I maxed out my credit cards and ate through my savings on hotels, sublets, and Airbnbs, as I wondered if I would ever be offered a restaurant job in San Francisco. No one was willing to give me a chance. Many rejections later from the city’s renowned food establishments, I started to doubt myself. A friend’s boyfriend was a manager of a Michelin-starred restaurant and told me he threw my application in the trash because he thought it was a joke. My optimism remained, but my faith was put to the test one night when I went to my hotel to check-in and I was told that my credit card on file was declined. On that night, I made one of the hardest choices I have ever had to make in this life, and with a heavy heart, I decided that I would sleep in my car.
This is Part Three of “Pure Fire,” a four-part series by Christopher Russell, the chef-owner of Red’s House in San Francisco.
It was the most humiliating and humbling experience of my entire life. One night turned into a month, and then a month turned into three months. Before I could fully comprehend what was happening, I was sleeping in my car at night, taking showers at the gym and looking for jobs during the day.
I bawled myself to sleep most nights and on the occasions that I would stay awake in the car, I stared at the moon and stars, sobbing. I started to question my life choices, asking God many questions. What will become of me? Was this a test to make me stronger? How did I get here and how was I going to move forward? As time went on I looked forward to my newfound companions (Moon and Stars), they comforted me in a way that made me feel safe as they shone down upon me.
Five months later, after hustling with numerous temporary gigs and scrounging what little I had left, I found an ad on Craigslist for a room for rent. It had just been posted: “Single and Gay seeking a Fun, Clean and Cool roommate for room in Bernal Heights.” I answered immediately, trying my best not to sound desperate. I lied and said that I had just moved into town for a job. That same day, I arrived at the little white house off of Cortland Street and to my surprise when he opened the door, I was staring into a mirror. We bonded over our love of Rihanna, good red wine and the experiences of being gay Blacks in San Francisco. That night I wrote a check with the last money I had available in my account. When that check is cashed, I will be left with 12 cents to my name.
I spent that whole week smiling myself to sleep in my car. I finally found a place in San Francisco that I could call my home.
Which brings us back to Red’s House. At the time, I didn’t have a restaurant name or solid concept, but I just knew that San Francisco needed something fresh and truly authentic to the person that was creating it, not another project capitalizing on cultural appropriation and getting credit for stolen recipes. (The food world as a whole has long shown major inconsistencies, in my opinion, by not giving credit to the minority voices responsible for creating what the consumer sees, reads, tastes, and enjoys.)
I was on a walk to clear my head and ascended up that massive hill on Cortland Avenue in Bernal Heights when I came upon a huge mural of the city in red linework. It took my breath away. I’m inspired by original creativity and there was something about this mural that called out to me: Images of my childhood started to zip around my head as I tried to figure out what this meant. Time stood still as I experienced flashbacks to my youth, to the love-filled community that I had just left in New York.
It was then that I saw myself and remembered my nickname that was, once upon a time, synonymous with my own persona. They called me Red as a kid because I was fair-skinned, and in the color-obsessed Caribbean, if you had light skin, then you were held in a higher regard than others; thus the moniker “Red” was born. In an instant, my flashback dissipated, and I was even closer to the mural than I was before. Before I knew what I was doing, my hands were tracing the outline of the city as tears started to stream down my cheeks.
I knew that I wanted to create Red’s House. I wanted to bring that community to the Bay Area. And even more so, I wanted others here who didn’t have friends or family to feel that same sense of belonging.