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How Chef Beverly Kim Became an Advocate for Working Mothers in the Restaurant Industry

A candid conversation with the award-winning chef.

Chef Beverly Kim at her restaurant Wherewithall in the Avondale neighborhood of Chicago. Thursday, April 29, 2021. Kristan Lieb

As the pandemic wore on last year, it became increasingly clear that women were bearing a disproportionate burden of the economic fallout. Even into 2021, women’s workforce participation has still not recovered to its February 2020 levels, with that rate falling to its lowest level in 33 years. And 400,000 more women than men have left the workforce since the start of the pandemic.

“You have to look into why and it was because of the lack of childcare support systems,” says Beverly Kim, the co-chef and owner of a pair of Chicago restaurants: the Michelin-starred Parachute and tasting menu-driven Wherewithall. As schools and daycares closed for the pandemic, many women had to step away from their careers to become caregivers. Kim, a mother of three herself, was acutely aware of the struggles of fellow women in the restaurant industry; the hardship of early parenthood back when she was a cook on the rise stuck with her, too. Now, the pandemic was only making those problems she experienced worse for working mothers, and she wanted to find a way to ease their burden not just now, but for generations to come.

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So earlier this year, Kim, along with husband and co-chef Johnny Clark and Kim’s longtime mentor Sarah Stegner, founded The Abundance Setting. The nonprofit has a mission to help working mothers advance in the restaurant industry. The Abundance Setting connects young female chefs to mentors who provide guidance. The mentees also receive three ready-to-heat meals a week for three months, taking the burden off cooking every night and allowing them more free time with their families.

We sat down with Kim to discuss the organization and her own experiences. In opening up, she hopes that being candid about her experience as a working mother in the restaurant industry will encourage others in joining her to make it a more welcoming place for women and parents.

Why is it important for diners to know about the issues that The Abundance Setting is addressing?

The story needs to go out to like the general public; people need to care and understand. There’s a little bit of a callousness, like these restaurant employees are sort of like out of sight, out of mind. People think, “they live a subhuman kind of lifestyle and that’s okay because I don’t see it and so why should I pay more for food?” This needs to resonate with everyone in order for bigger things to happen. We can always tell each other what we need to do better as a restaurant industry, but it’s more than just that. I think it’s understanding—society needs to support us, understand and empathize.

Our culture is not groomed to care about these issues around everybody’s welfare, so the people who already have power and privilege will get ahead and they tell us to just work harder and you’ll get here too. I’m really privileged and lucky to be where I am. To own my own businesses, I had to make a lot of sacrifices to get here. But I empathize with people who don’t have resources around them.

The pandemic laid bare a lot of inequities in the restaurant industry. When did you first start to want to tackle these problems facing women and mothers?

Even before the pandemic happened, this was an issue that was brought up during the Me Too Movement, because a bunch of us women got together—women from all different ages and restaurant industry leaders—and one of my takeaways from it was that we really need to address how hard it is to have a family in this industry, especially for moms. There is a systemic issue as to why women select themselves out of this industry and therefore you don’t see the women in leadership. And the problem is interrelated.

A lack of women at the top of the industry perpetuates the problems?

Because you don’t have the women in leadership, the problems women feel in this industry are so much more compounded. We experience the problems that women in any profession do—you try so hard to climb that ladder and there’s a glass ceiling—but compound that with the fact that as chefs we work nights and weekends and at lower wages.

This is not a problem to blame on men or to blame anybody. It’s something we need to look at as a community and society as a whole. If we can figure out how to send a man to the moon, let’s put our minds together to create systems that promote more women so they can climb the ladder.

Is there something about restaurant and kitchen culture that exacerbates these problems?

The culture itself is very misogynistic—like, when a chef says, “Come on, sluts. Come on, hoes.” Seriously. There’s so much of these microaggressions embedded in our culture that you don’t even think twice about it when it happens. But at some point, you wonder why it is like this. Well, if you only have 6 percent women at the leadership position at the top of independent restaurants, as chefs, you are going to have a male locker room talk kind of environment.

Why do you think that is?

This is an industry where you go straight from like high school and you work your way up, and it’s not necessarily anyone’s fault, but we didn’t develop; we didn’t gain the understanding, empathy and insight we needed. So when you’re left with leadership that doesn’t have that kind of training—and it’s a majority of men in power—it’s going to create those kinds of environments that are very hostile for women to climb that ladder.

So even just being a woman in the restaurant industry, it is difficult to get to a leadership position, and then you compound that with deciding to have a family, because you get to that age where you’re like, “Okay, it’s either I do it or I don’t, because my biological clock is ticking.”

How did you decide to start your family?

I decided to go with it, even though financially I didn’t know how I was going to make it work; I just had to figure it out on my own. I felt very alone. I felt like there was so much hurt involved. And I felt a lack of support and even microaggressions toward the fact that I chose to have a kid.

The onus had to fall on me to advocate for myself, and we need to step back and say that the onus for family planning and parenting doesn’t fall on just a mom and a woman. We need to look at this as a society and the impact on children and the impact on women in the workforce. We need to create an environment that supports having a child and being a woman. Because we have different unique issues–not just being a parent, but what carrying the baby physically does to your body before and after pregnancy and also bonding with the child right after birth. And we need to think about childcare thereafter.

I have a three-year-old son and my wife and I have had conversations about how American society isn’t really set up to support families. We feel like we’re stuck with institutions that took shape at a time when there was an assumption that women stayed home.

You’re a parent so you already understand how hard it is and how very little time you have to yourself, right? It’s one thing if you are an owner—I feel the experience between my first child and my second child was very different because I decided to have my second child after I’d opened Parachute. After four years of being in business I felt more comfortable; I felt I had the luxury to work on my own terms. I was still working from literally the fourth day I had my kid—doing meetings and things like that—but when I was working for somebody, I was very afraid to lose my job, and I was very afraid to say anything. I couldn’t advocate for myself. I just pushed through it somehow. Most people would give up, because it would make more sense financially to just stop. And then emotionally and mentally, and physically, you just have such a hard time in this industry.

When you had your first child, what was that experience like trying to work in the industry at the same time?

The government helped subsidize us, because we made less than $31,000 for a family of three—10 years ago we made less than $31,000 together both working full-time. And so I was able to get my health care free. But let’s talk about the health care. When I went to the doctor, there’s no toilet paper or hand soap in his office, which I thought was very strange for a medical place not to have. I thought it was a fluke, but every time I went there was no toilet paper—you had to bring your own. That’s how bottom budget it was, but you know I got eczema lotion for free, I got my allergy medication for free. It was very sterile, very clinical and I had to wait for a couple hours until it was my turn but it got the job done. And I didn’t have to pay out of my pocket, so that was amazing. But I was too “rich” to get food stamps making $31,000.

What was it like working while pregnant?

I worked a hot line [in a restaurant kitchen she wished not to name] and transferred out at six months because nobody was having this conversation with me to ask, “Are you having a hard time on the hot line with the heat?” I mean, it was like 130 degrees in the kitchen. And I had to climb a lot of stairs and it was very slippery, so at times I was scared I was going to fall with all the stuff I was carrying. So I made this decision to leave, thinking that Whole Foods might be a better transition.

Was that better?

It was still like, “Don’t say that you’re pregnant.” There was a culture where I was afraid to mention I was pregnant, so I just operated like I wasn’t until my bump was too big and I couldn’t hide it anymore. And I worked 10 days overdue on my feet with my first kid.

How did day care work for you?

I did get into the Head Start program. It afforded me a network of home daycares where you pay like $20 a day for eight or nine hours. And they provide dinner for your child, so it was amazing. And it provided free preschool, even though it was just three hours, which was amazing, because at that time there wasn’t free preschool in Chicago.

And you had to find a daycare while working chef hours.

That daycare opened my eyes because it was also nightcare. I was the last one picking up my child at 10 at night. Through research I found only 7 percent of women in the culinary and hospitality industry actually use any kind of like childcare public assistance like the Head Start program I used. The average woman in culinary spends at least 35 percent of their income on childcare. And being in a top management position requires you to work like 12- to 14-hour days and work at nights and on weekends.

Pheasant, Wherewithall

Pheasant from Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark’s Wherewithall.  Photo: Jeremy Repanich

This is an industry where you’ve got to put in a ton of time to build up your skills, and to make the margins work, your bosses are trying to extract as much as they can out of their labor.

I understand both sides, because I’m an owner as well and I know margins are tight, and the higher end you go with your restaurant the more hands you need. But at what cost? I grew up in that culture where the more hours you put in the more valuable you were. It’s almost like the military and hazing where the more you could say you’ve been through battle, the more respect you got. And in order to survive in this career you had to be hardened to it. It’s a cycle.

Looking back at that experience, what do you think about it now?

It feels like we’re fighting a battle, but what battle are we fighting? I’m just recently unpacking it and I think a lot of our industry people are just unpacking it now—the pandemic has forced them to do it. For some people it’s just so ingrained it’s not going to change, but some of us are willing to change and willing to listen and willing to open our minds and think about the future. A lot of us feel like the status quo was not right—the inequities that we saw and how it was operated were not right. Maybe there’s a percentage of people who feel like the status quo was just fine and they’re going to advocate for that because they are probably in positions of power and feel okay. But when you’re on the other side of the story, you have to ask, “Is this the kind of industry I want my child to grow up in?” I ask myself all the time, what are we teaching and how are we progressing this to be more professional? This needs to be a professional career and we should be treated as professionals,

Unfortunately, the restaurant industry doesn’t have the funds like Google, which can have a snack room, fitness programs and daycare centers. In the restaurant industry we’re all struggling on our own. So what we need to do is collaborate on how to sell this issue together instead of competing against each other ,or else we’re not going accomplish the bigger goals. What are the basic morals that everyone has should have access to, you know, what are the basic tenets that we should provide? That question needs to be led by a lot of women and mothers. In this industry we need to help lead that discussion and step up.

I’ve heard sentiments like, “This is a tough time for the industry, we need to get back on our feet before we can address these bigger issues.” What do you say to people who don’t think this is the time?

This is the best opportunity. This is now. Why wait? Why procrastinate what you can do it now? If we think that we’re going to make it better later, then it’s never going to get better. It’s never–it’s just going to get worse.

Once we get back to life as usual my fear is that we go back to being comfortable with being mediocre and mediocrity takes over again. We’re in a moment of time where people are sensitive to inequality and inequity. It’s never going to happen like this again. It’s a very monumental time. And I just want to like be part of that movement for positive change that can affect our generation and generations of children in our future. What story do we want to write? Do you want to write that after all this we went back to the same old story or did we help rewrite that story?


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