Having opened the first international law office in Almaty early in 1993, I quickly learned that I, as the boss, had to do something about feeding our small staff. I didn’t have anyone to turn to for advice outside the office, and everything I learned from my staff confirmed that they expected to be provided with lunch.
Of course they could go home for lunch, where they undoubtedly would eat well from their mothers’ cooking, probably better than at a restaurant, but that course would deprive the office of up to two hours, or even more, of their time. Some members of our team lived on the periphery of Almaty, one near the airport. Moreover, I wasn’t paying them very much at the outset and couldn’t expect them to go out to eat at their own expense. And it seemed utterly ridiculous in the circumstances to suggest that they should “brown bag” it for lunch. Brown bag?
My solution was to take them to various of our neighborhood restaurants. They were inexpensive and served food akin to what our local employees ate at home. Of course, in those days, the restaurans suffered from shortages. Many items on the menu were not served – day after day after day. And it was best to bring along your own napkin as they routinely cut up their own paper napkins into small pieces to conserve expense and due to the scarcity of paper.
We eventually improved our fare while also lowering the cost by using the canteen operated at a factory owned by the father of a friend of one of our lawyers. This was to the detriment of ambiance, unless you prefer eating in industrial surroundings with men in work overalls at your table.
Then, one day, I learned that the U.S. Embassy at 99/97A Furmanova Street – that green building on the corner – operated a cafeteria that was open to the public. I made an exploratory visit and discovered that, indeed, there was a cafeteria and it was not limited to Embassy personnel.
The cafeteria was accessible on the side street, through a separate but guarded entrance. Visitors entered through a little hut whose door abutted the street. Inside, you had to part with any briefcases, packages, shopping bags, mobile phones and other devices. You also had to deposit your passport. You then proceeded to the cafeteria which opened out onto the courtyard.
This was the cafeteria that featured the “Elvis Presley kitchen.” In Almaty? In the U.S. Embassy? Yes, indeed.
Elvis Presley served in the U.S. Army from March 28, 1958 to March 5, 1960. Having declined to go into the Special Services (not Special Forces), being the outfit that put on entertainment for the troops, Elvis served in the 3rd Armored Division stationed in Friedberg, West Germany.
For whatever reason, when Elvis completed his tour in West Germany, he donated a huge catering kitchen to his old outfit, complete with fryers, grills, stoves, serving units and other equipment. It was capable of serving meals for 15,000 service personnel at one time. The apparatus was used for 15 years, until Presley’s former unit was disbanded.
When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union disbanded, the U.S. State Department faced a big task and also budget restraints in opening a number of new embassies. I imagine someone checked around for surplus material stored in Europe and came up with the kitchen – or such as survived 15 years of use and then storage – which was dispatched to Almaty in 1994.
From a consumer’s point of view, the cafeteria looked like one might expect. Lots of aluminium steam trays and overhead shelves holding dishes. Pots, pans and other kitchen items were out of sight.
Embassy staff referred to the cafeteria as “Hound Dog Hole.”
The food was good, varied and helped us Americans recall what eating was like back in the United States. I think management of the cafeteria operated under a contract with the Embassy which might explain why it was not restricted to Embassy personnel. Interestingly, the catering supervisor was named Jim Oliver – not to be confused with Jamie Oliver, the celebrity chef, TV personality and cookbook writer from England.
There was a nook in the cafeteria for book sharing. Visitors were invited to bring in reading material to share with others, and to help themselves to what they found. For avid book readers, this was a delight since English language reading materials were not available in Almaty. A lot of paperback novels first read on an airplane got a chance at a second reading there.
Another feature of the cafeteria is that, while waiting in the queue, you could inspect notices posted on the wall concerning upcoming parties and other social activities. Want a crowd to attend your Saturday night bash? Post a notice at the cafeteria. Essentials in the notice were date, time and place. The essentials did not include the reason for the party though it could be mentioned.
I don’t remember taking all members of our local staff to the cafeteria at the same time. The place was heavily used and had limited seating capacity. It was best to show up on the late side. But I thought every member of staff, driver included, would be interested to see something of the inside of the U.S. Embassy.
Naturally the cafeteria became a popular meeting point in Almaty for Americans and other English speakers, not so much by pre-arrangement as by the happenstance of just being there.
In 1997, the Embassy moved to Astana and the Consulate that was left behind in Almaty was installed initially at the Renco building across from Dom Kino and later at Samal Towers.
I have no idea at all what happened to the “Elvis Presley Kitchen” when the Furmanova Street Embassy was decommissioned. In any event the kitchen outlasted Elvis.