How a chef took his grief and filled his South Bay cafe with 20,000 smiles

I don’t know how I found Kenny’s Cafe, but once there I couldn’t stop looking.

I walked from the Santa Clara Caltrain stop on a hot summer day, thinking, Does this place really exist? So when I finally found it, relief mingled with amazement, then turned into sheer delight.

In the middle of the room, an old plum jam-colored Mercedes-Benz. The counter was draped in American flags and decorated with tchotchkes: ceramic chef figures, model Viking ships, miniature cars and framed objects. One menu advertised American and Korean breakfasts: egg sandwiches, Philly cheese steaks, burgers and burritos with Spam and pineapple. And then, what I really came to see: the walls and the ceiling, a living collage. Almost every inch of both surfaces was covered with brilliant photographs of smiling people.

One of the best parts of writing about restaurants is learning what they mean: for their communities, for the cuisine in general, and for the people who spend their lives there. Restaurants can be a lot of things: craftsmanship, luxury, nostalgia, home – whatever qualities the owner wants to add to the world. In the case of this little Santa Clara cafe, it’s a man’s desire to connect with others. To meet their needs and feel needed in return.

Customer Doug Stuck (left) poses for a photo for Kenny’s Cafe owner Kenny Kim at Kenny’s Cafe on Thursday August 19, 2021 in Santa Clara, California.

Léa Suzuki / The Chronicle

Kenny Kim, the owner of the cafe, says he’s taken from 20,000 photos of its customers during its nine years of activity. While her niece helps on rare occasions, Kim is usually the only person working in the restaurant, always entering and leaving the kitchen. The place was more crowded before the pandemic, especially since Kim, from Seoul’s Yongsan District, regularly offered free food to members of the US military. But anyway, he always takes the time to chat with people. He takes pictures of them with his phone, speaking to general contractors, soldiers and employees at the San Jose airport who enter with the glee of a tourist taking photos from a cable car in San Francisco.

While I waited for Kim to cook me a burrito, I paced the room, circling the car to look at the photos. Some older spots were faded, the images fading into a sea foam haze from age and sunlight. You could tell which areas were the most recent by the way they showed subjects pulling face masks to smile. Some smile broadly, others seem almost shy. In a few, Kim was able to convince someone else to take the photo while he stood in the center of a group, crouching and flashing peace signs.

When I called him later to talk about his restaurant, he said, “I was thinking, why do people come here? No one tells me my food is good. He’s laughing. “I think they like me, not the food.” Service has always been his main calling, he said. Before the restaurant, he sold cars for 25 years, although he didn’t know anything about cars. Instead, he won the favor of customers by making them smile. While I think he knows a bit more about food than cars, it’s easy to tell where his heart is.

“At home, I can make people happy, even for a minute or two. Because, me, I never had this kind of feeling.

Kenny's Cafe owner Kenny Kim walks past photos of himself (top right), his son (bottom right) and a wall of customer photos (left) as he enters his restaurant.

Kenny’s Cafe owner Kenny Kim walks past photos of himself (top right), his son (bottom right) and a wall of customer photos (left) as he enters his restaurant.

Léa Suzuki / The Chronicle

Twelve years ago, shortly before Kenny’s Cafe opened, Kim and his late wife, also a Korean immigrant, divorced. During his stint as a car salesman, he said, he spent every night drunk, the stress also causing him to regularly stay awake after midnight smoking cigarettes and working. . After the divorce, he said, his son, feeling smothered by his strict parenting style, cut off contact. “Honestly,” Kim said, “I wasn’t a happy guy.” Drifting away from her family, Kim cashed in her retirement fund to open the cafe.

Every customer smile he captured sustained him, brought him through loneliness. “I try to get everyone to make faces, so every 20,000 photos, all happy too.”

There is something undeniably powerful about the torrent of documentary photography on display here. We rarely see customers from the point of view of restaurant workers: the whole premise of restaurants dictates that they put their talents and personalities in the spotlight for consumption by the former. On the contrary, it’s only the most famous customers, Barack Obamas and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnsons, who get their pictures on restaurant walls. But Kim treats every human who walks into her restaurant as special. A great example of what art critics would call vernacular photography, his work lacks self-awareness or pretense, but remains a fascinating glimpse into the community that has formed around his restaurant.

I’m sorry to say I kindly declined when he asked to take my picture. Being critical has its drawbacks.

The bulgogi burrito is seen at Kenny's Cafe on Thursday, August 19, 2021 in Santa Clara, California.

The bulgogi burrito is seen at Kenny’s Cafe on Thursday, August 19, 2021 in Santa Clara, California.

Léa Suzuki / The Chronicle

What I had at Kenny’s that day was a bulgogi burrito ($ 12), which seemed to be the most popular item on the handwritten menu. Other variations of the burrito come with ingredients kimchi and bacon, spicy pork, and vegetarian bibimbap. It’s not as long as a Mission-style burrito, but what it lacks in length, it makes up for in girth. The bulgogi burrito features sweet and savory minced beef, scrambled eggs, hash browns, sautéed peppers and onions, and melted cheese. It is accompanied by a red salsa with hints of spicy Pace sauce. Half the high protein wrap is enough to fill a belly, so I finished half and sat outside for a while, watching van after van drive to the restaurant and imagining people walking out smiling for their breakfast.

Kim insisted her menu is primarily functional, designed to appeal to blue collar workers who need something warm and portable to eat. But I would say it’s a category of food that has brought the world so many wonderful things: Tiffin Indian breakfasts, Cornish pasties, and San Francisco sourdough among them. Care – what gourmets would also call “finesse” – counts for a lot in this kind of cuisine. It is important that he breaks each egg himself; take the time to sear each burrito on the flat grill just long enough for the cheese to melt and bind it all together.

Kim’s son came back into her life a few months ago after years of casual contact. Philip, now a psychology student and ROTC cadet at the University of Santa Clara, said he was still hesitant but optimistic about their relationship. “I’ve never had a father before,” he said. The incredibly strict and troubled man he grew up with was long gone, softened into the 65-year-old beaming cook that thousands of people in Santa Clara now know.

Kenny Kim, the owner of Kenny's Cafe.

Kenny Kim, the owner of Kenny’s Cafe.

Léa Suzuki / The Chronicle

Even though Philip insists that he can complete his education on his own, his father is dedicated to helping him pay for his education. Although the pandemic has seriously damaged business and made it difficult for Kim to make ends meet, he hopes to keep his lease at least as long as Philip is in school. “I am very happy to continue working. I want to help my son. It’s my dream, ”Kim said. The man who smiled every day to make others happy cried as he spoke.

To be there – to be necessary – was all he had ever wanted.

Soleil Ho is the food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @hooleil

Kenny’s Cafe

2315, boulevard De La Cruz, Santa Clara. 408-588-1508

Hours: 7 am-2pm Monday to Friday

Accessibility: No steps. Sidewalk tables only.

Sound level: Silent; no music.

Meal for two, without drinks: $ 20-24

What to order: Burgers and burritos

Meatless options: a handful on the menu; more on request.

Drinks: Non-alcoholic drinks

Transportation: Street parking

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