We began this year's Thanksgiving evening, Discovering Thanksgiving with Four American Chefs, with Ann Kim, the chef-owner of Young Joni, Pizzeria Lola, and Hello Pizza in Minneapolis. I mean, if a Korean immigrant becoming a James Beard award-winning pizza chef in the midwest isn’t an American story, you tell me what is. I sat down with Ann to talk about her first Thanksgiving after coming to America and how the sacrifices of her family has shaped the chef she's become. She also shared recipe for Grilled Korean-Style Short Ribs with Fresno Pepper Chimichurri and Yogurt, from the book A Place at the Table.
Francis Lam: You came to the United States at four years old from South Korea. It was the late 1970s, and you settled here in Minnesota. Do you remember your early Thanksgivings? What were they like?
Ann Kim: I do, and it’s funny because I would say 95 percent of the meals that I ate as a child growing up were Korean. But Thanksgiving was actually an opportunity to eat a fully Westernized Thanksgiving meal. It was interesting because my parents, the first time we had the meal it was actually at – I call her my grandmother, but she was my uncle’s mother, and my uncle married my mother’s youngest sister, and he was American. He wanted to make sure that we also introduced to Western culture. He was concerned about us going to school and being ostracized for being other, so he really wanted to make sure that we could assimilate. Our first Thanksgiving was actually at his mother’s house, and it was full-on as Western as it could be: turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, green beans and sweet potatoes, and something that my grandmother made called ‘In the Pink Salad’, which was basically like a strawberry Jell-O salad with sour cream and canned pineapple and nuts.
FL: You got the full deal.
AK: The full deal. Actually, my sister and I were always thrilled to have Thanksgiving because it was something other than rice and kimchi.
FL: So, you were psyched about it. Do you remember what you thought of it, though, when you saw the spread, or what your parents thought of it?
AK: Yeah. My parents are interesting because for them – for my mother – food was always a representation of being able to have plenty, to have enough. As an immigrant, as a product of war. She went through the Korean War. She was 13 during the Korean War, and she was actually from the North. It took almost a year on foot to get down to the South. She remembers looking back and seeing their home village go up in flames, and it was a devastating experience. One thing that she never had enough of during war was food. She would tell stories about squid being washed up against the shore, because they walked along the shore to make it down to the South, and people fighting and running and grabbing squid and making a big bonfire and roasting it over the flames just to get enough food. And so, for her, coming to the table and gathering and having enough food for everybody was something that she felt was a gift.
And so, to her Thanksgiving – when there was an abundance of food –was like the epitome of taking care of people and loving people. After that first Thanksgiving she took it on herself too, that when it was her turn to make Thanksgiving dinner, it was the biggest turkey she could find, probably four times bigger than it should’ve been, mainly because she wanted to use that whole carcass for turkey and kimchi soup the next day, or a congee made of that, and then using the dark cuts of meat that we would eat cold, wrapped in kimchi. It was always about stretching it out.
FL: Sounds good.
AK: Oh, it’s delicious, let me tell you. It’s fantastic.
FL: That’s totally true, though, for so many people that idea of plenty, like that is the promise of America, like that’s literally why they came.
AK: Why people immigrate to this country, right? I mean, so many people live in a state of scarcity, right? Scarcity of freedom, scarcity of democracy, scarcity of financial well-being, safety, and that’s what this country promises, or that’s what we hope this country promises – and opportunity; that’s why we came here. And I think, for me, food is just an extension. Hospitality is an extension of offering that up to everybody in a very inclusive way. You come into our kitchen, into our restaurant, and we’re here to serve you. It’s the greatest feeling to see people come, sit, say that they had a horrible day or they’re celebrating an anniversary, or they come and they can rely on the consistency of our cheese pizza, and it makes their really crappy day a little bit better. That means a lot to me. That’s worth more than the dollars. We need the dollars to stay open, but that’s why I do what I do.
FL: For sure. Think about your uncle’s thought of, will this family feel comfortable here? Will they feel like they belong? Did you feel like you belonged when you were younger?
AK: Oh, hell no. It was hard. A lot of people don’t know this about me. They assume that I’m a first generation, but I’m an immigrant, and growing up here in the Midwest as a Korean immigrant was really hard. There wasn’t a lot of diversity. It’s changed over the years. We have a huge Hmong population and Somali population, and a lot of people are recognizing how nice it is to actually live in the Twin Cities. So, there’s much more diversity. But, back in the late 1970s, early 1980s, I grew up in a suburb, Apple Valley, and I don’t remember a single other Asian student growing up. And that was a hard place to be.
My grandmother – and by ‘my grandmother,’ not to confuse it with my uncles’ mother, but my maternal grandmother – immigrated with us to the country because both my parents worked multiple jobs on graveyard shifts. She really taught me about food and raised us until I was about 10 years old, and then she went back to Korea. But, one of the first lunches she packed for me was rice, dried fish, kimchi, and gim, which is basically Korean for nori wraps. When I opened that bento box, and everybody around me just said, “Ew! What is that, garbage?” I was ostracized. When you’re six years old and you hear it, all you wanna do is be the same.
FL: Just fit in, right?
AK: You want to fit in. You want to look the same, you want to dress the same. And we were obviously not the same, and so growing up, it was hard, and all I wanted to be was the same. I used to burn toast before I’d have any friends come over, because picture this, too: growing up here in Minnesota you couldn’t go to the grocery store and buy a jar of kimchi or gochujang or doenjang. It might’ve been different growing up if you grew up in New York City or Los Angeles where they had huge Korean populations. But because we didn’t have it, my mother and grandmother had to make it; they made their own doenjang and gochujang. They made their own kimchi. My grandmother preserved and pickled meat. So, it didn’t smell very good; it was pretty funky. So, I’d never have my friends over, and when I did, I was burning toast because I was so ashamed.
FL: To cover the smell.
AK: I was so ashamed of who I was. And now look. Now I couldn’t be prouder. Now I feel like I get to introduce people to who I am through my food and my cooking.
FL: Did you feel like you had to get to the point where you felt like you wanted to bring in those flavors from your childhood into your professional life?
AK: Yeah. When I opened up Pizzeria Lola nine years ago, I didn’t really have any intent. I didn’t set out to make it a Korean inspired pizzeria. All I wanted to do was harken back to my college days in New York when every street corner had a neighborhood pizzeria, and every street felt like a neighborhood; every corner felt like a neighborhood. And I missed that, so I wanted to create a really great pizzeria. When I started playing around with pizzas, I thought that some of the Korean flavors would be delicious on a pizza. It’s just a vehicle for flavors. That’s what pizza is. So, I started tinkering around, and the first pizza I did was the Lady Zaza, which has kimchi on it. When kimchi is cooked it actually makes the flavor a little milder, and so I thought, let’s see if this would work, and people loved it. A lot of people came through, and after they’d consume it they’d ask what that spicy cabbage-y stuff was. They didn’t even know, really, what it was. It was their first experience to kimchi, which kind of floored me, that their first experience to kimchi was in Minneapolis at a pizzeria. But, the beautiful thing about it was they wanted to learn more. They loved the flavors and they asked questions, and it made them want to explore. That was like my entryway to see, oh, do people like these flavors?
To this day my mother still believes that Americans – when I say, “Yeah, Americans like Korean food. As a matter of fact, they love Korean food,” she still doesn’t believe it. She still doesn’t understand. She still doesn’t understand how they could like these kinds of flavors that are so connected to who she is as a Korean. For me, this food doesn’t make sense to a lot of people at first, like oh yeah, we’re gonna have kimchi on the menu. We’re also gonna have a whole grilled fish with Thai nam jim sauce, and we’re going to have Japanese sweet potatoes, and a chicory Caesar salad along with pizzas. And it’s like, what the hell are you thinking? What is that? And it just works. It’s just good. It’s flavorful and I think it’s the way people wanna eat. I think it’s a reflection of who we are today as people.
FL: Bringing it back to Thanksgiving, thinking back to those first Thanksgiving tables that you saw, what’s on your Thanksgiving table now?
AK: I don't know if I’ve ever actually made a Thanksgiving dinner for the family. That is a goal of mine.
FL: You are an award-winning chef. You can probably make it happen.
AK: I know, but that’s too much pressure. For me, Thanksgiving isn’t about impressing people in that way of being chef-y. I think Thanksgiving is about comfort and warmth. But my goal is to make Thanksgiving because my mother is 83 now, and it’s hard for her. People used to ask, when they’d come to Minnesota, what’s the best Korean restaurant that we can send my friends. I had to think because I don’t go out to eat Korean food; I go to my mom’s house. And she was always welcoming, bringing friends over. Now, sadly, she’s not really able to cook much anymore, so one goal is to A, make Thanksgiving dinner for my family, and B, also try to get all these recipes that I took for granted, that my mother just knew in her head and would just make – try to record those things so I have them.
The other day she was telling me, “I just don’t like store bought doenjang,” and I said, “What are you talking about, mom?” And she’s like, “I bought it the other day.” I said, “I thought you always bought it.” She’s like, “No, I still make it, and I decided to buy it, but I’m not doing that anymore.” So, I told her we have to get together and we have to do that – ferment it and dry it; I said it’s really important to me that I have this. She’s like “Why would you want to learn that?” Like, be a professional; this is what you do when you can’t afford to go buy these things. I think because she struggled in her life, because she’s a product of war – she’s never known a day when she hasn’t struggled – she doesn’t want that for her children.
My sister and I feel very fortunate that we moved here, because I think that the opportunities that would’ve presented themselves to us as women in Korea would not be there for me like they are here. I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t be the chef or the professional that I am. And so I’m really grateful that she made these sacrifices. It’s a classic immigrant story, right? This is not the life they imagined for me, and I’ve probably broken their hearts more times than I can count. I think they were finally proud when the Korean Embassy tweeted that I won the James Beard. They were like, “Oh, okay, sure, good job.”
FL: What did your parents think and what did they say to you when you told them that you wanted to be a cook?
AK: Well, it was worse when I told them I wanted to be an actor. It’s great that we can laugh about it now, but back then it was devastating. They pretty much disowned me. I know now it was because, again, they didn’t move to this country so I could struggle. They came to this country so I could have an opportunity to not go through what they went through. So, for them, it’s like an actor – like all you do is – the adage is ‘struggling actor’. For them, they were afraid for me. They were worried that I would have to go through things that they didn’t imagine for me. They saw being an actor as no different from being a whore; you put makeup on your face, and you go out and you present yourself as someone – you sell yourself. That was really difficult.
But, after I was able to make a career of it for eight years, and never asked them for a dime, and really be able to make a living out of it, they realized, “Okay, you’re that child. We get it.” But I never thought that they were really proud of me, and so when my husband and I decided to open our first restaurant together, I told him, “I know you think this is going to sound strange, but we cannot tell my parents that we’re opening up a restaurant together.” I know, it’s funny. I’m so glad we can laugh now, but he looked at me funny, and he just said, “I don’t quite understand. Why not?” I said, “Because it’s going to bring a lot of pain, and it’s just going to be far easier for us to not have to answer questions along the way.” Because it took us over a year from start to finish to open up the first restaurant. That was totally bootstrapped together, maxed out savings, a small loan, making our own lights out of #10 tomato cans It was like a labor of love, and I said, “I don't know if we’re going to succeed, so I can’t have them see the process. I need them to see a restaurant that’s open, with guests.”
FL: You made it.
AK: Yeah, we made it, and he understood. Then a small little article was going to come out before we opened, and I thought, “Oh, dang, I need to tell them about this before they read about it in the paper,” because that’s how they found out I was an actor. So, I was like we cannot go through this trauma a second time. I knew there was going to be a little blurb in the Star Tribune about us opening up a restaurant, so I brought them to the restaurant. They were really confused. I sat them down and said, “Mom and dad, I know how you’re going to feel about this, but welcome to my restaurant. This is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. This is ours.” For like the first half hour I think they were still like, what is going on? But my mother stood up. I remember her taking her fist and knocking me on the head, and she’s like, “Okay, yeah.” And that was – she didn’t speak much, she didn’t say much. They still drive by Pizzeria Lola to make sure that we’re busy, and they’ll send me texts like “There’s lines out your door. Why?” It’s like, I don't know, mom, I guess they like it. Yeah, they still – they’ll go to church and drive by and text me and say, “It’s busy. It’s good.” And my dad will sometimes get into the restaurant, and they know my dad now, so usually he’ll just kind of say hello and he’ll bolt to the bathroom to make sure it’s clean. He says, “Be humble, be kind, and always make sure you have a clean bathroom,” because he says that’s representative of what you’re going to present as your food. And so those are words that I take to heart and try to remember.
FL: I think the translation for that is ‘I love you.’
AK: I hope so, because, you know, I really love them.
FL: Thank you so much for having us in.
AK: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.
More about A Place at the Table: The book is produced in collaboration with the Vilcek Foundation, which is dedicated to raising awareness of immigrant contributions in America and fostering appreciation of the arts and sciences. The publication of the book follows the Vilcek Foundation's prestigious 2019 chef awards this spring, which only happen every 5 years. The winner of the Vilcek Prize in Culinary Arts this year was just announced and it was Marcus Samuelsson.
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