Stories / Impact, Awards

Fear Has No Place in This Award Winner's Kitchens

How Ann Kim found success by embracing her individuality

Lenore T. Adkins

September 26, 2019

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Ann Kim photo by Eliesa Johnson
Photo: Eliesa Johnson

The James Beard Foundation is committed to supporting women in the food and beverage industry, from chefs and restaurateurs to entrepreneurs dreaming up new ways to make our food system more diverse, delicious, and sustainable. Our Women’s Leadership Programs (WLP), presented by Audi, provide training at multiple stages of an individual’s career, from pitching your brand to developing a perspective and policy on human resources. As part of the Foundation’s commitment to advancing women in the industry and Audi’s #DriveProgress initiative, we’re sharing stories from female James Beard Award winners and Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Program alumni. Through #DriveProgress, Audi is committed to cultivating and promoting a culture that enables women to achieve their highest potential by removing barriers to equity, inclusivity, growth, and development.

Below, Lenore T. Adkins explores the unconventional evolution of chef Ann Kim from English major to aspiring actress to James Beard Award–winning chef and restaurateur.

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Growing up, James Beard Award–winning chef Ann Kim desperately wanted to assimilate.

In 1977, four-year-old Kim and her parents left Busan, South Korea, settling in Apple Valley, Minnesota where family lived nearby. She remembers going to school and her fellow students teasing her for her aromatic brown-bag lunch—rice, fried fish, kimchi, and sheets of nori.

“I was traumatized. I told my mom, ‘I’m never eating this again,’” Kim remembers. “She said, ‘Well, we’re not going to buy cold cuts.’”

Fast-forward to today, and Kim has come full circle. Her three pizzerias—Pizzeria Lola, Hello Pizza, and Young Joni—put Korean flavors front and center.

“Something I was ashamed [of] and embarrassed about I [now] take pride in,” Kim says. “I want[ed] to assimilate; I [didn’t] want to be different, and the irony is that’s what has defined my success—being different.”

Her path to the kitchen was unorthodox. After graduating from Columbia University with an English degree, Kim worked at a large New York City law firm, and then for a boat company’s lawyer. She eventually found her way back to Minnesota, reinventing herself as an actress with the Children’s Theater Company, while hustling for freelance acting gigs on the side. She found work appearing in commercials and corporate workplace videos.

“I always laugh, because my mom wanted me to be a doctor or lawyer or an engineer,” Kim says. “I never was one professionally, but I [played one] on TV.”

While these jobs helped pay the bills, after eight years she decided to leave acting. She felt she had little agency: her future in showbiz always came down to someone else deciding whether she was tall enough or pretty enough to be cast.

Kim had always loved cooking and taking care of people, so a career in hospitality seemed like a logical next step. She and Conrad Leifur (now her husband) decided the easiest point of entry would be opening a franchise restaurant, with the goal of securing enough money to launch their own eatery.

Opening a franchise felt safe, especially since Kim had never formally trained as a cook nor worked in the restaurant industry. They picked Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches, but after reviewing the franchise agreement, the couple realized that signing meant settling, and giving in to Kim’s fear of opening her own spot.

In that moment, she decided not to let fear influence her decisions: “I basically said, ‘F off, fear,’” she recalls. The couple walked away from Jimmy John’s to do their own thing.

Pizza was the natural fit—not only because Kim loves a good slice, but also because she was drawn to the dish’s communal nature, allowing people to share conversation over pies.

Kim felt she had the hospitality and cooking down pat, thanks to years of informal education from her mother Young Kim and grandmother Sook-Young. But when she got closer to opening Pizzeria Lola in Minneapolis, it became clear that she needed some serious pizza training. A Google search led her to Tony Gemignani’s International School of Pizza in San Francisco, and Kim immediately signed up.

She spent five days learning from Gemignani about American and Sicilian-style pizza, and later returned to assist him and prepare other styles, including Neapolitan, coal-fired, and Detroit.

In 2010, Kim and Leifur opened Pizzeria Lola, a neighborhood restaurant named after the couple’s Weimaraner. Highlights include a Korean barbecue pizza and the Lady Zaza pie—which features her mother’s and grandmother’s kimchi recipe.

The full-service Hello Pizza opened two years later in Edina, Minnesota, with signature dishes like a classic Sicilian pan pizza and a Korean Cowboy sandwich (showcasing housemade Korean sausage, kimchi, and gochujang glaze). And in 2016, the couple launched Young Joni, which combines their popular pizza with a menu of Korean-inspired small plates.

Just three years later, Kim was onstage in Chicago, accepting the 2019 James Beard Award for Best Chef Midwest. That moment was “surreal,” she said. She had never dreamed the Beard Foundation would recognize someone like her—a Korean immigrant woman who started her restaurant career later in life, had zero professional experience in the kitchen, and “merely made pizza.”

The accolades came only a few months after Kim’s restaurant career hit a low point, following a roofline fire at Young Joni. No one was hurt, but the blaze shut the pizzeria down for four days. “We busted our butts to get up and running, make sure that our staff were taken care of, and [guarantee] we could still present a menu that we were proud of,” Kim says. The effort paid off: ever since the Awards, Kim and her husband have seen a 5 to 10 percent hike in sales. The media has also showered her with attention, and she’s been approached about appearing on panels and writing a cookbook.

Meanwhile, Kim and Leifur are planning to open their fourth restaurant in Minnesota this winter. Inspired by a recent trip to Valle de Guadalupe where she ate her first handmade corn tortillas, Kim plans to apply her unique culinary perspective to the Mexican staple. Just don’t expect your typical taqueria fare.

“For me, this restaurant is about creating a really great tortilla and whatever tastes good on it, dipped with it, or on the side of it,” she says.

She hopes the Beard Award shows others there’s no single way to achieve success—and most importantly, that you don’t have to sacrifice your cultural identify to get there: “You can create your own path and your own destiny and if you do it with vision and a clear purpose.”

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Lenore T. Adkins is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Her pieces have appeared in The Washington Post, Eater, DCist, The Afro-American Newspapers, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @lladkins.

The JBF Women’s Leadership Programs are presented by Audi, with visionary support from GrubHub and Edens and sustaining support from Enroot.