Host Chef Beverly Kim Clark of Aria at Fairmont Chicago, Millennium Park

Host Chef Beverly Kim Clark of Aria at Fairmont Chicago, Millennium Park
April 2011

Chef Beverly Kim Clark grew up in the kitchen, preparing home-cooked Korean food alongside her mother and making birthday cakes as gifts for friends. At 16, her older sister recommended a career in the culinary arts as a natural fit for this be-floured, would-be chef, and Kim Clark never looked back. In high school she took a summer job at the Ritz-Carlton Chicago Dining Room under famed Chicago Chef Sarah Stegner. As her mentor, Stegner encouraged Kim Clark to pursue a culinary degree at nearby Kendall College.

Kim Clark graduated from Kendall College and worked the line at the Ritz-Carlton Chicago before taking her turn at Charlie Trotter’s. Meanwhile, frequent trips to Korea allowed Kim-Clark to survey a number of courses on Asian cuisine in Seoul. Kim Clark met another mentor at Chicago’s Red Light: Chef Jackie Shen, who instructed her in discipline and running a kitchen. Kim Clark further expanded her pan-Asian repertoire with stages at Chicago’s Opera and Takashi.

A growing family inspired a move to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Kim Clark lent her expertise to Whole Foods, as a supervisor and then as a chef consultant at Lucky John Market. Ready to return to the kitchen, Kim Clark returned to Chicago, where she currently brings her accumulated culinary talent en force as chef de cuisine at Aria at Fairmont Chicago, Millennium Park. Apart from her duties in the kitchen at Aria, the seemingly tireless Kim Clark helps run Aria Bar and Sushi, as well as the Eno Wine Room, alongside Fairmont Chicago, Millennium Park Chef Brad Parsons.

Host Chef Beverly Kim Clark of Aria at Fairmont Chicago, Millennium Park

Jessica Dukes: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?

Beverly Kim-Clark: I always had a knack for serving people through food. My mother is from Korea, so I always had home-cooked Korean food and I was always helping her set the table; like I said, I always had a good knack for it. I made birthday cakes for my friends. When I was 16, I was thinking about what I should do as a career. My sister pointed out that I'm always in the kitchen. That was back in ‘95, ’96. Sarah Stegner was at the dining room at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in the summer of my junior year. I fell in love with the colors and the smells and working with my hands. It was a gourmet kitchen, different than the home kitchen. And I picked up on the excitement. I wanted to pursue something that was a fulfillment and a passion.

JD: You had a little hiatus between restaurants. What was that like?

BKC: When I got pregnant I was working at Takashi as an educational stage. So I transferred to Whole Foods at six months [pregnant]. After being away from a restaurant for a year and a half or two years—my son is fourteen months now—I was offered a job here at Aria. I definitely had the itch to get back.

JD: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?

BKC: Get your hands dirty. Stage, shadow, work in the industry. It’s not as glamorous as media or TV shows it. It’s just as challenging as any other job. Get the realistic aspect of it and see if that’s really what you want to do.

JD: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with or without a culinary background?

BKC: I do recommend going to culinary school. I went right after high school. When it comes to culinary school, it’s not a traditional college; it may be advantageous to have real life experience before going to culinary school. But if you are interested in becoming like a top chef or an executive chef, it’s almost a requirement to have that on your resume now.

JD: What is your philosophy on food and dining?

BKC: I think food is medicine for your body. Physically and emotionally, it’s probably one of the highest art ideals, because it encompasses all of your senses. It’s what everyone needs in order to survive. There’s a difference between dining and eating. When we’re dining, we're feeding our social and metaphysical hunger.

JD: Who are your mentors?

BKC: Chef Sarah Stegner, still today. Not only because she was the first woman chef I knew who really succeeded; she’s taught me so much about excellence, about always trying to be better and improve myself. She was very hard on me: “What can you do to make tomorrow a better day?” and “You brought down service tonight!” The great Paul Wildermuth [who passed away in November, 2010] helped me to bring presence. I learned from him how to be spontaneous, to put on that confidence when walking into a kitchen. Just to have that confidence is so important as a leader. And Jackie Shen from Red Light taught me about discipline, about how to run a restaurant.

JD: What goes into creating a dish?

BKC: When I think of creating a dish, inspiration is definitely the first word that comes to mind, like highlighting a seasonal ingredient. ‘What story am I going to tell through this dish?’ I like the flavors to be very playful; it should have lots of textures and colors, but it should also make sense. It should come together in your mouth. The flavor is the first thing, but presentation is also important. You have to evoke interest through the eyes.

JD: How are you involved in your local culinary community?

BKC: I just moved back from Cincinnati. As I am changing the menu, that is one of my goals—to be more involved in the culinary community here. That is very important to me. I’m still getting my feet wet.

JD: Where do you see yourself in five years?

BKC: In five years, I hope that you see me as the Best Chef of the Midwest—a James Beard Award—I would love that. I would like to see myself a lot more involved in the community, to get to that point, to that successful point, to give back to the community, either through charities or through [working directly with] children. I actually did a volunteer night at Common Threads and it was really awesome. I thought that was one of the coolest things.

JD: If you weren’t a chef, what do you think you’d be doing?

BKC: That’s a question I wish that I could answer. I really don't know! When I was in culinary school, I took six months off to go to community college and that didn't work out. This is a very hard field to pursue, but its also very rewarding. This is definitely my passion.