Twelve years ago, Ann Kim had an epiphany. At a crossroads in life, she knew she wanted to open her own restaurant but was terrified of failure. Opening her own restaurant seemed far too daunting so she decided to settle for a franchise. Ann Kim stared at the contract she was about to sign for a Jimmy John’s when the words “F*** fear” came to her at just the right time. She ripped up the contract and dove head-first into what she knew would be a much harder path.
Fast forward eight years and the gorgeous pizza-focused restaurant she painstakingly created called Young Joni won her a prestigious James Beard Award, the ‘Oscars of the restaurant world’. Her food was loud and bold and spicy, and she was learning to play her own game.
A combination of her mother’s name, Young, and her mother-in-law’s name, Joni, Young Joni was Ann Kim’s third restaurant, and she was far from finished growing and transforming. Soon after launching her fourth restaurant called Sooki and Mimi, Ann Kim got a call from Netflix.
It wasn’t a prank call, as she had initially suspected. It was actually Netflix calling to ask if she was interested in sharing her story for their “Chef’s Table” series. The resulting 46-minute feature shot during the pandemic is a raw and honest journey of self-discovery that has an emotional depth that takes you by surprise.
Here is our exclusive interview with the fearless Ann Kim, who at the age of 50, is ready for even more transformation.
Where is your favorite getaway?
Maui is top of mind because I was just there for the third time. There’s something about the feeling I get when I step off the plane, even the smell of the air is different from any other warm destination that I’ve been to. The energy, the tropical flowers, the hospitality that you’re shown when your hotel welcomes you with a floral lei. They call it the aloha spirit.
I’m wound up pretty tight and the minute I get there I’m able relax and not think about much. I love to just stare at the ocean. One thing I’m trying to incorporate more in my life is a sense of relaxation and, as the locals say, hang loose.
My other favorite place is the North Shore of Minnesota on Lake Superior. Four years ago we bought a small place and as soon as I get there, my blood pressure drops. Like Maui, I get to stare at this giant body of water surrounded by the woods and can just be there with myself.
What is your go-to cocktail?
I’m pretty simple when it comes to cocktails. A gin and soda with a twist of lime. For me, that’s the perfect cocktail. It’s simple and refreshing and it’s botanical. A close second is a gin martini that’s shaken aggressively with a twist of lemon and an olive. Super cold with little ice chips.
What do you like to splurge on and what are you most frugal about?
In general I’m pretty frugal because I was raised that way by Korean immigrant parents who are very, very frugal. One great thing about that is you really learn to stretch the dollar. On the flip side, there’s very little that you spend to treat yourself. I’m trying to get a little better at that lately. I guess one thing that I’m splurging on recently is skincare.
The other thing that I splurge on is making our restaurants really beautiful and hospitable. I see my restaurants as an extension of my home and I want to extend a sense of comfort and beauty and make guests feel like they are someplace special, away from that hectic day they might have experienced. That’s where I go over budget.
Sometimes people don’t exactly know why they love a total experience and it’s all about the details. It’s not just about the food but the service, the ambiance, the chair that you’re sitting in, the music that’s playing. Even the soap in the restroom that says I really care about your experience down to the last detail because I value you.
One thing I’m especially frugal about, but I want to get better at, is clothes. I don’t really have an eye for fashion. My wardrobe tends to be denim, black and white. I just turned 50 in November and I want to express myself in more colorful ways. If there are any fashionistas out there who want to dress a chef, please let me know.
What itinerary do you recommend for a newcomer to Minneapolis?
The one thing that I love about this city is our connection to nature. It’s one of the few cities where we have so many natural resources right in our urban center. From the Mississippi River to the chain of lakes, and the hiking and biking trails that are a stone’s throw away from where most people live. That makes our city special. It keeps me sane, especially during the long, cold, gray winter months.
I would encourage people to start the day by walking or biking around a lake or by a river. And then warm up by getting some great pastries and coffee at a place like Black Walnut which is close to my home.
Another thing I love to do is hear live music and my favorite place to do that is at The Dakota. I love jazz and they have so many great local and national acts. I love it because it’s such a small intimate space where you can get drinks and really good food. It used to be one of Prince’s favorite places. He used to just show up unannounced and sit in his private spot. It’s a wonderful venue that’s special to the Twin Cities.
And of course, you’d have to eat at one of my restaurants.
What’s the advice you most often give to people who want to open their own restaurant?
I’d say think again! It’s a hard business but I love the fact that despite the pandemic and how incredibly stressful it was to get through that time, there’s a newfound energy and creativity that’s being fostered right now here in Minneapolis. A lot of young people are trying new things.
One thing that I tell people is to make sure you have a trusted partner who has skills that are very different from your own. I’m a chef, and I can be creative and tell my story through my food but that wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t have my business partner and husband, Conrad, who has a very different skill set. His interest is in math and finance so while he focuses on the business aspect, I can focus on the food and the creative part of it.
It’s a hard profession and it’s not something you can do alone. Find someone you really trust and who has your back, and is not afraid of conflict. There are a lot of difficult conversations in this business.
What has surprised you the most about restaurant customers?
As a chef and restaurateur who had zero experience when we opened our first restaurant over 12 years ago, I was really scared that no one would come. I was afraid that they wouldn’t appreciate the things I was doing that were different from what others were doing. I wanted to push the edge.
I started with a classic menu of Italian American pizza selections but I decided to experiment with things like putting kimchi on a pizza and Korean bbq on a pizza. They were just meant to be specials but when we took them off the menu we started getting angry phone calls and guests asking where that Korean pizza was. They said the specials were the main reason they came back so we put them back on the menu and the Korean bbq pizza has been the number one seller at Young Joni and Pizzeria Lola ever since.
People say the Minnesota palette is limited and joke about it, but my customers were really open to diverse flavors. People need to be exposed to new flavors in order to appreciate them and I was surprised by how much they embraced new flavors. Some people said that the first time they ever had kimchi was on a pizza and they wanted to try more. I’m really proud of that.
How much has your childhood contributed to your success?
A lot. My work ethic comes from watching how hard my parents worked and sacrificed. It’s a common story but for me, it was something that was ingrained in my DNA. The sense of resilience and this idea of never giving up, not complaining about what you can’t do but just pursuing. It made a big impact on my life.
My parents worked multiple jobs when I was growing up so I didn’t see a lot of them. My grandmother raised me and my sister until I was about 10 years old. But what they couldn’t provide for me, by being there or going to my sporting events, I was able to see through their example of hard work.
What surprised you about having your own Netflix special?
The fact that they even asked me to be a part of that was so shocking to me. At first I thought it was a joke.
“Chef’s Table” premiered globally so what surprised me the most was the reach and how many people it impacted and inspired. I honestly had no idea. Within that first week of the show’s launch, I got hundreds and hundreds of emails and direct messages on Instagram not only from the US but from Asia and Europe. My Google Translate got a workout because they messaged me in their own language.
The biggest thing was how many people said that after watching the show, they felt that they were heard and seen and represented for the first time. It was like I was telling their story. It wasn’t just immigrants. It wasn’t just women or people in the restaurant field. Grown white men messaged me saying they watched my show because they love pizza but that the episode turned them into a blubbering mess and they weren’t sure why. That was really interesting to me that there was a universality to the story. I never thought it would impact so many people in that way.
There’s a message there that connects us all as humans. Whether or not you’re a Korean American immigrant, you want to be valued for who you are. We all want to be accepted by our community and our world. I think that’s what my story is about: someone who wanted agency in her life to do something that spoke to her, and that’s what resonated.
Your restaurants are incredibly well run. What is your philosophy about leadership and management?
My husband and I bootstrapped our first restaurant with no investors and we didn’t even know if we were going to make it past year one. But one of the things that was really important to us was building a strong culture. Neither of us had any experience in the restaurant field but it was important for us to lead with our hearts, our guts, and our values. We wanted to build a culture of respect and integrity in an honorable profession that people could see themselves in for a long time.
It used to be me at the restaurant at 6 am making the dough, doing the dishes, taking out the grease trap as well as making all the decisions, and then being the last person to leave. But we knew that in order to grow we needed to build a culture of collaboration and shared leadership. We really believe in empowering our leaders to make decisions but it takes time. You don’t just throw empowerment at people. We have almost 200 employees now and we provide tools and resources so that they can do their best work and get to that place where they can be empowered leaders.
It’s about building trust and one way we did that was by changing some things that we saw were broken in this industry. Maybe because we were inexperienced we were able to do things that we thought were right like providing health insurance for all our full-time employees, a 401k plan with company match, paid time off, and leadership coaching. In the corporate world, those are normal benefits but in the restaurant world, it’s more rare and it’s made a big difference for us.
How did you learn to stop doing everything yourself?
It was hard to give up control but the idea of giving up control is rooted in fear. Perfectionism is a different way of saying that you’re scared. For me, that was one of the hardest things that I had to learn in order to find freedom. As long as I couldn’t let go of that sense of control I couldn’t really start to grow and make a difference.
It’s still something I’m working on. It’s also draining and there’s no way we could run four restaurants if I couldn’t do that. It’s not a sustainable way to work and live. Now I have so many empowered leaders that I don’t have to work in the restaurants anymore and I can work on the next chapter of my life.
What is your favorite Korean restaurant in the world?
I haven’t eaten at a lot of them! When I was growing up there wasn’t a lot here in Minnesota. Plus my mom and my grandmother were such great cooks so there was no need to go out. When people would come to town and ask me what the best Korean restaurants were I would say it’s my mom’s house.
I really enjoyed my experience at Atoboy and Atomix in New York City. I think the chefs there are doing something really innovative and modern and new but the food is still uniquely rooted in Korean soul. I remember having a braised mackerel dish that was different but it instantly brought these sensory feelings of nostalgia for a favorite dish that my mother used to make.
What is your perfect home-cooked meal?
A boiling cauldron of doenjang jjigae, a bowl of rice, some kimchi, banchan, and maybe gyeran jjim (Korean egg souffle). To me, that’s just comfort, especially on a cold winter day. And if it doesn’t burn the roof of your mouth it’s not hot enough.
In a few words, how would you describe your recipe for success?
It sounds simple but the secret is to be you. There’s only one you.
Be authentic to who you are and what drives you, that is the starting point. If you’re not doing it authentically the other pieces don’t come together. For me, that’s been the key to success. I’ve narrowed down my purpose during this past year and for me, it’s about inspiring transformation by living authentically.
Also, you can make changes in your life if you don’t like where you are. Everybody has the power to do that.
See Ann Kim’s full story on Netflix.