Beverly Kim, a former Top Chef finalist who’s now the esteemed co-chef and partner at Parachute — the landmark Michelin-starred Korean-American restaurant she runs with her husband, John Clark, Chicago’s 2014 Eater Award Restaurant of the Year Winner, and a Bon Appetit best new restaurant in America — penned this column about her personal experiences as a female chef , women’s issues that she feels need to be addressed, and her hopes and dreams for other women in the restaurant industry. For more on Parachute and their history, read the One Year In from 2015.
Rewind to more than two decades ago. It was 1995 and I was a curious junior-year high-school student. My older sister mentioned to me that I could make a good chef since I liked to bake for my friends and help my mom in the kitchen. To research the who's who in the Chicago restaurant scene — this was before the internet boom — I went to Barnes and Noble and purchased The Food Professional's Guide: The James Beard Foundation Directory of People, Product, and Services.
I circled chefs and restaurant owners from Chicago, including Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill), Michael Foley (Printer's Row), Martin Gagné (Cafe 21), Fernand Gutierrez (the Dining Room), Jeff Jackson (La Tour), Jean Joho (the Everest Room), Yoshi Katsumura (Yoshi's Cafe), Roland Liccioni (Le Francais), Anthony Mantuano (Spiaggia), Leslee Reis (Cafe Provencal), Yves Roubaud (Shaw's Crab House), Jackie Shen (Jackie's), Gabino Sotelino (Ambria), John Terczak (Terczak's Restaurant), and Charlie Trotter (Charlie Trotter's Restaurant). Then I wrote them all letters to inquire if they had any time for me to shadow or interview them in person.
In writing the letters, what was most surprising to me at the time was the overwhelming majority of men on that list. In my home it was the women's role to take care of cooking duties, so this was the first time I noticed the shift in gender roles.
I didn’t hear back from most of these chefs (of course, because they were extremely busy!), but I was surprised to get a call back from Cafe Provencal ("Leslee would have loved to help you, but she passed away....”), Shaw's Crab House, Le Francais, and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. "Fernand Gutierrez would have wanted to help you but he's no longer here, but I've taken over his position as the chef of the dining room," said Sarah Stegner. "Can I interview you in person?" I asked, and she said, "Of course."
I remember, for some reason, that I was really relieved to get in contact with a woman in the industry. That one meeting extended to a high-school apprenticeship in the summer, to a culinary school internship, to working for Chef Sarah and George Bumbaris full time at the Ritz-Carlton and Prairie Grass Cafe. I was fortunate to have a mentor from the beginning who was a woman and who was also recognized highly by her peers (Chef Sarah won Best Chef, Midwest from the James Beard Foundation in 1998). I also later worked for chef Jackie Shen at Red Light, who was well known in Chicago for her prowess in the kitchen.
What I noticed about both Chef Sarah and Chef Jackie is that they commanded respect — and even fear — in the kitchen, as any other male chef would. They were particular, insistent, and relentless in how they wanted things done. They exhibited an extreme commitment. For example, Chef Jackie would work every day for a month and didn’t take a day off while she was training me as a sous chef. Chef Sarah threw away my prep numerous times and told me to start over when it was not right. Both of them weren't afraid to come down on their staff if they needed to.
Toughness is needed to be a head chef of any establishment, whether you’re a man or a woman. But, in my experience as a woman in leadership, it may come with a double standard.
When I got my first-ever executive chef position 10 years ago, it was because chef Paul Wildermuth was leaving Opera. I was nervous to take on the role after a chef who had so much charisma in the kitchen and the dining room. One of the changes that I wanted to make was to create higher standards for cleanliness and efficiencies in the kitchen. In my mind, I was never demeaning in setting these standards; I was just very direct.
Two weeks into my new position, the general manager said that the whole kitchen staff wanted to meet with me. I was a little aghast at the request, but I said “fine.” The kitchen met with me to complain that I was "too demanding,” saying that I needed to be nicer. This was very strange to me because I remembered how Chef Paul would talk to them, and it was definitely not fluffy and sweet. I was never degrading toward them, always reasonable in my requests, and would often go out of my way to get them sandwiches and snacks.
It was one of the first times that it became real to me that there was a double standard for women in leadership versus men. If a woman is assertive and commanding, she can be a "bitch." While if a man is assertive, he's confident.
Besides the double-standard issue, issues of sexual harassment, affordable childcare, wage disparities, and societal influences to diminish women's self confidence need to be brought to the surface more. I can only speak for myself, as every woman has had a different experience, but I can say that I wish that these aforementioned areas were addressed for the sake of women in the kitchen. To speak to these issues would require more than five paragraphs.
As a chef and owner of Parachute and the parent of two children, I am grateful even more than 20 years later that I had the mentorship of female chefs to demonstrate the possibilities for me. Chef Sarah Stegner especially, who achieved James Beard status, and who is a chef/partner and a mother as well, gave me hope that I could achieve the same goals.
To make it in this field requires sometimes just as simple as not giving up: being the last man or woman standing and having faith that staying in the kitchen for as long as possible will pay off. My hope is to encourage and educate girls and young women who aspire to be chefs to commit to the lifestyle of long hours in the kitchen, lower pay for many years, and total physical and mental exhaustion in exchange for doing something that is fulfilling and passionate and that will pay off in the long run.