There was a time in John Clark’s life when sleep felt like a luxury. The Crenshaw native grew up quickly, working to support his family as one of five children living in South LA. Even in those sleepless years, Clark would dream.
“I visualized this when I was a kid,” says Clark while turning out chicken wings from a small fryer, coating them in a deep-red hot sauce he made himself, and packing them in stackable black Styrofoam containers labeled “Two Wings Chicken” on top. “I didn’t know how it was going to happen. I knew that I wanted to do my own thing, but I had to learn from the best, to take that knowledge and experience and apply it for myself. But I always knew that I’d be cooking out of this kitchen, I just didn’t know how or why.”
Clark has run the takeout and delivery-only Two Wings Chicken since February of this year, slinging wings on delivery apps and Instagram. It’s a menu that’s meant to scale, with sauces like Hennessy barbecue and roasted garlic parmesan available in orders as small as six wings and as large as 100. They’re crispy, saucy, and tangy, blending familiar flavors like Buffalo with options like a dark, sweet Asian glaze dusted with sesame seeds and scallions. They’re a worthy vehicle for Clark’s own culinary story: His food is comforting and familiar anywhere, but with the backbone of someone who spent time in some of LA’s biggest kitchens.
And while those kitchens served everyone from hip LA diners on Fairfax to the tony business-class travelers on Delta Airlines, his journey as a budding restaurateur and entrepreneur started in the small but mighty kitchen of his family’s church. Sunrise Missionary Baptist sits just three miles south of Downtown LA, a two-story building tucked into a residential neighborhood that looks fairly unremarkable save for the faded orange sign that hangs high on one corner. Inside, Clark’s kitchen has a small commercial oven, mobile fryers, and some tables set up for prep and packaging. The ground floor of the two-story building is really just this room and the one next door, where services are held on Sundays.
Clark dreamed about this place because he knows this place. He grew up here, in the shadow of his grandmother who oversees the small congregation now made up almost entirely of his family. “My uncle is the pastor, my brother plays the keys, my cousin plays the drums,” says Clark. “My niece and nephew sing in the choir, and I cook.” The menus were simple, mostly soul food, but made with heart and with family in mind. “My grandmother made sure we were here every Sunday.”
Before Sunrise Missionary, Clark followed his sister into Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Pasadena, where he worked in the receiving department most mornings. Shifts began at 4 a.m. sharp, followed by midday classes and a return to his actual job at a nearby McDonald’s. “We were homeless at one point,” says Clark, “so I started working at McDonald’s [as a teenager] to make some money. That really molded me. I worked there for six years, man. They made me a manager by the time I was 17 years old.” When a culinary school friend told Clark about an internship at Son of a Gun, the hotly anticipated 2011 follow-up restaurant from Animal chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, he jumped at the chance. It meant less sleep, and it was unpaid, but Clark figured he would make it work.
“My grandmother told me to go work at Red Lobster, because Son of a Gun couldn’t pay me,” says Clark, chuckling. “But they taught me about stuff I didn’t know. It was an amazing experience.”
For years, Clark bounced around inside the Shook and Dotolo restaurant ecosystem. He worked for free at Son of Gun, then left to work the line at an independent restaurant that closed not long after he arrived. The overall experience — long hours, difficult work encounters — was a scarring one, and pushed Clark out of the industry for a time. But when Shook called out of the blue to ask him to join the opening team of Italian-American restaurant Jon & Vinny’s on Fairfax in 2015, Clark, who was working as a security guard at the Museum of Tolerance, accepted. Even while working as a line cook under chef de cuisine Courtney Storer, Clark says that he would take on extra catering jobs, always making sure to do more, to sleep less, while still showing up on Sundays at church to be with family.
Eventually, Clark shifted over to Carmelized Productions, Jon & Vinny’s multimillion-dollar catering arm, full time, leading the kitchen through massive expansion and branded deals with Delta Airlines to prepare upscale meals for business-class flyers. The hours remained long, but Clark says that he felt compelled to work so hard in part because it meant that he could hire (and pay) people in his community for catering gigs, bringing up those who may not have been able to carve out the same path from unpaid intern to chef de cuisine.
“Being in Inglewood,” Clark says of his time at Carmelized Productions, “I hired people like me. People who come from where I come from. Jon allowed me to hire friends, people from church. It inspired me to want to continue to do that, but have me signing the checks.”
In August 2019, Clark left Carmelized with a plan to open a private chef and catering company of his own, while also branching out into kitchen merchandise like aprons, all under the banner of his company Yes Chef. It was an ambitious plan, and meant moving out from under the umbrella of a formal restaurant environment, but Clark held true to his vision. Learn from the best and then go do it for yourself — and be sure to help others along the way. “I bet on black,” says Clark of his decision to leave Carmelized Productions.
At first, Clark put his efforts into home meal prep for people with little time and lots of disposable income, while iterating aprons and other apparel at night. He would also do soul food pop-ups and takeout on weekends when he could. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, his catering, meal prep, and clothing ideas dropped to the backburner. Quietly, Clark returned to his community, and to Sunrise Missionary Baptist Church. The dream got smaller — just a corner in a family church, for now — but it never went away.
Clark sees continued promise in the vision of Two Wings, and has started lining up collaborations, pop-up locations, and — though still in the works — a national tour. If all goes well, Clark dreams of a restaurant or two to call his own, and the opportunity to continue to hire within his community. For now, it’s mostly just him and a cousin cooking wings at the church kitchen. Fridays and Saturdays are the busiest times, but he predicts big things once football season returns this fall. Most of Two Wings’ customers have either stumbled onto the brand by way of a delivery app (and thus have no idea that it’s mostly just Clark, cooking out of a church), or they’re his family members and friends. “My sister has four kids, and she orders Two Wings twice a week,” says Clark. “She’s literally helping to keep the lights on.”
As he looks to grow the scale of Two Wings, Clark realizes that his original vision, cooking in the church kitchen, can’t last forever. “I’ve got all these ideas that I can’t do here because of this space,” says Clark. “I want a Two Wings restaurant where we’re doing sliders, chicken sandwiches, wraps, showing baseball games on TV. I mean, Wingstop did $2 billion in revenue last year. Wings are here. And these are the best wings you’re going to get.”
Clark isn’t worried about catching up on sleep just yet. “A lot of people suggest things to me,” he says. “Do this, do that next. Man, in due time. The food speaks for itself. I know it’ll happen, it’s just a matter of time.”
Two Wings Chicken is open Thursday through Sunday, noon to 9 p.m., and can be found on Instagram, DoorDash, Grubhub, and Postmates. He begins a residency inside the otherwise closed Animal kitchen on Fairfax this month.