For restaurant owners and staff, the ritual of eating together provides a moment of calm before the nightly storm.
For the wide-eyed immigrant looking to pursue their dreams, restaurant work is often the most accessible starting point. Amidst the relentless climbing and falling entailed in such a journey, the restaurant offers a safe space to commune with one’s kin. The family meal is a ritual that allows these strivers to step out of the foreign world and transport themselves to their ancestral land, where they can remind themselves of who they are. For a brief moment, they don’t have to deal with patrons unfamiliar with their food, or strain in their incomplete English to explain what cumin or gochujang is. They can simply sit with their own and feel at home.
Immigrants are the most natural actors. They have to learn to put on a face when they live in this country—smile, make others feel at ease, take a joke gracefully, serve, swerve, dodge, repel and come back to their starting point with equanimity. At a family meal, they can take their masks off and openly gossip and kvetch, about an unruly customer, or about a failed audition, or the family member back home that keeps asking for money. Just like a performer takes a few minutes to themselves before a show, the family meal is the green room where the staff can do the same.
When I was working on my book Koreatown Dreaming, which covered numerous restaurants in Koreatown, I was captivated by the camaraderie shared by the kitchen staff. I observed how middle-aged ajummas would become playful, cracking the crudest jokes and joshing with each other. For a moment, they became children again, unencumbered by the need to appear presentable. Moreover, I reveled at how the Korean and Mexican staff would volley instructions, jokes, and questions back and forth in a mixture of Korean, English, and Spanish. The family meal then became an opportunity to strengthen the bond between groups of people who had been brought together through food.
What was unsurprisingly consistent while photographing this story was just how adamantly every restaurant invited me to eat with them. Despite their hospitality, I gestured that I couldn’t because I had to photograph them. With my stomach growling, I patiently waited for moments to appear. They all seemed flummoxed and flattered that they were given such attention. Gradually, as they started eating and talking, their awareness of me receded, and they became themselves, delighting in gossip and chit-chat, to which I gratefully snapped away. I was briefly allowed into their sacred ritual and made to feel like family. When all was said and done, as I packed up my equipment and said my goodbyes, I noticed a bag of to-go food waiting for me on a table, an unmistakable gesture of gratitude.