Lessons from a 'Top Chef'
Beverly Kim back at alma mater to teach
Guest instructor: King salmon tartare with black radishes and heirloom potato chips made by students. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)
Kim wore a neckerchief and a tall chef's hat, attire not seen since French restaurants in the '80s, and hollered lingo only line cooks understood: "Pick up three amuse!"
Since January and until mid-June, this kitchen is where Kim spends her Tuesday through Saturday nights. The menu is hers; the restaurant isn't. It's CUL-249 at Kendall College's School of Culinary Arts, a course titled fine dining restaurant. It's an unplanned but welcome surprise, Kim said, as she never thought she'd teach undergraduates at a cooking school in 2013, especially for a chef who was supposed to springboard from a TV show to operating her own restaurant (see: Izard, Stephanie).
"You can't always depend on a show," Kim said.
Like the majority of "Top Chef" contestants, her post-reality competition trajectory followed a familiar path: A burst of fame, then receding to an unglamorous, slightly less-anonymous existence, where fame and investors are fleeting. They are chefs and pop cultural footnotes.
On Season 9 of Bravo's "Top Chef," Kim was portrayed — perhaps victimized — as the scrappy but emotional contestant on the bullying end of more strong-willed cooks. As the storyline suggested, Kim's doggedness helped her fight and claw to a top-four finish out of 30 contestants.
Whether the drama was genuine or the show edited to fit a narrative, Kim said she emerged from "Top Chef" with "post-traumatic stress disorder." Kim said she accepted this in exchange for possible career advancement, and for a while it worked: Kim was getting more diners than ever at Aria, the Fairmont Chicago hotel restaurant where she was executive chef.
In August she took over the then-Michelin starred Bonsoiree to tackle an ambitious tasting menu, where the only way to secure a reservation was by online ticketing. But by October, Bonsoiree was shut down. Of the many factors that forced its closure, she said the most glaring was that a three-hour, 12-course, Korean-inflected restaurant model wasn't sustainable in Logan Square, not even for two months.
Kim and her chef-husband John Clark were out of a job, and the dream collaboration they punted in favor of Bonsoiree was once again priority one. The search for an investor, she said, became a full-time job again.
Around December, Chris Koetke, vice president of Kendall College's School of Culinary Arts, reached out to Kim, who graduated from Kendall in 2000. Kim was a student in the first cooking class Koetke taught. (Disclosure: Koetke contributes a monthly chef Q-and-A column to the Tribune's Dining section.) There was a vacancy for an instructor at The Dining Room, the student-run restaurant at Kendall, and Koetke asked if Kim was interested as a guest stint during the winter quarter.
"It's one of the hardest classes at our school," Koetke said of CUL-249. "It's real people paying money. Our dining room is a real restaurant, but it's also a classroom. I've seen Beverly work before, and she's good at relaying information with cooks, and she has a certain level of patience. I wasn't calling her because she was in between projects. I wouldn't have called Beverly if I didn't believe she could teach it well."
In essence, the class is a Beverly Kim pop-up restaurant that's opened to the public, with a half-dozen students executing her dishes (the restaurant is also opened during lunch, but only the dinner menu is Kim's).
"What I didn't realize was how gratifying it can be," Kim said. "These students are so eager, soaking up every word you say. You don't always get that running a place where people clock in and clock out."
The lessons she brings, not surprisingly, feature an Asian bent: There's miso mustard sauce on grilled swordfish, fermented black beans in pappardelle, and sweetbreads fried General Tso-style.
This class, in the sixth quarter of a two-year associate's degree track, is advanced enough that students bring their own dish ideas. With Kim's approval, they make it on the menu as specials.
An hour before that Saturday dinner service, one of Kim's students offers a taste of a chicken liver mousse he was working on. He said it contained fish sauce and mirin, the sweet rice wine used in Japanese cooking. It's a safe assumption that a classic French culinary curriculum wouldn't consider involving those ingredients.
"I figure if you're going to add salt," Kim said, "why not use fish sauce instead and teach them about umami?"
A student named Tierra Hope brought a duck "pho" consomme for Kim to taste. Shards of Thai basil and duck confit sat on the plate next to the cup of broth. Kim suggested the basil already be in the consomme when it arrives at the table, and the crispy duck confit on the spoon so diners can simply dump the contents into the cup, rather than scooping it off the plate.
Then Kim took a sip. "I like this idea. I think it needs back-end spice; maybe white pepper?"