interview by Heather Smith
photos by Julio Duffoo
This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Twelve.
THE BURGER JOINT as we know it annihilates space. Great leaps in highway and aviation infrastructure in the 1950s propelled us across the country and around the world. What no infrastructure could take away was that suspicious feeling that can appear in even the most suave, epicurean gut when confronted with unfamiliar food. And so: the proliferation of the burger chain — a single, identical room accessed through thousands upon thousands of doors. Step through the air-conditioned doors, and Akron could be Phoenix could be Paris, France.
The burger joint that is Red’s Java House annihilates time. Red’s, located on Pier 30 in San Francisco, opened in 1929. Then, the burger was vaguely disreputable, widely regarded as a final resting place for expired meat. It was the food of the working class man — sold out of lunch carts parked outside of factories. Red’s sold thin, almost sausage-patty-like burgers on huge sourdough rolls to longshoremen. The meat was skimpy because the sandwiches had to be cheap, and the rolls were large because the sandwiches had to be filling. It would be 1954 before a milkshake mixer salesman named Ray Kroc stopped by a restaurant in San Bernadino, California, called McDonald’s and realized he was in the wrong line of work.
Very little at Red’s is allowed to change. The pen and ink drawings underneath the glass tabletops are faded bottle green by decades of sun. Shawn Paton, who manages the place, painted the walls recently. “Not a new color,” says Paton. “The same color.” The customers complained. In one corner, there is a nice little seating alcove. Customers complain about that, too, and inquire as to the fate of the busted coffee roaster that used to sit there. “If they come in and there’s a new cook at the grill,” says Paton, “They’ll be like, ‘What happened to the other guy?’ The whole Red’s thing is about consistency. These guys don’t like change. I’m waiting for one of them to come up and ask me, ‘Why the two-ply toilet paper now?’”
“How long you been coming here and drinking beer?” Paton yells to a burly man in the corner. “Twenty years,” says the man. “I worked at the first Gap headquarters.”
“And what did you do there,” says Paton, with no small amount of sarcasm. “Were you the CEO?” The man takes another swig of his beer. “I was a model,” he says, completely deadpan. “A tight jeans model. Once they moved on to baggy, I quit.”
Paton looks at him with admiration. “That was funny,” he says. “You’re getting pretty good. You’ve been hanging out here too long.”
The original Red was notorious for saying anything to anybody. Longshoremen would come just to be insulted. The slagging at Red’s persists like a fly preserved in amber — a remnant of an America that existed before the burger business became synonymous with enforced cheerfulness and matching polo shirts.
But things do change. The longshoremen are gone. The amount of meat on the burgers has steadily inched upward in response to a changing American standard with regard to meat-to-bun ratio. The construction workers mostly disappeared when the housing bubble burst. Anthony Bourdain showed up with a camera crew.
It was the last event that had the most unsettling repercussions. “People began to come in expecting a gourmet hamburger experience,” Paton says, shuddering at the memory. “They wanted their hamburgers to be things like ‘rare.’ They wanted things like lettuce and tomato. And then they Yelped the shit out of me. I would like to have a website that is the opposite of Yelp. One where waiters and cooks write reviews of customers.”
One of those cooks, the mellifluously named José de Jesús Sotelo Acosta, cooks around 500 burgers a week —more on days when there’s a game at the stadium. He didn’t have his first hamburger until he was 10 (He’s from Guanajuato, Mexico), but he maintains that he’s not tired of them yet. His co-worker Carlos claims that he sometimes has nightmares where he’s being chased by a giant hamburger. Jesús has no such worries. He has a magnificent bleached fauxhawk and the air of someone who knows that he is good at what he does.
After the lunch rush, Jesús was kind enough to sit down with Meatpaper and talk about what it’s like to leave at the end of your shift, knowing that you’ve grilled over 100 burgers. Julio Duffoo interpreted his Spanish.
Very little at Red’s Java House is allowed to change.
How did you begin working here?
When I moved here from Mexico, I got a job washing dishes at an Italian restaurant. From there I moved on to work prepping pasta, and then I became a cook.
Do you ever wish you worked in a job where you cooked more than burgers?
No. This goes fast. You know the saying, “The faster the work, the faster it’s over?”
Sure. What do you think about while you’re flipping burgers?
I try not to think of anything. I try to work relaxed, keep my mind empty and clear.
What do you do when you’re not at work?
I’m kind of a homebody. When I’m not in language school, studying English, I like to stay at home and watch movies. I like American and Mexican documentaries. Also: the movie The Exorcist.
Have you always worked as a cook?
I was a shoe model maker in Mexico. I started when I was ten. I know how to make shoes from scratch — out of nothing but leather. Dress shoes, boots, tennis shoes … I would love to be doing it here. I’m what you would call a shoe addict. I love shoes. I need a shop to make them. And I need to practice my English more.
What do you cook when you’re at home?
Nothing. I don’t cook at home.
What’s the best thing about this job?
I like that there’s an open kitchen. I really like that. I get to see and interact with the different customers — all these people coming from different parts of the city, different parts of society.
What’s the worst part?
In all honesty? A don’t have a problem with any of it.
HEATHER SMITH always swears that she’s never going to eat meat again. Until someone offers her some.
JULIO DUFFOO was born in Peru and raised in Brooklyn, and is now based in San Francisco. He has photographed people who spend their lives engaged with meat for every issue of Meatpaper since Issue One.