Parachute in Chicago is a bit of an anomaly in the city’s dining scene. It’s located in a neighborhood not traditionally known for its restaurants, the food isn’t of the meat-heavy variety commonly found in the Midwest, and it’s not run by one of the marquee restaurateurs of the city (think Paul Kahan or Stephanie Izard). But that hasn’t prevented this modern Korean-American spot, run by Top Chef alum Beverly Kim and her husband John Clark, from becoming one of the most popular and exciting places to eat right now in Chicago. Within its first year of being open, Parachute received three stars in the Chicago Tribune and was named one of Bon Appétit‘s hottest new restaurants in America.
As Parachute enters its third year of existence with no sign of the crowds dying down, we spoke to Kim and Clark about the restaurant’s early successes, their love for Chicago, and what’s next for their tiny but mighty destination.
The dishes at Parachute are unique. How did you all land on your restaurant’s point of view, and how would you describe it?
Beverly Kim and John Clark: Parachute is a combination of both of our culinary perspectives from over the years of working in kitchens. We both have a love of Korean flavors and textures, which informs our cooking, so we say that it has a Korean-American perspective. But, also, we are influenced by global flavors, techniques, and by the local seasonal ingredients.
How did you both get into cooking, and how did you meet?
BK: I was curious about the professional culinary kitchen in high school and did a stage at the Ritz Carlton hotel under Chef Sarah Stegner, which led me to decide that professional cooking was my passion.
JC: I started washing dishes in high school and worked my way up to the kitchen in Cincinnati. I knew I wanted to be a chef at 16 and proceeded to go to CIA in New York.
BK: We met when Johnny had just moved to Chicago in 2008 after he was flipping through a local magazine highlighting local chefs. I happened to have my biography in there, mentioning that I had spent some time in Korea. Johnny had just come back from a life-changing stage at Chef Yim Ji Ho’s San Dang in Korea. He wanted to connect with someone who had a similar experience, so he sent me his resume. I was the executive chef of Opera at the time, and when I read his resume, I was really intrigued and wanted to hear about his experience. We met up and the rest is history!
What’s the creative process like for developing a new dish?
BK + JC: You start with the ingredients that you get excited about….something fresh from the farmers’ market, for example, or an ingredient we came across when traveling. Then, we think of how to pair it with other ingredients or techniques to get the best flavor combinations, along with an idea of how we would like to experience the texture. The dish also needs to be thought of how well it can be executed on the line. The dish is plated so as to make sure the guest gets all the flavors and textures together, but also in a way that is intriguing. Lastly, it probably gets edited a few times with some tweaks here and there!
Bing bread. Tell me how this amazing dish came about!
BK: Johnny had the idea to do some kind of bread that was different, and that would have an Asian influence, and he suggested I try making a bing bread. I tried out some basic scallion bing bread recipes which came out good but not too original. I thought about how the midwesterner loves scallions on top of potatoes, like a loaded baked potato. I tried adding the flavors of a loaded baked potato (white cheddar, bacon bits) to the bing bread with sour cream butter, and it turned out to be a hit for a private party that we catered before opening Parachute.
Why did you choose the neighborhood that you did (Avondale) to open the restaurant, and how do you feel that the restaurant fits in with that locale?
BK + JC: We wanted to choose Avondale because it is an unassuming neighborhood—it doesn’t have any preconceived notions about it. It’s traditionally a mixed, blue-collar neighborhood. We thought it was a good landing pad for us so that people had no preconceived notions or expectations and would go along for the ride. Also, it’s located really close to the highway which makes it super accessible, with tons of free parking.
On the whole, Chicago has a reputation as a meat-and-potatoes city. Do you see that mentality in your diners? Did that influence your menu?
BK + JC: When we initially opened up, we knew we needed to have a balanced menu—it wasn’t particularly meat heavy, and if anything, our dishes are a bit lighter than typical restaurant fare because of the Korean influence. It’s been a blessing, but we’ve never had to change our perspective of having a balanced menu because people have been surprisingly open to the options we have. Our menu is somewhat small, and we don’t make any modifications, and we haven’t changed that philosophy since we’ve opened. We have a lot of vegetable-focused dishes, with a lot of seafood as well, and always have some meat options.
For being a Chicago restaurant, we’re surprised that we didn’t have to make our menu a meat-and-potato menu and people are excited when we do new and exciting things. Maybe that’s why people love the bing bread —but they definitely stay for the rest of the menu.
The only thing we’ve noticed is that some of the green garnish that is meant to be eaten together with the dishes gets pushed to the side and left to be thrown away. We wonder if that would happen in San Francisco or LA.
Only a year after opening, it seems like the accolades for Parachute continued to pile on. How did that feel? Did it dramatically change your business?
BK + JC: It was very encouraging to our staff to be recognized for all of our hard work and was a great motivator. We had a very bare-bones team and budget, and the acknowledgment helped our business be able to get to a more sustainable, professional level. On the other hand, expectations are higher now and the pressure is higher to keep progressing. We still are not trying to change who we are, but we have to run this mom-and-pop restaurant at a professional level.
Now entering your third year in business, what are the biggest lessons you’ve learned about running a restaurant?
BK + JC: How important communication is to your staff, and how everyone’s idea of communication is different. How important the details are in everything.
Are you planning any significant changes going into year three?
BK + JC: We’ve started implementing an “off the cuff” menu, which is a set menu of dishes that may be comprised of rare or hard-to-find ingredients, a handful of our favorite dishes from our ever-changing menu. It’s a surprise menu that we put together each day for people willing to let us cook for them. It’s been getting a great response so far, and it’s been fun for us to challenge ourselves more.
Do you have plans at all to open another restaurant?
BK + JC: Maybe! We have some great staff that we would love to see grow more with us.
Priya Krishna is a food writer and the author of Ultimate Dining Hall Hacks. Follow her @PKgourmet.