These Chefs Find a Way to Balance Restaurant and Family Life
May 19 was already shaping up to be a momentous day for Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark; it’s the due date of their third child. But then I ask when the couple behind Chicago’s beloved Korean-American eatery Parachute aims to open its long-awaited second restaurant.
“May 19,” Clark repeats, this time with a wan laugh. “I’m sort of joking, but it seems like two trains headed straight for each other right now.”
It betrays a level of ambition that makes people wonder how they do it all. But for this enterprising husband-and-wife team, expanding the business is a necessity born of years juggling parenting as two working chefs on the late shift.
“Chefs who want to be taken seriously shine in dinner-focused restaurants, but the support just isn’t there in terms of child care that’s cost effective and dependable,” Kim says. “We’re expanding so we can continue to do what we do; so we’re not just dependent on one income or one restaurant.”
Some 3.5 million parents across the United States work in the restaurant industry, over 1 million of whom are single moms, according to nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Center United. Yet just 2 percent of the child care centers surveyed in 2015 by National Survey of Early Care and Education offer child care in the evening. Only 6 percent provide overnight care and 3 percent have weekend hours. This is in spite of the fact that Child Care Aware of America said that last year at least 65,000 families in 28 states sought child care outside the 9-to-5 workday. (The other 32 states don’t have data available.)
Like so many restaurant workers contending with low pay and nontraditional hours, Kim and Clark have cobbled together a series of solutions since Kim was pregnant with their first son almost ten years ago. When she was offered a good-paying chef de cuisine role at Aria at the Fairmont Chicago hotel, Clark—who’d worked his way up through lauded kitchens like La Cote Basque and Town in Manhattan and Pigali’s in Cincinnati—put his career on hold to assume the role of stay-at-home dad for their 18-month-old son, since a nanny was too expensive.
While working 11-hour shifts that stretched from pre-lunch through dinner service, Kim would dash off to pump between running the pass, writing menus and setting schedules. As she climbed the demanding professional ladder to executive chef, she grappled emotionally with being away from her son, who initially wasn’t keen on taking a bottle.
“It, like, goes against your nature in those first two years,” she says. “Unless your partner is willing to stay at home and play that role, it can be challenging. But it was also hard for (Clark) to give up his dreams for a little; his nature is to keep working.”
After a brief partnership with Shin Thompson to re-open the Michelin-starred Bonsoiree fizzled, the couple decided to open their own restaurant. Clark took a job as a morning prep cook at Lula Cafe and Kim taught classes at her alma mater, Kendall College, while they scouted locations for two years, before a shuttered bakery in sleepy Avondale caught Kim’s eye.
Clark’s voice falters occasionally as he recounts those fraught years on Medicaid leading up to Parachute’s 2014 opening. His stress manifests through near-tangible memories of their tiny Avondale apartment: the way their bed stuck out into the doorway, the discordant carpeting that the building manager got from a suburban water park.
But government subsidies through Head Start and the state’s Child Care Assistance Program helped them afford preschool and daycare that aligned with their second-shift schedules, so they could work through most of service during Parachute’s precarious first year knowing that their son had been picked up and fed dinner. These programs also introduced Clark and Kim to a community of parents with whom they could relate, and children who could establish a frame of reference for their son.
“A lot of people in this category of Medicaid have to work in the restaurant industry—single moms who work front of house as a host, managers working at night—so it opened my eyes to this whole, mostly immigrant, community that we were part of,” Kim says. “I need people who look like me, who struggle financially and with the guilt of not having enough time with my kids, and balance that with a passion for this work.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services advises that daycare should amount to around 10 percent of a household’s budget. The percentage of income Kim and Clark devote to child care runs closer to 40, because both are—and need to remain—working chef/owners in a dinner-focused restaurant.
Since Parachute became profitable in 2015 and they lost access to those programs, they hired a babysitter, transitioning to a live-in au pair with the arrival of their second child. Restaurant ownership begot certain freedoms Kim and Clark never enjoyed while on a payroll. They decided to close Parachute on both Sundays and Mondays—despite historically strong Sunday numbers—to carve out precious family time. They’re also empowering longtime staff to assume greater responsibilities; the GM for their forthcoming restaurant began as a busser just after Parachute opened.
Turning a profit afforded them the chance to pay it forward, too, offering paid time off to all staff and healthcare coverage of $175 a month for full-time employees (benefits that helped their office manager take 12 weeks’ maternity leave). Kim talks candidly with staff members who are considering having children about everything from short-term disability leave options to the importance for cooks to climb professional ladder early, given the financial burden and stress on young families.
Adding a second restaurant to the portfolio provides some measure of insurance—they will live in an apartment above the new restaurant—while letting the two chefs to stretch creatively once more. But as the dual May 19 trains hurtle toward collision, each bearing a considerable emotional and financial load—Clark struggles to reconcile with their burdensome path.
“The more we work, the more child care and things we need to buy to make the house run,” Clark says. “Sometimes I think, there’s got to be a tipping point where it will tip in our favor.”
Indeed, what is the tipping point for an industry that demands so much grit and sacrifice from people, for many of whom it represents an identity as much as a job? Clark sighs heavily, sitting inside the skeleton of their second restaurant and future home.
“I couldn’t even imagine any other way.”