took over the restaurant a handful of years after
they immigrated from Seoul, she was terrified.
"I was very scared for the first three months. I would tell
my husband, ‘There are too many customers!’ I didn't
know how to work the register. I would shake like this." She
illustrates how her arms would tremble from stage fright.
"Some times she would cry," says Jay about his then overwhelmed
Cindy was a homemaker for over twenty years. She and Jay raised
a son who they are proud to announce works at internet giant Yahoo.
Expediting orders at Big Joe’s is her first job outside of
The Kims kindly spoke to me in Big Joe’s onion-perfumed combination
storage room-office on a recent cool morning. Jay explains he was
a long time Quality Control technician for Hyundai Motor Company
in Korea, and later, Tijuana, before being talked into opening his
own “American-style” business by his brother, who was
already in the US when he and Cindy arrived.
It’s clear that if Jay is the business end of the operation,
the once-terrified Cindy is now the talent. When Cindy and I were
talking, Jay covered the counter for a moment. He quickly dashed
back in, frazzled, and tapped Cindy on the shoulder, who rushed
back out to handle the counter.
From the storage room I heard a chant like this:
“Good morning sir egg sandwich bacon crisp black coffee thank
you sir four dollars hello pancakes sausage orange juice thank you
ma’am your toast is done large coffee scrambled eggs potatoes
well done yes sir thank you four dollars please ma’am eggs