Thursday, September 3, 2015

Old Stomping Ground

I recently went back to the restaurant where I had my 1st job in the US as a dishwasher 31 years ago for brunch today. The Inn Kensington (no lodging here) is located on a short strip that makes up the unincorporated community called Kensington, which is up in the hills between El Cerrito and Berkeley.


This restaurant was a foodies' destination, kept secret by food writers who were regulars throughout the 80s and 90s. Many early California cuisine' luminaries worked here, trying out new and exotic, unheard of dishes in those days.
It's known for scrumptious buttermilk biscuits and fluffy omelets, made the ways they're supposed to, and Mediterranean dishes with a California flair. Bruce Aidells used to deliver his freshly-made sausages to the restaurant, then sat down for whatever was being cooked in the kitchen.
Among the most well-known regulars were Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers fame (he ate alone) and Dennis Muren (9 Oscars) and his posse from George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic.
I went from washing dishes to busing tables to becoming a waiter, as my English became more proficient. More importantly, this was where I learned to eat well, as in live to eat, not eat to live. The owners and the cooks were generous, not as concerned about making money. They wanted to cook. It was the freshest ingredients every day. At the end of the night, we all had the same food as what were on the menu. Every night.
However, the most unique, and important, things I learned as a refugee from Vietnam (anti-Communist, Reagan-Republican wannabe at the time) were diversity and inclusivity. The restaurant was owned by a lesbian couple (which at the time I had no preconception) who were social workers by day.
In addition to me, there were two other Vietnamese refugees, and refugees from Iran and Afghanistan, and later immigrants from other parts of the world as well. Some started out as dishwashers and busboys, and many graduated to waiters and cooks at the restaurant.
About 15 years ago, the owners decided to sell the restaurant to their two employees who both started out as dishwashers: One had become the cook at the time and the other was the waiter, both came from Vietnam.
The menu, and the restaurant itself, hasn't changed much. It still doesn't take credit cards, but takes personal checks (remember those?), and the utensils are real silverware that require polishing regularly. The food, especially the brunch, is like no others in the entire Bay Area.
Its address is 293 Arlington Avenue, Berkeley.


Oh, how I got that job? I was one week-shy of my 18th birthday and living with my guardian in Concord, east of San Francisco, at the time. We were informed that as soon as I turned 18, I'd no longer be eligible for public assistance (misinformation). I was attending Clayton Valley High School nearby.
What that meant was I had to quit high school and go to work. Through Vietnamese refugee network, I was told there was a job at the Inn Kensington, but I must figure out how to get there on my own: one train (BART) ride with a transfer to another line and a bus ride, about 3 hours, each way.
After about six months of washing dishes, I had saved enough money to rent an apartment of my own in Oakland, which was much closer, where I've resided ever since.
A few months after that, I decided I needed to go to school, so I asked around. I was told I needed to take a bus to a school called Merritt College, a community college, up in the Oakland hills. And so I did. The rest is another chapter of my life.

2 comments:

  1. Sonny,

    Thank you so much for sharing your story and for raising awareness of the plight that the Syrian and other refugees are going through right now. As a former boat person myself (I was 3 when my family got on a boat), I think that there's a lot that we can do to raise awareness about what refugees are. I think that it's very difficult for people to identify with the words "refugees" and "migrants" and the more that we get these stories out, the more mainstream people will know what we do makes a difference and that they have refugees amongst them--as friends, neighbors and colleagues. I'm trying to get more people to share these stories on social media for the reach. Would you be interested in discussing further?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Sonny,

    Thank you so much for sharing your story and for raising awareness of the plight that the Syrian and other refugees are going through right now. As a former boat person myself (I was 3 when my family got on a boat), I think that there's a lot that we can do to raise awareness about what refugees are. I think that it's very difficult for people to identify with the words "refugees" and "migrants" and the more that we get these stories out, the more mainstream people will know what we do makes a difference and that they have refugees amongst them--as friends, neighbors and colleagues. I'm trying to get more people to share these stories on social media for the reach. Would you be interested in discussing further?

    ReplyDelete