BEING A TOP CHEF WITH BEVERLY KIM

Unlike most praises tossed haphazardly onto the unmerited, Beverly Kim deserves every accolade: diligent, hard-working, sweet, and modest. In fact, after spending nearly six hours shadowing Beverly’s dinner service, I can vouch for every adjective. I meet her at Kendall College, where she received her Culinary Arts degree in 2000 and where currently serves as Chef Instructor for the Dining Room. Interestingly, Beverly tells me that despite enrolling at Kendall, she actually turned down early admissions to my alma mater Northwestern. Although Beverly’s atypical college experience left her feeling isolated and disheartened, it clearly never extinguished her love for the culinary arts. 

We head to a back room where Beverly’s students are patiently waiting for class announcements and a rundown of today’s service. Setting aside her trunk of chef tools, she whips out an enormous binder neatly filled with prep sheets, recipes, grading criteria, attendance documents, self-evaluations, and requisitions. Beverly tells me that she rarely doles out A’s, which only happens in the rare circumstance of exceptional skill and plain luck. Attendance is also taken seriously—one missed day means an entire letter grade drop. Beverly herself received a B for the same class after she missed a day due to partial face paralysis. She says that her class mimics the rigor of running an actual restaurant, where chefs are often overwhelmed with long hours and grueling physical and mental demands. In fact, Beverly says that many chefs become dehydrated or develop urinary tract infections after holding in their urine for too long in the kitchen. With only 2.5 hours of daily prep time (not normal in most kitchens), the students have 3 measly days to open a full-concept restaurant that runs for five weeks. In fact, the class only sits down for 20 minutes before heading off to the kitchen.

My first time touring the back of a kitchen was as fantastic as I’d imagined it to be. Stainless steel stations, a giant walk-in fridge, and bunches of little trays and plastic bins filled me with an unnecessary level of excitement. At Kendall, preferred vendors such as Testa Produce provide common ingredients while local farmers offer artisanal vegetables and animal products. Because Beverly’s menu is an Asian-inspired twist on modern American cuisine, she makes occasional trips to Joong Boo Market for the more eclectic ingredients (e.g. wood ear, miso paste). One of her students, also Korean, says, “Before this [class], I stayed away from Korean food because I didn’t know how to incorporate it. But after taking it, I could see how proud [Beverly] was of our country, and I was like why am I hiding?” She says that although Beverly’s sauces take “forever” to make because they’re so intricate (“not just soy sauce”), they always taste fantastic. Blake Williams, the TA, says, “She’s a workhorse. She’s a machine. She cares more about her students than other teacher I’ve worked with here.” He adds that prior to Beverly’s class, his only experience with Asian cuisine was a 10-week “Cuisines of Asian” class, where he ended the course in Australia.

It’s clear that Beverly nurtures and loves her students. A gentle matriarch, she walks about the kitchen, offering thoughtful advice on composing a dish or flavoring a sauce. Slice the red bok choy here, add a bit of mirin there. She tells me that the average Kendall grad will make $9/hour out of college, and that 7 out of 10 of the lowest paying jobs are in the restaurant industry. Clearly, money isn’t a motivating factor for Beverly’s students, or anyone for that matter. Because if it isn’t clear by now, let me reiterate: restaurant business is tough shit. In fact, Beverly is currently hashing out the details for her new restaurant after Bonsoiree closed. She says, “It was just me and my husband and two other cooks doing the whole restaurant. Plus I have a son that we both had to watch on top of that. It was just been a domino effect of failure.” Scheduled to open sometime in late fall, Beverly hopes her new American-Korean restaurant will be near the Grand or Milwaukee corridor, or perhaps in Ukrainian Village.

Before service begins, the students present their dishes for Beverly to taste and critique. I join in on the tasting, savoring a multitude of dishes including lamb loin, halibut, duck, salmon tartare, and crab. I even try sweetbreads for the first time (which tasted like fried chicken nuggets) and Beverly’s homemade kimchi. She gave me a “good piece,” one that carried just a hint of fermented fizz. I ask Beverly if all her dishes are Korean-inspired. She says that the “good thing about Korean food is that you never get bored. That’s the way I like to think about food—to keep you stimulated. I’m more interested in satisfying your mind than just satisfying your stomach.” She also adds, “I’m always careful not to call my food Asian food or Korean food because it’s American food. We’re part of the American society. I mean, we’re a minority, but I’m an American citizen with American ideals and faith.”

But as viewers of Top Chef understand, it’s never that simple. The prevalence of “culinary racism” (coined by Beverly’s sister, a former news anchor) during her season sparked such a controversy that 80% of her email filled with support from indignant viewers. She says, “Every challenge is an opportunity to grow. Being a leader in my field gives me an opportunity to speak out and represent. Asian food is as important, as relevant as European food, as Moroccan food, as any other culture. And whether you’re an Asian cooking food or non-Asian cooking food, it really doesn’t matter.” However, Beverly adds that media sensationalism also fueled the drama—“the contestants weren’t being malicious, but the producers added it in there to create talk.”

Beverly’s reactions prove far more forgiving than mine. If someone criticized my regular consumption of Asian food, I’d reach for the closest weapon in range. She says, “We all say things and don’t realize it could hurt someone. No one is being malicious on purpose,” adding that the culinary industry often labels Asian cuisine as inferior, less refined, or overly exotic/foreign. Even the media gets away with derogatory remarks, except for maybe poor Heather. But overall, Top Chef was a positive experience. “The [judges] were actually all very fair. They all expressed that they loved the soulness of my cooking, and they wanted to see more of that coming from me.” I ask her why some chefs like Richard Blais and Fabio Viviani have evolved into food celebrities (or sell-outs?) while others remain more low-key. “It has a lot to do with personality. There are a lot of talented people who went on Top Chef who don’t really want to be on camera. I, for one, don’t want to ride off of it. I want to use it more as a launching pad, like a tool in my knife kit. Foremost, I want to be known for me.” She adds that she respects chefs who strive for “from-the-heart, soulful cooking” instead of Michelin stars.

Not to say that Top Chef is a bad gig. Stephanie Izard began with Top Chef but has since launched an enormously successful career away from the brand. The show offers free marketing and replays on TV sets across the world. And contestants often form invaluable connections and friendships. Beverly says that she’s extremely close with Grayson Schmitz—“She’s not even big on Asian food. Her style and my style are totally different, but as people, our personalities get along really well.” However, the competition isn’t for the faint of heart—Beverly suggests at least 10 years of solid experience before trying out. Just for shits and grins, I ask her who her favorite judge was. “I liked Padma only because she was rooting for me,” she replies, laughing (though in reality, Beverly admires much more than that). “And Tom. He’s the most fair; he had the most knowledge.”

I ask Beverly how the restaurant industry is changing for women. She replies that although evolving social norms have enabled female chefs to achieve greater success, they still face sexual harassment in the kitchen, and many still favor pastry over savory. “It’s been so long a man’s world, but it’s a hard field for anyone in general. Being a minority or female is not a crutch for failure. As long as you have a tough work ethic, you can succeed.”

Despite an intrinsic tenacity, Beverly’s strong feminist spirit partially stems from her experience with domestic abuse, a topic of particular importance to me. “Because I had a difficult upbringing and was the last of four daughters, I had some issues with confidence and self-esteem. I didn’t have good model of what men were like.” She says that her ex-boyfriend “sort of pushed his way into my life, so I thought I loved him.” Family objections to his ethnicity and religion fueled a rebellious desire to prove them wrong. Although Beverly admired his intellect and food-related interests, their relationship was wrought with physical and psychological abuse. At the time, she was working 15 hours at Charlie Trotters and sharing an apartment with him. After coming home exhausted from work, “he would torture me when he was drunk but not remember in the morning.” He also “chased” her around the apartment, pressured her with serious emotional threats, and insulted her family and culture. “It was just abuse on all levels, but the next day he would always say I’m sorry. And of course, I’d believed that he would change. I tend to be very forgiving to people to the point where I suffer instead of standing up for myself.” Counseling and attempts at moving out proved fruitless. After she finally left with the help of a mutual friend, “I vowed to myself I would never be in that situation again.” I ask Beverly why women, particularly those from minority groups, suffer so greatly from domestic violence. “I think a lot of women are embarrassed. And it’s in our culture to suck it up,” she replies. And what does her family think? “We’re all at peace with things that happened in the past. After you give it 10 years, there’s a lot of harmony that happens and resolutions that come about when you come head to head with your parents and tell them how you really feel.”

And Beverly’s come a long way since—with humility, optimism, and happiness fully intact. Religion and family are the grounding forces, the glues that bind her world together. Beverly describes her mother as the average Tiger mom who makes unbeatable Korean food. “[My mom] has a delicate palette, so she’s more critical of my cooking,” she says. Her dad, on the other hand, is easy to please with a nice juicy steak. Her husband (they fell in love through a mutual appreciation of Korean food) and son are the two other solid rocks in her life. “I also love spending time with my son. It’s so simple and so wholesome. I love going to the playground and playing with him. That’s all I really need.” Beverly also describes herself as spiritual, not surprising given that Korean Americans are among the most religiously observant people in America. What about Beverly’s other passions? Playing piano (she grew up playing classical piano—i.e. an Asian mandate), reading cookbooks, watching good films, and eating out. Her favorite restaurant is Lula’s Café, which specializes in both innovative global cuisine and traditional comfort dishes. “Lula’s Café is what I think modern restaurant should be: a neighborhood, restorative restaurant. Restaurant means to ‘restore’.” Finally, I ask her about the craziest food she’s ever eaten. “A chicken’s ass sphincter, soaked and grilled with spicy sauces. It’s actually really good,” she replies, laughing.

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As Beverly expedites away, the kitchen resembles an orchestra as students fire their dishes and yell out their times to the chef. They also constantly update each another in order to properly sync the dishes. Some orders are misheard while others return for replating, but given the small crowd tonight, the service runs smoothly. Beverly insists that I sit outside in the Dining Room to experience a full service. But I opt to remain in the kitchen next to a student kneading homemade soba dough—just two students, both in the process of learning. Beverly kindly asks the waiters to set up an eating station for me (complete with ice water, white wine, and sourdough bread) as she fires a few selections off her menu. For every dish, she walks to the back kitchen to serve me personally, pouring broth over my wonton or rearranging a final garnish. And of course, never forgetting a smile and “Enjoy!”

If you’re wondering who Beverly Kim is, I can tell you that Top Chef Beverly is a half-ass version of the real Beverly, blanched and diluted in a bleach of media sensationalism. I can also tell you that my blog’s version is an equally condensed version of a much more complex individual. In fact, Beverly’s kindness, passion, and thoughtfulness is downright striking, fiercely inspiring, and even somewhat intriguing. In fact, I still can’t quite grasp it. All I know is that after the interview, as I ran to my car in the pouring rain, Beverly inspired me to do the strangest (and rare) thing. As I hustled into the car soaked in my jeans and jacket, I whipped out my phone to dial a familiar number. When my mom finally picked up, I told her that I loved her.