Chef Jennifer Kim (they/them) has already accomplished much in their life.
A second-generation Korean American, Kim was born and raised in Chicago. After leaving the University of Illinois at Chicago, Kim enrolled in culinary school at Kendall College. During their studies, they simultaneously started working under David Posey at Blackbird, whom they note had a large influence during the start of their career. Later, they traveled to the south of France to spend a summer at the one-Michelin-starred Le Bistro des Saveurs before returning to Chicago to work at Avec, while also helping open One Off Hospitality's Nico Osteria.
They also have opened two restaurants (Snaggletooth, in 2015; and Passerotto, 2018), garnering numerous plaudits along the way. Now they are the chef de cuisine at the trendy West Loop spot Proxi, helming the kitchen alongside esteemed Executive Chef Andrew Zimmerman.
During a recent talk, Kimwho identifies as non-binarydiscussed their career as well as their gender-identity journey.
Note: This conversation was edited for clarity and length.
Windy City Times: How did your culinary journey start? I read that you were studying to become a pharmacist.
Jennifer Kim: Yes. So I went to the University of Illinois at Chicago's pharmacy program right out of high school. My parents are from Korea and, in that era, there was this idea of what the "American dream" was supposed to beif you come here and work hard, then your children can be born into a better life. From the moment my brother and I were born here, my parents were, like, "One of you is going to be a doctor; one of you is going to work as a lawyer or with computers." So I went to pharmacy school, thinking, "I'm the oldest, so I guess I'll be the doctor."
Then I did a full year and I said, "I don't know about this." [Laughs] I loved the learning but I didn't want to work in a pharmacy. But I ended up here, right?
WCT: And how did your parents react when you told them you were going to be a chef?
JK: I didn't want to work in hospitality until a little bit later in my life. After college, I wondered what people my age were supposed to do if they weren't going to a traditional school. So I started working retail jobs and got into managementand I realized for the first time that I'm truly an adult, so I partied, like anyone my age. [Interviewer laughs.] I needed that; I didn't need to think about career paths at that time.
So retail management provided some business acumenand I was really glad that part of my life happened. Then, it gets weird. I thought about going to school to study food science, but I couldn't really afford it at that time and I had already gone to college for two years. My dad was so worried about me so he kept sending me VHS tapes of infomercials of different jobs, like being a paralegal or technician. Then, he sent me a tape about [the culinary school] Le Cordon Bleu, when it was still here in Chicagoand it looked kinda cool but it was so expensive.
So I started working at a no-name place in a mall to see if I'd be interested in that. I also went to a community college that had a certificate program in the culinary arts. I thought it made sense to me: It had science behind it, it's very disciplined and it's pretty engaging. I eventually went to Kendall and that's when it [clicked].
WCT: Ahalthough part of me is still trying to get past the VHS tape.
JK: [Laughs] I know. It just dates us, doesn't it?
WCT: You eventually opened Snaggletooth.
JK: It was a lot of fun on the outside; it wasn't as much fun on the inside. I was at a point in my career where it was very hard for me to find upward momentum; I was stuck as a line cook for six or seven years because people would keep saying, "You're just not ready yet," although I felt ready.
But I thought if no one was going to create the position for me, I would create it myself. So we were driving through Lake View and happened to see a "For lease" sign on what used to be a tiny Thai restaurant. It was fairly affordable so I thought, "Let's just do it." But running a small business, in general, is all-encompassing and very tiring; you're not just a chef and I was paying myself, like, $1,000 a month.
WCT: Passerotto seemed to represent a turning point for you.
JK: Yes. I learned a lot from running Snaggletooth and took a couple of months to refocus and reflect. At that time I was asking other local chefs how they got started running small businesses. I went to Chef Diana Davila, of Mi Tocaya, and she said a small investor of hers was looking to invest in something elseand that's how the connection was made [with LM Restaurant Group]. Also, at that point in my life, I was starting to see me as my full complex selfall of my identities.
I wanted to serve food that reflects my heritage and culture. It's such an interesting way to look at food and gain knowledge about myself. When I started in cooking, everything was very Western-focusedFrench or Italian food. But what about food from other cultures?
WCT: I read in Eater Chicago that when you decided to dissolve the restaurant, you "remain[ed] pessimistic that operators can ethically run a restaurant under current capitalistic conditions." Do you still feel that way?
JK: Oh, yes. Capitalism involves having to manipulate or harm other people in order to make money. It's such an ingrained part of our daily lives. In a perfect world, I would say no one has to work; you can contribute, whether it's labor, resources or something else. But making money through servitude is just icky.
But what do we do with what we have? Instead of relying on hierarchies to run our workspaces, we can rely on systems of accountability and care. Instead of seeing people as bosses and managers, maybe we can see them as caretakers and stewards of accountability and care. So while I see capitalism as unethical, there are ways we can operate within that system from a more empathetic scope.
WCT: And is that what appealed to you about Proxi?
JK: Yeah. After I had closed Passerotto, I was doing a lot of underground economy stuff, like helping and supporting microeconomies and solo entrepreneurs who were popping up during the pandemic. For a lot of them, it was their first forayand they realized there's a lot more to the food business than cooking and selling it. So I provided free toolkits to help them.
But that was sustainable for me, so I started teaching at Kendall. I did a fine-dining class and I learned so much. I thought I'd never work for anyone againbut a few close friends have worked for Chef Andrew before and I saw [Proxi] was looking for a chef de cuisine. I [was hesitant]; I had wanted to leave the restaurant world. But I spoke with him a lot and looked at their workplace culture, and so many people seemed happy here. They seemed relaxed.
I also liked that it serves food from a non-Eurocentric lens. There's so much out there in the world to see and experience. And I thought I had so much to learn here and I saw that I could learn from everyone here.
WCT: Life is a journey, of course. Could you talk about discovering your true self regarding gender identity?
JK: Oh, yes. When I was younger, I was called a tomboy or lesbianand I thought, "Maybe I am." But I never felt I was either/or, but I thought we had to choose one.
My journey really started with finding the queer community in Chicago, and it's pretty robust and welcoming. This was so eye-opening to me because I was born and raised in the suburbs, where everything is binary. In Chicago, I wasn't stuck in this small framework and I found out you could just live your life.
Also, having opened Passerotto was a great turning point in my career and personal life because I discovered I could explore other parts and complexities of me. And the restaurant was in Andersonville, which is a wonderful neighborhood, and I was working predominantly with queer folks. I was comfortable here and felt I could explore.
There is kind of a collective experience with others, and I liked that I could safely talk with others was amazing. And what else could we do during the pandemic except reflect on ourselves? [Laughs] There's so much discourse around identity and having close friends who are also queer… They said, "Your queerness is your own. You identify how you want to. That's your personal journey." There's no one way to be; you just exist. Identities are important but, in some ways, they're not. But it's important to bring the discourse because my pronouns should be acknowledged; it's been very liberating.
I'm a queer femme of color who works in this industry. If that helps other folkslike students asking questions about safe spaces for queer and trans people to workwe can bring about a system of care for the queer community. We don't want a toxic, old-school, archaic mentality around how we treat people who come and work in kitchens.
WCT: Is there anything you wanted to add?
JK: I just took this job so I'm still getting my baby feet under mebut it's just really exciting about what is to come as well. It's already great here but we're building something togetherthat part is also exciting. Plus, the management team is very diverse; I hadn't worked in a restaurant other than my own that had a broad range of identities and cultures.
Proxi is at 565 W Randolph St. The website is www.proxichicago.com .