Passerotto, a restaurant that bridged the culinary cultures of Korea and Italy to Americans while serving as a platform for chef and owner Jennifer Kim’s efforts to reform the restaurant industry, is closing. Kim made the announcement Saturday via Instagram, telling her friends and customers that the Andersonville restaurant will close its doors for good on Saturday, September 12. This ends a decorated three-year run for Passerotto, in which the restaurant received recognitions from Michelin as a Bib Gourmand and the James Beard Foundation as a nominee for Best New Restaurant in 2019.
Kim says she’s been mulling closing her restaurant for a while during the pandemic which relegated her restaurant to carryout only since March. Kim’s also spent considerable time supporting causes such as the Chicago Hospitality Accountable Actions Database (CHAAD), a list that tracks how restaurants have responded to Black Lives Matter.
But beyond the pandemic, a decision had been looming. Earlier this month, she formally split with LM Restaurant Group. LM — which has also invested in Diana Dávila’s Mi Tocaya Antojeria and Alpana Singh’s Terra & Vine — quietly served as Passerotto’s primary investor, providing Kim with seed money and infrastructure to operate. Kim values independence and has been pondering leaving LM for sometime.
Kim remains pessimistic that operators can ethically run a restaurant under current capitalistic conditions. She doesn’t want to rely on investors, big restaurant groups “or a hierarchy system where profits, awards, and bottom lines dictate how we make decisions.”
“We can’t change the system from within, we have to reimagine and create something completely new,” Kim says.
After Passerotto opened in 2018, Kim won Eater Chicago’s Chef of the Year as she established her self as a vocal leader in the restaurant community, one who focused on how workers — particularly members of marginalized communities like LGBTQ, women, and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous People of Color) — were treated. Many in the industry are bullied and not given consideration for promotions. Kim would host small business workshops, provide meals for protestors, and raise money for causes that work toward establishing a more even playing field.
As restaurant workers who share Kim’s philosophies stayed at home and unemployed during the pandemic, many had time to ponder ways a more just system could be established. That was further underlined after workers took to social media began sharing disturbing stories of how employers treated workers.
Before Passerotto, Kim co-founded Snaggletooth, a cured meat bagel deli in Lakeview with a loyal fandom. She is a suburban native who trained to be a pharmacist. At Passerotto, she fuses traditional and modern techniques as she pays homage to her Korean roots and using her knowledge of Italian cuisine. Kalbi made with a family recipe shares a menu with rice cakes (tteokbokki) surrounded by lamb ragu.
But the food became almost secondary to Kim’s message. As she prepares to close her restaurant, Kim says she’s got a goal:
“My focus for the future is going to be on learning — and unlearning — how to create a truly equitable, decentralized, community-centered restaurant/hospitality model,” she says.
Passerotto found its fans in Andersonville, a notoriously difficult neighborhood to win over. Before opening Mi Tocaya in Logan Square, Dávila’s prior effort — Cantina 1910 — failed to find traction. Passerotto also drew customers from out of the neighborhood, earning rave reviews for its unique DIY spirit in a city where large restaurant companies continue to eat up marketshare. COVID-19 has many wondering if restaurants with corporate backing will be all that’s left after scientists develop a vaccine.
The financial challenges posed by the pandemic have claimed one of the most vibrant and important restaurants that Chicago has seen open in recent years. The restaurant will be open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday for pickup so Kim and company can see customers one last time at the restaurant. Passerotto opened in May 2018.