To everything — in hospitality, and in life — there is a season. Just as Chicago’s leaves turn once again from green to orange and vivid red, so too the circle of a restaurant’s life goes ‘round, from the endless possibility of a debut to the last meditative moments of its final service.
As industry veterans and leaders in the city’s independent restaurant scene, James Beard Award-winning chefs Johnny Clark and Beverly Kim, best known for their work at Michelin-starred Parachute in Avondale, have witnessed this cycle many times.
Now, around five months after they announced the permanent closure of neighboring sister restaurant Wherewithall, the pair are preparing to launch themselves once again into the fray with its highly personal replacement: Anelya, a Ukrainian restaurant named for Clark’s late grandmother Anelya Ochatchinskiya, where he can explore the country’s historic and contemporary culinary culture.
A survivor of World War II, Ochatchinskiya arrived in America in 1946 having endured childhood disease, famine, political persecution, and forced labor. Her traumatic experience extended to food. “The Soviet Union established a cultural minister who created a blanket ‘Soviet cuisine’ that they wanted everyone to eat,” Clark says. “People would literally hide their family recipes and couldn’t cook them publicly, especially during my grandmother’s era. It was very dangerous to do anything different.”
The specter of Soviet Era cultural erasure grows even weightier in light of the ongoing war in Ukraine, which began with a Russian military invasion more than 600 days ago. Last year, Clark led efforts by Chicago’s culinary community to support the Ukraine. In April, he made his first trip to the country and says that while he was struck by the tenacity and determination of Ukrainians to carry on their lives, it was clear to him that residents were struggling to cope.
Amid the devastation, however, he encountered a group of chefs working to reclaim and expand on Ukraine’s historic food traditions — a phenomenon Clark dubs “the old-new culture.” At Anelya, where the kitchen staff is almost entirely composed of Ukrainian refugees, the approach is encapsulated in a bowl of borscht, one of the country’s best-known dishes. Borscht is native to Ukraine, but it was among the Soviet Union’s approved foods and was promoted as a Russian invention. In 2022, UNESCO declared borscht cooking an endangered Ukrainian heritage.
Clark plans to serve borscht in the style of Poltava, a city in central Ukraine where residents smoke wild pears in a pich, or all-purpose clay stove, and integrate the fruit into the broth. His team doesn’t have access to those same pears, so Anelya’s borscht will feature Bosc pears from Klug Farms. “I’ve always loved borscht, but I’ve had terrible borscht at restaurants throughout the country,” Clark says. “I think you’d be in for a surprise if you tried our borscht, or anyone else’s that’s made with care. It’s really delicious.”
Anelya has the chance to spotlight Ukrainian food like never before in Chicago, a city with the second-largest Ukrainian population in the U.S. behind New York with about 54,000 with some sort of ancestry. The highest concentrations are in areas including Ukrainian Village and near O’Hare International Airport. As Parachute tells the story of Kim’s Korean heritage, Clark, under different circumstances, is attempting to strike a similar chord for himself with Anelya.
Clark and Kim got to say a final goodbye to Wherewithall on Monday, October 16, at a book party for The Dish: The Lives and Labor Behind One Plate of Food, a new title from writer Andrew Friedman, at “holistic wellness” and social club Biân in River North, a cavernous and monochromatic space that could resemble a spa on Deep Space Nine. There are tiny bottles of powder-blue liquid called Dream Water, and Deepak Chopra’s You Are the Universe sits beside The Age of Cryptocurrency on an immaculately styled bookshelf.
In The Dish, Friedman chronicles the journey of a single plate of food — aged strip loin, tomato, and sorrel — from the farm to the slaughterhouse to the hands of a chef, all through the lens of a dinner service at Wherewithall. Composed through extensive interviews conducted in 2021 with Clark and Kim, as well as farmers, vintners, restaurant workers, and a delivery driver, the book aims to capture a moment in time while illuminating the lives and labors of a vast web of people who underpin any restaurant effort.
“I wanted it to be a love letter,” Friedman says. “There’s been a lot of bad stuff written about the restaurant industry in the last several years, and it’s all true. But there are also people like [Clark and Kim] and restaurants like Wherewithall.”
A Brooklyn resident, Friedman (also behind a podcast, Andrew Talks to Chefs) is friends with Biân co-founder Kevin Boehm of Boka Restaurant Group and says he hopes the book will help diners better understand the cost of dining out, the subject of much debate as of late. “My promise to readers is that they’ll never look at a restaurant meal the same way again,” Friedman says. “Especially if they’ve never thought about how much work it takes, or they’ve never thought of people in the service industry as fully three-dimensional with lives as challenging as [theirs].”
But the book isn’t solely for the dining public — Friedman also hopes that it could be of use to someone considering a career in hospitality, or those who are searching for purpose in a new industry. Though The Dish is replete with restaurant jargon, these terms are accompanied by footnotes to assist unfamiliar readers.
Wherewithall was ultimately felled by a collapsed sewer line, the final straw in a cascade of obstacles since the onset of the pandemic. It was a reality that Friedman hoped the team could avoid, but in the end, is “a fact of life in the restaurant industry,” he says. “Unless you’re Chez Panisse, you’re probably going to close. But most restaurants don’t get to have this kind of physical manifestation of that moment in time.”
Clark and Kim will soon begin a new story at Anelya, a 100th birthday gift for its namesake.