Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark
Chefs Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark owned the Avondale restaurant Parachute, which shuttered earlier this year after 10 years of serving refined takes on Korean cuisine. Photo by Jamie Kelter Davis

Chicago chefs Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark on the high price of living the dream

Parachute, their beloved dining gem in Avondale, is dead. But the pioneering duo have set their sights on what comes next.

Chefs Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark owned the Avondale restaurant Parachute, which shuttered earlier this year after 10 years of serving refined takes on Korean cuisine. Photo by Jamie Kelter Davis
Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark
Chefs Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark owned the Avondale restaurant Parachute, which shuttered earlier this year after 10 years of serving refined takes on Korean cuisine. Photo by Jamie Kelter Davis

Chicago chefs Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark on the high price of living the dream

Parachute, their beloved dining gem in Avondale, is dead. But the pioneering duo have set their sights on what comes next.

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As Chicago icons go, Bing Bread might be right up there with Michigan Avenue and Wrigley Field — at least to people obsessed with eating, which, in this town, is legion.

If you never got a taste, the dish, invented at Parachute, a 50-seat restaurant in Avondale, is an adaptation of a traditional Chinese scallion pancake rendered deliciously unrecognizable. The round yeasted loaf is fortified with potato and cheese, stuffed with bacon, sprinkled with sesame seeds and baked to a mahogany shellac. Slather with sour cream butter to thy heart’s content.

Parachute brought Bing back for a last dance on the restaurant’s closing night. “We definitely sold a lot,” said Beverly Kim, Parachute’s chef and owner with her husband, Johnny Clark, also a chef. (Thirty-five piping-hot loaves went to tables that day.) “It was fun. But I remember how much work it was, too.”

Parachute Interior
‘The universe is just telling me that it’s time for change,’ said Beverly Kim in March, two days before Parachute’s final day of service. ‘What worked 10 years ago might not work now.’ Courtesy of Parachute/Matt Haas

Parachute closed its doors for good on March 23, after 10 years of serving refined takes on Korean cuisine to an appreciative crowd in an offbeat neighborhood far from downtown.

In the weeks since shuttering their beloved first born, Kim and Clark have cried, taken stock and announced their comeback: Parachute Hi-Fi. Their former restaurant, at 3500 N. Elston Ave., will be reimagined as a casual “music bar” with creative cocktails and pizza puffs, slated to open in summer.

The other part of the plan, still under wraps, is to reopen Parachute downtown.

Kim and Clark won’t reveal much, but they will say that the new Parachute will be big. It has to be big. And therein lies the conundrum of the chef-driven independent restaurant these days. To stay alive, it’s cost-trimming pizza puffs or a glitzy, major investment with prices to match. Kim and Clark are going for both.

Michelin awards at Parachute
The owners of Parachute plan to reopen the acclaimed restaurant in downtown Chicago. Photo by Jamie Kelter Davis

“The universe is just telling me that it’s time for change,” said the petite 44-year-old Kim in March, two days before Parachute’s final day of service. “What worked 10 years ago might not work now. What people have experienced in the past five years, you know, it’s been a lot.”

Which is to say nothing about what the restaurant industry has experienced: Nearly 3.7 million jobs evaporated between February and April 2020 as the COVID shutdowns hit. Thousands of full-service restaurants shuttered, never to return. The industry was in “free fall,” as the National Restaurant Association told Congress in its plea for help at the end of that year.

Survival for the ones that made it meant duck-walking across a rolling log of disruption: The supply chain fiasco, the culture war over masking, hollowed-out central business districts, the Great Resignation and a bunch of weird, hacky adjustments. Remember dining igloos?

Today, the restaurant industry has more or less bounced back: 12.3 million people are employed by the sector, roughly the same as in 2019, according to Labor Department statistics. Datassential, a food-industry market-research firm, told Crain’s that in Chicago more restaurants opened than closed in 2023 through October — 910, compared to 849. The NRA, the sector’s trade group, forecasts that U.S. restaurants will this year top a record $1 trillion in sales, up 5% from 2023.

But the recovery favored fast-food chains over sit-down restaurants, according to industry data. And small independent restaurants — ones often owned by the chef in the kitchen or by generations of a family — are struggling to adjust to skyrocketing labor costs, as detailed in recent reporting by The Wall Street Journal. Here, chef-owned independents, arguably the reason for Chicago’s reputation as a great dining city, are feeling the strain like never before.

Chef at Parachute
A cook prepared for dinner service at Parachute before the restaurant closed in March. Owner and chef Johnny Clark said that people have lost their appetite for late night dining. Photo by Jamie Kelter Davis

The indie restaurant’s math problem

Parachute closed because, Clark said, the long hours and meager payouts became untenable, and the couple realized they needed a business that could sustain their family for the next 10 years. “The margin is too thin to nothing,” Clark said of Parachute’s revenue-to-cost ratio. Before the pandemic, the restaurant could pull in a healthy 12% profit margin; by the end, it was more like 1%.

He cited today’s fast-rising wages, a scarcity of workers and much higher food costs. Clark noted that people also seem to have lost their appetite for late dining: Parachute’s “third turn” – a restaurant’s last seating that starts around 9 p.m. — had practically ceased to exist.

“It got to the point where Beverly and I were working for free for years,” Clark said. “It’s a math problem. We just have to fix the equation.”

Reopening Parachute closer to downtown is their attempt to adjust the math. The West Loop, convenient for tourists, is a target. Clark said that just getting anyone’s attention is a challenge these days. “You almost need a piece of culture to get people to come out,” he said. “A special guest, Restaurant Week, guest chef. Food alone doesn’t do it.”

The Fulton Market district, adjacent to the West Loop, hosts a dense cluster of buzzy dining destinations, including Rose Mary (nouveau Croatian from celeb chef Joe Flamm), Fioretta (Italian steakhouse) and Cabra (Peruvian atop the Hoxton hotel). On any given Friday night, the zone practically throbs with human activity.

“Fulton Market – that is the culture,” Clark said. “It’s like a sporting event.” Speaking during the tail end of service inside the hushed dining room of Anelya, the couple’s third and now only restaurant, Clark gestured toward the sculptural hanging light fixtures and continued, “Here, it’s like an art exhibit.”

Anelya interior
The interior of Anelya. Courtesy of Anelya
Appetizer tower at Anelya
The zakusky, or appetizer, cart. Courtesy of Anelya

Even Bing Bread wasn’t immune to the gravitational reality of restaurant economics.

An instant hit back in 2014, the $15 dish was always prohibitively expensive to make — and, in a way, became a casualty of its own success. As documented in a fascinating Eater story in 2022, the year Parachute removed it from the menu, each loaf yielded only 63 cents in profit – roughly, 4.2% of its cost, compared to the 10% margin of most other menu items at the time.

But the labor of producing it every day eventually took on a monstrous life of its own. Kim said the dough required constant attention, and the chore of tending it drove good chefs to quit. Something so loved, so perfect – and likely consumed without much thought – couldn’t sustain the price of its hand-crafted excellence.

The same could be said of Kim and Clark, whose life and business have taken an eerily parallel arc of late.

“We’re at the point in our lives where it all is coming to a head for us. We have three children who are very young, so we’re still in major provider mode,” Kim said. The couple’s three sons are 14, 7 and 4.

“Our goal is to make these places work for us. I feel like we can’t work any harder. So we need to work smarter,” she said. “You have to take a step back and think: OK, how are we going to actually, like, do the next 10 years?”

Beverly Kim
Beverly Kim’s path to opening Parachute in 2014 included a near-death experience and an unpaid internship in Korea. Photo by Jamie Kelter Davis

From insult to inspiration

Kim can still vividly recount the incident that gave the original Parachute its name: One cold January, she hit a patch of black ice on the Edens Expressway. Her car spun out and came to a stop facing oncoming traffic.

“I honked my horn really loud and I prayed to God to keep me alive,” she said. “And I opened my eyes and all the cars — it was like The Matrix … just, like, swerving around you.”

The near-death experience in 2006 was a wake-up call for the 25-year-old line cook, who managed that night to drive to work at Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook and clear 400 covers. Jolted, Kim quit her job, flew to Korea and finagled a stage, or unpaid internship, in the kitchen of a fancy hotel for a couple months.

During her time there — a Korean-American in Seoul — one of the cooks where she worked called her nakhasan. A World War II term for troops who dropped out of the sky from planes, the word has become a pejorative for an undeserving person who gets a job through connections. The literal translation: parachute.

“I left Korea feeling, This is what I’m going to do. This is what I need to do,” Kim said. The trip to the mother country sent the young chef down a path to bring Korean ingredients and techniques into this country’s fine-dining vernacular, long before the culture’s current vogue. Kim met Johnny Clark in 2008: After reading a profile of Kim in a local magazine, Clark cold-emailed her with an enticing mention of his having apprenticed with the famous Korean chef Yim Gi-Ho.

Beverly Kim
Photo by Jamie Kelter Davis
Johnny Clark
Photo by Jamie Kelter Davis

The two career cooks — she was the executive chef at Opera; he had worked in serious kitchens, including La Côte Basque in New York City — married within a year. In 2014, after pulling together friends and family financing, Kim, by then a minor Top Chef celebrity, and Clark launched the restaurant on a charmless stretch of Elston Avenue to raves and adoration.

Parachute injected something new and accessible into the dining scene.

Molecular gastronomy was almost a decade old. The hipster takeover of Logan Square was well underway, but neighboring Avondale existed sleepily under the radar. Korean food still befuddled most Chicagoans. Others did catch up with the idea of dressed-up Korean cuisine; Jeong and Perilla both opened in 2019.

That year, Kim and Clark christened their second restaurant: Wherewithall, earning enthusiastic reviews for its farm-to-table menu, new every week. In retrospect, the name speaks volumes. From 2019 to 2023, it lived through the full pandemic cycle of catastrophe. Not long after COVID shut down the city in 2020, the restaurant went on hiatus, along with Parachute.

After a promising reopening in 2021, the Omicron wave triggered another stay-at-home scare; then, last May, a sewer line collapsed under the street just outside Wherewithall, causing $40,000 in damage that, according to the couple, was not covered by their insurance or the city. “Then, it hit me,” Clark said. “I was like, well, we have to close. I don’t think I can open for a fourth time. I don’t think I want to.”

Incredibly, within five months the couple unveiled a new restaurant in the space: Anelya, named after Clark’s Ukrainian grandmother and run mostly by women cooks from Ukraine, who moved here to escape the war. It’s a quirky dream of a restaurant, the creation of a Michelin-awarded chef intent on exploring an idea. It’s also a business run the standard way: reservations, a staffed bar, professional front-of-house servers who usher you into the little-understood world of Ukrainian fine dining. This is probably the most interesting meal in Chicago right now.

Another winner from the Kim and Clark playbook, Anelya notched a coveted spot on Chicago magazine’s annual list of “Best New Restaurants,” just last month.

Anelya exterior
Anelya, located a block away from Parachute on Elston Ave., is named after Clark’s grandmother and run by mostly women cooks from Ukraine. Photo by Jamie Kelter Davis

“Such a small staff, so little money”

Restaurants come, restaurants go. And Parachute, admirers will tell you, had a great run.

Andrew Friedman, who wrote a book about Wherewithall, published only a few months after the restaurant closed, said there’s far more competition today, compared to the era when lumbering old-school steakhouses reigned in Chicago.

“I think the dining public kind of treats restaurants the way they treat movies,” said Friedman, who regularly interviews chefs in his long-running podcast. “If they see it, it’s checked off their list. If they loved it, maybe they’ll go see it again and bring some friends. But [restaurants] have become a little disposable.”

With social media fueling warp-speed trends, every buzz-generating novelty helps. John’s Food and Wine in Lincoln Park has sparked curiosity in its self-service model: Diners step up to order as they would at a McDonald’s, then sit to receive a dish that is a far cry from Chicken McNuggets. More like, duck breast with charred radicchio and date and shallot jam ($47).

John's Food and Wine
Diners at John’s Food and Wine in Lincoln Park place their orders at the counter. Courtesy of John’s Food and Wine/Sandy Noto

Owners Adam McFarland and Tom Rogers, also the restaurant’s chefs, have said their counter-service system is designed to address the stiff competition for experienced workers. They eliminated wait staff but still charge a 20% mandatory service fee that is distributed among all hourly staffers, including cooks, the roaming sommelier, bartenders and dishwashers. Line cooks at John’s earn $31 an hour.

“We think any restaurant model where the owners aren’t playing a pivotal role on a day-to-day basis is endangered,” said McFarland. At John’s, he and Rogers aren’t remote owner-admins; they’re in the restaurant every day — cooking on the line, cleaning, talking to customers, doing whatever needs doing.

Warlord, a white-hot newcomer in Avondale, definitely felt the pressure to economize on labor when it open a year ago: The restaurant’s three pedigreed chef-owners – Emily Kraszyk, John Lupton and Trevor Fleming – do nearly all the food prep themselves, then cook, in a bit of dining performance theater, from an open kitchen late into the night.

The menu at Warlord
The menu, printed daily, at Warlord in Avondale. Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis/WBEZ

The restaurant’s quirky limited hours — 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays through Mondays — grew from the fact that the trio was too exhausted to work more than four days a week, according to Kraszyk. They intended to open for service five days a week but realized they would have had to hire other cooks to do it. “At the beginning, we had such a small staff and so little money,” she said, at the same time acknowledging that their current setup is “not sustainable.”

Kim and Clark seem to be testing a new strategy: The accessible neighborhood bar concept will have lower food costs and thus lower prices; the high-end downtown restaurant will allow them to create an experience that warrants big-ticket pricing. In other words, exit the difficult middle ground.

Parachute Hi-Fi’s hook is music and curated DJ nights, the “piece of culture” that Kim and Clark hope will draw people to come out. “You need to be able to dance. To get lost in music. It’s like a release,” Kim said. “We’ll provide the food and the drinks that match that fun vibe.” Pepperoni kimchi pizza puffs — imagine the most fabulous Hot Pocket on Earth — and a fish sandwich with uni-tartar sauce are two of the coming menu items. The music theme grew from the intense record-collecting hobby Clark developed after a first-ever panic attack early into the pandemic. He spent the next four months recuperating by raiding second-hand stores all over the city.

As for the bigger, splashier Parachute, investors will help fund the venture, injecting the capital needed to scale up. Kim hints at top-grade fish flown in from the Toyosu market in Japan, a private dining room and special equipment to make dishes with a wow factor. “That you’re like, Wow! They went full out!” she said. “For Parachute, I want to go as big as I can.”

It’s the sky or bust.

Jennifer Tanaka is WBEZ’s digital managing editor.