Young Joni owner has found success in unexpected places
Ann Kim thinks of her three nationally recognized pizza restaurants as her three children.
Pizzeria Lola in Minneapolis, a New York-style family restaurant, is her oldest child and Hello Pizza in Edina, a casual, east coast-inspired slice shop, is her middle child. Her newest restaurant, her youngest child, is Young Joni in northeast Minneapolis.
“It’s a culmination of the dream that I have, and kind of Lola all grown up,” Kim said. “It’s a little more sophisticated, and it’s a lot bigger.”
Now, Kim is a James Beard Award Finalist for Best Midwest Chef — quite the accomplishment for someone who majored in English, worked as an actress and risked it all to fulfill her pipe dream of starting a restaurant despite her lack of formal culinary training.
“I can’t even say (being a James Beard Award Finalist) is a dream come true because it’s not something I’ve ever dreamed about or imagined,” Kim said of the national awards program that honors winners in several Restaurant and Chef, Media, and Restaurant Design categories.
Just as Kim’s three “children” have grown up, Kim has grown since her childhood in Apple Valley.
In 1977, Kim and her family immigrated to Minnesota from Korea. Her mother’s youngest sister was married to a man from Minnesota, and they were living in Burnsville, so she sponsored them.
Kim lived in Apple Valley with her sister, parents and grandmother. She attended Greenleaf Elementary, Valley Middle School and Apple Valley High School.
“One of my first memories, I think it was in the fifth grade, is of the teacher I had — her name was Mrs. (Carol) Kopnick,” Kim said. “I loved her. She was kind, and supportive.”
It was teachers like Kopnick who made Kim feel accepted and supported from an early age.
“Growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money, so we weren’t always wearing the cool clothes. I remember I had this cat sweatshirt, this kitty hoodie, and I loved it, but it wasn’t fashionable,” Kim said. “I remember Mrs. Kopnick telling me how much she loved it.
“Back then, I was one of very few minorities in the school. I felt like I didn’t fit in as a Korean immigrant in a white school. Her kindness made me feel like I could do anything.”
She also had several memorable mentors in high school. Ed Wierzbicki was one of her theater directors. He cast her in a lead role in Barbara Lebrow’s “A Shayna Maidel.” In the play, two Jewish sisters struggle to find each other after their family comes apart during the Holocaust.
“He really was a director who was imaginative in his casting,” she said.
In the play, one sister starts life in the city, one is left behind in Germany. Kim, to her surprise, was cast as the sister who was left behind.
“I was really shocked. He’d encouraged me to audition for it, but I felt like I didn’t fit the role. But he saw past all of that,” she said. “That experience gave me the confidence to believe I really could do anything if I set my mind to it. You could move an audience despite what you looked like. That kind of distilled this love of theater for me.”
She also competed on the speech team, and she said her coaches, Pam Wycoff and Joni Anker, helped her develop determination and creativity at a young age.
“They were really inspirational for me in terms of public speaking and finding my voice,” she said. “The whole public speaking and theater experience really prepared me in a roundabout way for what I’m in today.”
These mentors encouraged Kim as she set off to Columbia University in New York to study theater, and have continued to support her, years later, when she transitioned from her acting career to the restaurant business.
Nancy Grimes was the assistant principal for arts and science at Apple Valley High School while Kim was a student.
“She was very involved in many, many things. She was very bright,” Grimes said. “She was in the theater program, and that was one of her loves. She really shined.”
Grimes said Kim has always been a “go-getter.”
“She was a great student, she was a fine actress and she really was a leader in the school,” she said.
She’s a fan of Kim’s work, on the stage and in her restaurant. She’s visited Hello Pizza and Pizzeria Lola several times, and she has a reservation for Young Joni.
Pam Wycoff was one of Kim’s speech coaches.
“The qualities that come to mind for me is that she was very creative, very determined, very hard working, and also that she had really great people skills and combination skills,” Wycoff said. “She was always willing to try her best.”
One of the things that made Kim a strong performer, according to Wycoff, is that she competed in creative and humorous categories in speech, but often took on more serious, dramatic roles in theater. Wycoff said the ways Kim challenged herself then have clearly translated to the ways she’s challenged herself in the restaurant industry.
“In creative expression you write your own material. It’s called ‘creative’ because it has these creative elements to it. I just think she has that natural out of the box thinking and that she is imaginative,” Wycoff said. “When you combine that with her determination and her work ethic, it makes sense that she would have multiple interests and want to be challenged with new things.”
Wycoff has been a supporter of Kim’s restaurants from the beginning.
“I was really excited for her. I think that everybody in their life comes to a point where they want a new challenge and to try something different,” Wycoff said. “My husband and I visited her first restaurant, and she was very in her element there. She was happy, and that made us happy.”
Joni Anker was her speech coach when she was in ninth grade.
“She was an excellent writer, and she did this satire of Romeo and Juliet,” she said. “She was delightful to work with, and she had all kind of ideas that she would throw out. I do remember how open she was to trying new things and experimenting.”
Still, Anker said she was surprised when she was listening to NPR one day and heard Kim talking about opening her pizza restaurants.
“She was telling her story of how she always wanted to try this,” she said. “I never would have predicted that, but she is extremely passionate about this — so much so that she’s gone on to do really great things.”
Kim said that making pizzas isn’t all that different from theater.
“In theater, you are moving the audience through storytelling on stage,” she said. “Now, I get to tell stories through food and the environment I create in my three restaurants.”
Her favorite part about the pizza industry is that she creates restaurants that bring people together.
“The great thing about pizza is a communal experience,” she said. “Its always something fun. People rarely order a pizza for themselves. They are sharing or it’s a party.”
Kim will fly to Chicago on Saturday for the James Beard Awards Gala, which will take place Monday, May 7, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
“It’s quite an honor to be nominated with chefs and restaurateurs that I’ve looked up to — to be in the same room with all those people,” she said. “For me, I’ve already won. I’m just going to enjoy the ride.”
Contact Amy Mihelich at email@example.com.