Parachute has always punched above its class. Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark have earned Michelin stars and James Beard Awards by creating one of the country’s definitive Korean American restaurants in a rickety 100-year-old house on Chicago’s North Side that lacks the pristine multimillion-dollar kitchens deployed at some of the world’s top dining destinations.
When the state suspended indoor dining in March 2020 due to COVID, Parachute started to offer takeout, back then a novelty for a Michelin-caliber restaurant. Kim and Clark continued to experiment with new ways to stay afloat. They’ve tried to sell frozen Parachute items, including their popular bing bread, nationwide via Goldbelly, filling the back room of their second restaurant, Wherewithall, with boxes and other materials.
But then, just as restaurants began to reopen in June 2021, Parachute closed completely. The dining room is small, not social distance-friendly, and it seemed like the right time to take a break for a complete renovation. The couple kept themselves busy with Wherewithall down the street and caring for their three children, which inspired Kim to start the Abundance Setting, an organization dedicated to providing practical support for working mothers who don’t have traditional nine-to-five jobs.
Now, nearly a year later, Kim and Clark say they’re ready to emerge from their cocoon, perhaps to reclaim the star Michelin inspectors took away from the restaurant while they were closed. Kim hopes the opening will take place within the next two weeks, barring technical difficulties.
“It’s time to take risks,” says Kim with a slightly raised voice. “I think as a Korean American I’m more confident in myself to be more authentic to myself.”
Before Parachute’s debut almost exactly eight years ago, Kim says felt she needed to convince Chicagoans that she and her husband could elevate Korean cuisine. Back then, Parachute’s tagline was “Korean food with French technique.” Aside from Japanese cuisine, Asian food — especially Asian food away from LA, San Francisco, and New York — was looked down upon by the fine dining community. Kim and Clark, both with Midwestern-sized chips on their shoulders, were determined to make Parachute into something special. Adding “French” was a bit of a crutch to attract the general American public, food media, and award panels, parties that Kim says weren’t ready to give Korean food its due.
Now, eight years later, Americans are, in general, more knowledgeable about Korean food and they have a stronger appreciation beyond Korean barbecue hits like galbi. This familiarity, in addition to the excellence of Kim and Clark’s food, helped buoy Parachute’s success — and Kim’s confidence. The awards have also helped.
Other BIPOC chefs in Chicago have shared a similar experience. Carlos Gaytán, the first Mexican chef to preside over a Michelin-starred restaurant, centered his West Town restaurant Mexique around Mexican cuisine prepared with French technique. But his latest restaurant, Tzuco, serves similar dishes without that narrative. Bo Fowler, born in Korea and raised in Minnesota, opened a British pub, Owen & Engine, before honing in on Chinese and Korean fare at her Logan Square brewpub, Bixi Beer.
The new Parachute menu will lean more into Korean cuisine. The two chefs are still determining exactly what will be on it, but the selection will be tighter. That’s a financial consideration, Kim says, based on the realities of running a restaurant during a pandemic when costs are rising everywhere. Focusing on fewer items while staffing shortages affect the industry seems like a smart business move.
Another reason for the change? There’s an increased availability of higher-quality Korean ingredients. The reach of vendors of what Clark calls “artisan ingredients” has increased; now they no longer have have to hunt down items like sesame seeds from Queens Bucket, a specialist from Seoul. Though a sesame seed is tiny, Clark says the sweet and nutty flavor is “night and day” compared to store-bought seeds.
Unfortunately, one of the casualties is Parachute’s beloved and labor-intensive bing bread. But its exit will free up staff for other endeavors: “We hope to create new favorites,” says Clark.
The wine list also will also get a face-lift. A big, oaky red from Europe probably doesn’t pair the best with Korean food. Instead, the alcohol list will be centered around Korean purveyors. The umbrella term is sool, which covers soju, chungju, and plum wine.
While Parachute is not the only Michelin-starred restaurant in Chicago to undergo a renovation in recent years — three-starred Alinea gutted its Lincoln Park home in 2016 and Oriole, the two-starred restaurant in Fulton Market, unveiled a new look in 2021 — it’s in a smaller space, so the changes won’t be so drastic. Clark says the idea was to rebuild Parachute properly, the way they would have if they’d had a larger budget in 2014; back then, he says, they spent about $50,000 on construction, a comparatively small amount for a new restaurant.
The building had its charms, but as the restaurant racked up accolades, Clark and Kim say maintenance and tending to its quirks became consuming and distracted them from doing what they love. Kim recalls a large mixer crashing to the ground because the floor wasn’t level, leaving a permanent dent. The space wasn’t ADA compliant; the mandate didn’t apply due to the building’s age. Without ramps, customers who used wheelchairs or walkers sometimes struggled to navigate the restaurant’s high threshold, and Clark says it bothered him that Parachute couldn’t provide the same experience for them that it did for customers without disabilities.
“We put a Band-Aid on everything,” Clark says. Though customers couldn’t see the cracks from the dining room, they continued to nag at Kim and Clark, and they were sometimes embarrassing. Kim recalls a prospective employee with experience at Michelin-starred restaurants coming in for an interview. He quickly exited after seeing the space, saying, “This isn’t for me.”
The pandemic seemed like an ideal time to fix everything up. The staff was gone and the restaurant was empty. And Kim and Clark finally owned the building: They had dipped into their savings and used a Small Business Administration loan to buy it in early 2020, right before the pandemic forced indoor dining to close.
There was also the issue of gentrification: As developers eye Avondale, the couple had to take action, or they feared they would eventually find themselves priced out of the neighborhood.
Clark and Kim won’t say how much they spent on the current renovations, only that they emptied out their savings and used money that was once reserved for opening another project. They still want Parachute to feel familiar to customers, right down to the neon sign that hung in the window, although the original was somehow thrown away during initial work. A replacement has been ordered.
Owning the building, Kim says, gives her peace of mind about her family’s future. She recalls conversations with “bitter old chefs” who resented spending so much time in the restaurant industry without much material success to show for it. “Restaurants don’t have retirement plans,” she says.
Now Clark and Kim have something they can potentially pass down to their children.
Parachute, 3500 N. Elston Avenue, planned for a mid-May reopening.