By day, 34-year-old Brian Kimball is a therapist working on his clinical hours at a children’s facility in the Tenderloin. But by night he is the Magic Curry Man serving up hot green and red Thai curry for $5 a pop. What began as a way to make some extra drinking money has turned into a neighborhood phenomenon.
“First time I did it, I did it just for practice. I invited ten of my friends. I wanted to see if I could do it all outside,” recalled the tussled blonde, bearded and sideburned Kimball.
His moment of inspiration came last November. “[I] was kinda struggling to feel not so poor in the city and enjoy my life so much. I was stressed out. I was like, ‘what do I do to make more money?’”
Then, on Friday March 6th he pushed his cart down Linda Street to the corner of 19th to see what would happen. It worked. The next week he sent out a Facebook invite to all his friends in San Francisco. Twenty people showed up, and one of them tweeted about the occasion.
So he joined Twitter, tweeted and more people started showing up. In the six months that his cart has been up and running, he’s collected 4,145 Twitter followers. At least half a dozen other carts including his brother Curtis’ the Crème Brûlée Cart, have rolled out since.
And Kimball, who often works in a white chef’s coat and shorts, is now considered the godfather of San Francisco’s underground street food movement.
On Wednesday, he rolled in late to the street happening organized around the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s viewing of the Triplets of Belleville, atop his new bicycle cart. He was all smiles, giving people the head nod as he pedaled into the spot his brother had saved him.
The Sexy Soup Lady, Adobo Hobo et al were there too. DJ Deep from the spontaneous dance party Flashdance blasted Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love” from huge stereo speakers attached to his bike. At least 150 bike riders of all sizes, ages and styles roamed around the lot trying to figure out what to eat next
“I’m getting back into the swing of things,” he said explaining that it was his first outing since getting back from Burning Man, where he’d cooked for his theme camp, The Mission Country Club, and several desert parties.
The new bike has helped his return. His old cart was a simple pushcart. This new one he was able to ride all the way down to the Good Hotel parking lot on 7th and Mission, where the party was already in full swing.
A man in a seersucker suit waited in a line in front of Kimball’s stand to valet park his bike.
Kimball had made only green curry that night, but bikers were already lining up while he set up and decorated his cart. Squid Brand fish sauce? Check. Gallon of canned coconut milk? Check. Iron Buddha statue? Candle of Pope Juan Pablo? Sriracha? Check, check and check.
“Well, since I have a day job, usually I have to organize it. I either prep Thursday night or I get off early on Friday. As soon as I get home I’m prepping the vegetables, starting the rice. I precook the chicken just ‘cause I don’t want to risk it.”
Nathan Frankel, 36, a part time web designer, was pleased. “I wanted him last time but the line was too long. So I was early this time and I was fifth on the list!”
Chowing down on his made to order tofu curry, he was impressed with the seasonal veggies Kimball has started to buy at the farmers’ markets. “This is rockin’. Just look at those huge cuts of summer squash!”
Bespectacled Rose Johnson, 25, brought her own plate from home and exclaimed, “This is bomb.com.”
The popularity of Kimball’s magic cart is causing the chef inner conflict. Does he want to work with troubled children, or be part of something that is completely his own? He’s at the point where he sees, “I gotta jump in or out.”
Already, his day job prevents Kimball from doing several weekly events. He usually does Friday nights on Linda Street, the occasional party and the impromptu wedding.
It’s the spontaneous gatherings that he really loves. The crowd Kimball brings to his little dead end street in the Mission hasn’t been bad for surrounding businesses either. “They’re supportive,” he said referring to the corner stores nearby that end up selling beer and wine to the foodies who come to eat. The neighbors have called the cops and he can be ticketed since he’s unlicensed, but he hasn’t run into too much trouble. He just moves locales. That will be easier on his bike cart.
“I feel like if you’re somewhat respectful and not causing a scene that they have too many things to do.”
Forty-five minutes and 15 orders later at the screening event, Kimball was in his groove. More than one person wanted to pick his brain on how to become a successful street food vendor. He answered their questions cooking the whole time.
“I tell them just show up. At a minimum bring a table. I listen – I’m a therapist so I do that. I give people the confidence to just do it.”
Meanwhile, the sated had turned the parking lot into a patchwork of quilts. The mood in parking lot changed once the movie started. Flickering images of French animation provided light for Kimball and his two bubbling steaming woks, perfuming the air with the scent of lemongrass and mint.
Being respectful of the movie, Kimball quietly stirred his saucy woks, checked the DieHard car battery powering the rice cookers, and made to-go boxes. He put a little bowl to the side for the Sexy Soup Lady and her husband. She ladled him a cup of her organic zucchini soup.
“I’m not sure about my future as a chef or a cook. But I really like having these events and creating community.”