On Fast Food, Money and Child Labor: I Grew Up as a Restaurant Brat

The roach skittered towards a cardboard box, and Cheryl raised her hand to smash it before the customers could see. The kitchen was in the weeds—we were short-staffed because the fry cook had been jailed last night for a DUI. Dad would stop by later to bail him out and give him another futile lecture. Meanwhile, the insistent beep of the drive-through sensor rang out. I scurried back to my post atop an overturned milk crate and pressed the speaker button. “Welcome to Lucky Phoenix, can I help you?” Just another June afternoon working at the family restaurant.

From the million-watt smile of Racheal Ray to the rock star trappings of Anthony Bourdain, there’s no question that it is a very good time to be famous in the kitchen. Americans may not be cooking any more, but they’re certainly soaking up every TV show, cookbook and blog they can find, as food takes on an unprecedented, fetishistic spotlight in pop culture.

But let’s talk about something a little less glamorous: Chinese fast-food restaurants. You know the sort, the dingy corner take-out joint named some combination of {Golden, Lucky, Jade, Happy} {Moon, Buddha, Wok, Phoenix, Panda}. The kind that serves ambiguously Chinese dishes from a 100-item menu, located in a building converted from an old Taco Bell. The kind that relies on labor from family and friends, the unwitting members of a Chinese restaurant fraternity open automatically to FOB immigrants with no English skills and an eye for cash. You walk past this restaurant every day, in Chicago, in Tuscaloosa, in small-town Italy.

This was my playground.

Lucky Phoenix was a unique addition to downtown Louisville, well-loved by the harried physicians and juvenile delinquents who frequented it. On Saturdays, Mom would park me in the narrow stockroom. If you lined the tiled floor with cardboard sheets, the makeshift playpen was almost as cozy as a blanket fort. Surrounded by paper bags, Styrofoam take-out boxes and 50-lb bags of flour, I would while away the hours. An overturned soy sauce packet box fit perfectly over a case of vegetable oil to make a child-size desk. This is where I learned my multiplication tables and read jokes from Reader’s Digest.

Cheryl, the cashier, was my playmate and partner in crime. We pooled our change to buy the daily paper, and sometimes Cheryl would take an extra copy, so that we wouldn’t have to fight over who got to read the funnies section first. In the afternoon lull between lunch and dinner, she taught me swear words, how to play gin rummy, and how to run the cash register so that she could take cigarette breaks. Now and then, she offered me a puff, but I politely turned her down. I hated the smell.

Over the years, I got to hear Cheryl’s story while stacking trays and filling soy sauce bottles. Her husband was an alcoholic who beat her; she regularly came to work with heavy layers of make-up to cover up the bruises. Her daughter got pregnant at age 13 and her son hid in the ceiling rafters of the restaurant’s bathroom, in a failed attempt to burglarize the restaurant after hours. Cheryl herself was constantly “borrowing” money from the register to pay her rent. All that didn’t matter to me though. I just thought it was cool to have a friend who gave me food stamps to buy candy at the corner gas station.

By the time I was tall enough to peek over the counter, I was a good cashier, efficient at taking orders, bilingual, and more importantly to my parents, I didn’t steal from the drawer. To this day, I still remember our menu numbers. One #5 sweet and sour chicken? That’ll be $3.91 with tax, ma’am. A #11 order of hot-braised wings? Those wings were neither hot nor braised, but no one ever pointed out the contradiction.

People occasionally ask, “Why would you sell food that you don’t eat yourself, that you don’t take pride in?” I’ve pondered this a lot. By catering to local tastes and expectations, we were enforcing current stereotypes about Chinese food, training people to expect a bland, middle-of-the-road product rather than showing off our culinary talents. But this was early ’90s Louisville, the kind of place where people ate at Bob Evans every night, where eyebrows furrowed when I asked for a map of Taiwan. (Did I mean Thailand instead?) Besides, we may not have eaten it regularly, but we did take pride in what we served. To this day, I haven’t tasted better fried rice than what came out of our woks.

Louisville has since become much more cosmopolitan, but back in the day, you just stuck to serving General Tso’s chicken. The smart folks were the ones who asked if they could sample what the kitchen staff was eating for lunch; we were always happy to share our food with the inquisitive laowai.

Years later, I’ve realized you don’t grow up in a fast-food restaurant without being ideologically transformed. Dealing with customers who ask for chicken fried rice without the chicken makes you question the intelligence of the human race. Seeing a homeless man throw food against the wall nearly convinces you to cut welfare and join the Republican Party. Discovering that your coworker is claiming nine dependents on his tax return makes you wonder if you ought to be doing the same.

And you, other Chinese restaurant kids, I know you. You’re embarrassed to let people meet your parents when they pick you up because they’ve just left the kitchen and smell like a Fryolater. You bring enormous platters of chow mein and egg rolls to every potluck, party and bake sale, even if egg rolls aren’t exactly baked. You spend your weekends and summers filling sodas while your classmates are at tennis camp. Your family hasn’t taken a vacation together in years because the restaurant must go on.

But as much as you’d like to hate the family business, you have to admit, you’re proud of your parents. They came over on a Vietnamese refugee boat with $100 hidden up the ass crack, the only surefire concealment method from pirates. They have now funded you through an Ivy League education. Ai-yah, what have you done with your life?

You’ve gotten out of this miserable racket, that’s what. Away from the hissing woks and fear of health inspections, you live in an urban bastion of liberalism, work a white-collar job and watch the stock market. Meanwhile, you itch to have a VitaMix blender and a walk-in cooler—cooking at home is so damn inconvenient. Then one day, your friend approaches you with this really great idea to start a restaurant…

4 thoughts on “On Fast Food, Money and Child Labor: I Grew Up as a Restaurant Brat

  1. I loved this piece as it reminded me of my own childhood growing up in the family pizza place. I’m slowly working my way through your posts–do you suggest living on campus at UNISG or looking for an apartment? I hope to start the High Quality Foods Masters in the fall.

    Thanks!

  2. hahaha and I thought I was the only one! I’m 19 and working at my parents indian restaurant seems like the only reality for a longg time:/
    gosh it’s really hard seeing your friends do all the normal stuff, and packing takeaways thinking ‘i’m wasting my childhood’

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