How one single mom got ‘out of the frying pan’ and opened top restaurant on her own

by singlemomseeking on June 16, 2008

When I call Gillian Clark, she’s at Colorado Kitchen in Washington D.C., just as her staff is getting ready to open. There’s a lot of bustling, and Gillian pauses on the phone to let an early customer know they’re not open yet.

I’ve just finished Gillian’s book, Out of the Frying Pan: A chef’s memoir of hot kitchens, single motherhood and the family meal and I’m thrilled to feature this go-gettin’ single mom on my blog. Gillian is the perfect example of a single mom who pursued her dreams — to become a successful chef and open her own restaurant — against the odds.

At age 32, following Gillian’s divorce from her alcoholic husband, she not only raised her two young daughters on her own, she left a career in marketing to enroll in culinary school. One of her first jobs was chopping carrots for minimum wage.

At the time, her daughters, Magalee and Sian, were just four and seven years old. Not only was Gillian balancing solo motherhood with cooking school, she was one of the oldest students in class. Her family, as well as strangers, let her know that becoming a chef while raising two children on your own might not be possible. But Gillian tried to block out their criticism.

“In the marketing and advertising industry, I never saw the result of my work,” says Gillian. “Also, the work was really zapping me. “That was really hard to explain to my mother.”

As a chef, Gillian could see her results — as well as how others appreciated her hard work. She describes food as “the most perfect form of love. It could be reliable, comforting, satisfying.”

Like many single parents, she says that she “wanted to prove I had the parenting skills as well as the drive to make them the children every parent wished they’d had. I wanted Magalee to perform a viola solo at every concert, and then get the lead in the school play. And Sian, she had to bring home the biggest magazine-cover pumpkin from the October field trip to the farm.”

“As much as I tried to shake off the criticism from folks who didn’t approve of my attempting to single parent while working as a chef, it did set little voices of guilt off in my head.”

“I remember one person who said she wouldn’t even think about doing this business and having children,” says Gillian. “But she’s not doing this anymore. And I’m still here.”

Moreover, her daughters could come to work with her after school. They did their homework and learned how to cook. “Also, I could duck out during the day and use my culinary talents as a chef. I always participated in school auctions, by offering dinners at the restaurants where I worked.”

The main thread of Gillian’s memoir is comparing the challenges of single motherhood to the brutalities of professional cooking. Whether you’re a single parent or running your own restaurant, “There is no room for faking or pretending.”

When I ask about male role models in her daughters’ lives, Gillians says: “You might lose your family the way you had it. But you can always recreate family.”

One male employee at Colorado Kitchen — whom Gillian describes as a very caring gay man — has become a “surrogate father” for her daughters. “They’ve given Father’s Day gifts. He always drove the girls to performances or took one girl if they had events at the same time.”

When I ask Gillian for an update about her daughters she says that Sian just turned 15 and is taking her high school finals. Magalee, 18, is home this summer from Oberlin College: “She’s blossoming as a chef in college. She just emailed me asking for recipes.”

(Magalee also claims that her East Indian chick pea soup is better than her mom’s because it “is a little more bold.”)

Gillian Clark’s words of advice for single parents?

“It’s really scary when you suddenly realize that everything you built is gone, and you have to start from scratch. But your kids always believe, they know you can do it. They don’t doubt you.”

Your turn: What’s your dream job? What does your fantasy career look like?

As for me, I love what I do. I would simply add a second book contract, a monthly column at Redbook, a movie deal…

Photo of Gillian Clark, with her daughters

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Dr. Leah June 16, 2008 at 12:01 pm

I am so impressed with this single mom’s achievement!

This is from J.K. Rowlings commencement address at Harvard. She’s likely the most financially successful single mom on the planet.

Very inspirational!

By any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless. The fears my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.

Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged.

I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

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Susan June 16, 2008 at 3:31 pm

“As for me, I love what I do. I would simply add a second book contract, a monthly column at Redbook, a movie deal…”

Ok, I’ll make you a deal. I’ll take a first book contract while you get your second, we’ll get monthly columns in competing magazines (but never be competitive with each other), and we can work on the screenplay together. See? Easy dreaming ;)

And kudos to Gillian for realizing her dream!

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singlemomseeking June 16, 2008 at 8:33 pm

Thanks for that amazing quote Dr. Leah!

Susan, we’re on! Would you take a monthly column at Glamour? Ladiess Home Journal? Good Housekeeping?…

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SoloMother June 17, 2008 at 3:17 am

YAY, Gillian! She’s the best. I used to work with her for a crazy Frenchman. I’m so thrilled to see this! I’ve got to get her book.

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Jim Everson June 17, 2008 at 7:19 am

Hey this is very inspiring stuff for single parent dads too! Thanks!

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Shannon June 17, 2008 at 9:02 am

I’d like to eventually write full time and get this childrens book published within the next year. I would also like a column at a magazine, just for the stability. But I’d probably like it to be at something like Scientific American or Discovery. I want to merge my science career and writing together.

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The Exception June 17, 2008 at 9:30 am

Funny how dreams kind of change in addition to remaining the same. Before I had my daughter, I wanted to really make a difference – to work to teach and help people learn to see things differently. (In government but still, people)

Then I got pregnant and had my daughter and took a job that wasn’t in keeping with that dream but… in being an involved and active/supportive parent, I am making a difference, working to help people see things differently, and using creativity in a way that I never expected.
Being an involved mom isn’t my professional dream, but it is my heart’s dream. It isn’t always easy to follow my heart though it is always worth it.

(Now if only I could get paid for it!!)

Her restaurant is actually number 50 on the Washingtonians best restaurants in 2008!

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