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.”
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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