By Jason DeRusha

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — When 4-year-old Ann Kim immigrated to Apple Valley, Minnesota from Korea, no one could have projected her incredible life path. From an Ivy League education, to a career as a professional actor, to the chef and owner of three restaurants now up for the most prestigious award in the culinary world.

“I just wanted to make pizzas,” laughed Kim.

Her food career started with Pizzeria Lola in South Minneapolis, which opened to critical acclaim and long lines to get a table. Her underrated Hello Pizza on the border of Minneapolis and Edina is a New York-style slice shop. But Young Joni is her greatest achievement, a restaurant that goes beyond the pizza pie, and earned her a nomination as a finalist for the James Beard Award, Best Chef Midwest.

“If you asked me even ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to conceive of it,” she said, “but it’s a thrill, it’s a testament to my team.”

Kim didn’t go to culinary school, in fact she had an Ivy League education.

“I didn’t enter the restaurant business the traditional route, I never worked in a restaurant professionally in my life,” she said.

Kim said she came to Minnesota in the late 1970’s watching her mom mix cultures and flavors in their Apple Valley home.

“So my table was kimchi, and rice, and gochujang, and a bucket of KFC and coleslaw and biscuits. And I was putting kimchi on burgers before it became a culinary trend,” she said.

Today, her three restaurants: Pizzeria Lola, Hello Pizza and Young Joni, bring her Korean-American upbringing to a magnificent rising crust.

“I love pizza. Who doesn’t love pizza?” she laughed.

Kim left a career as an actor to open pizza joints. She appeared in productions at the Guthrie Theatre, and Children’s Theatre Company, including the 1999 Cinderella, and 2001 show Dragonwings.

“What I loved about acting is that I was able to tell stories, and I feel like I have a different stage now. I tell stories through my food. People get to create their own stories in my restaurants,” she said.

The flair of the dramatist is evident from the moment you walk into her restaurants: A bold performance on the plate: but the show includes the service, ambiance, and pyrotechnics. At Young Joni all of the menu is cooked over fire.

“Look at it! It’s sexy, primal, and dramatic,” said Kim.

Yes, a copper-plated, wood-fired oven makes every pizza, but the open grill makes even a supporting actor of vegetables, Oscar-worthy. The saffron-coated shisito pepper roasted cauliflower is her top seller.

Japanese Sweet Potatoes appear white, taste sweet, and are topped with the umami from bonito flakes.

“It’s one of my most favorite dishes,” she said.

Her Korean Barbeque pizza is the number one selling pizza in all of her restaurants, closely followed by the Pizzeria Lola favorite “My Sha-Roni.” The Korean BBQ uses marinated, thinly-sliced short ribs and roasted scallions topped with an tossed Korean barbeque arugula salad. The My-Sharoni is pepperoni and fennel sausage.

“You have a very classic American pizza, and a very non-traditional pizza. I think this speaks volumes about how we eat and what we want to eat,” said Kim.

It’s a remarkable path from Korean immigrant, to professional actor, to pizza-impresario: But in a way, Kim is still doing the same thing: telling her story on her stage.

“I’m just sharing a little bit about my history and my taste experiences, and doing it in the best way I know how,” she said.

Young Joni 165 13th Ave. NE, Minneapolis 612-345-5719

Pizzeria Lola 5557 Xerxes Ave. S, Minneapolis 612-424-8338

Hello Pizza, 3904 Sunnyside Rd, Edina 952-303-4514

Jason DeRusha