'Fear to possibility': Mpls. chef Ann Kim builds a healthy kitchen culture

Young Joni chef Ann Kim won a prestigious James Beard Award.
Young Joni chef Ann Kim won a prestigious James Beard Award for best chef in the Midwest on Monday.
Elisa Johnson | Courtesy of Vestalia Hospitality

Minneapolis restaurateur Ann Kim of Young Joni has been declared the best chef in the Midwest. She was recognized at the James Beard Awards on Monday night in Chicago where she gave an emotional and inspiring speech: "By saying no to fear, I said yes to possibility. And my greatest hope in doing so is to give permission to all of you to do the same."

MPR News host Tom Crann was joined by Kim on Wednesday to talk about her decision to move from fear to possibilty and her journey as a top chef of three pizza restaurants in the Twin Cities.

The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

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When did you decide to move from 'fear to possibility?'

It took a little longer than a one-moment decision and it took some time. But when I realized that you only have one chance at life, you either go down the direction of fear or you go down in love and gratitude. And that's why I'm here today.

You said in your speech that you want your restaurants to be places of comfort and well-being. How do you do that?

It's not a singular achievement. It really is my team and I tell them every day that anyone could come in and they could be your next VIP. You don't know their situation. So, we try and teach compassion and empathy. And I think that is the key to our success. I think people can feel that.

And not only does our team exude that to our guests but we, as an organization, try and exude that to our staff because if you cannot have a healthy staff both emotionally and mentally they can't take care of other people. So, I think it's just ingrained in our culture.

You have been honest about the need in your business to foster more sustainable jobs. How have you been able to do that in your restaurants?

Because we demand it. I know that for a long time this culture has been led by a lot of fear and insecurity and I don't think that's a healthy way to approach things especially in this age, in this era. And so for us, we said in many ways the culture is damaged.

And if I have the luxury of doing my own thing, I'm going to do it in a way that I'm proud of and can say that this is going to be sustainable for not just myself but for every single individual that works for us.

What are some of the components of sustainable jobs — things like living wage, decent hours?

All those things and really to teach a culture of empowerment. Prior to me entering the restaurant field, I was an actor and one of the reasons I left was because I felt I had very little agency. I didn't have the power to make decisions or determine the course of my life. And for me, it's really important because we have chosen to grow. I could have just opened up Pizzeria Lola and been done with that and that would have been amazing. But we decided to grow and when you make that decision, I can't be everywhere and control everything and make every decision. It's just not the way things happen. So, in order to make a successful organization, you have to empower people to give them agency to make decisions and to grow.

What's it like to work as a chef at Young Joni? Is it like the cliche of the top-down chef demanding sending things back throwing pots and knives?

No it is not. As a matter of fact, you might be seeing a couple chefs having Mobius conversations. I know that the "Gordon Ramsay" culture of being angry and top-down sort of command-and-control kitchens. I think that is a thing of the past and it really needs to be because you cannot have a healthy culture. You cannot make good food when it comes out with people shaking because they're afraid to make a mistake. And that is just not the way that I want to show up in my restaurant because I want the culture to change.

To me, chef means leader. And in terms of being a great leader, it means that you have to be vulnerable, that you have to allow people to make mistakes, and you have to be flexible. I found that the more generous I am, the more caring I am, and the more empowerment I give to my teams, the better we do.

What is one thing you wish diners in the Twin Cities did differently or better, or understood more clearly?

I would say get out of your comfort zone. I mean I have kimchi on my pizza. It's not a traditional topping. And if you said to yourself, "Well, that's not something that I would eat," you're going to limit yourself to the possibility of opening up and broadening your horizons. You're going to miss out. So, keep an open mind.

What are you cooking for yourself?

I usually cook something really simple and it's usually fish or vegetables because as a chef there's not a lot of time to cook at home and I'm eating out a lot and it's usually pretty gluttonous. So, when I'm at home, I like to stick to simple things and healthy things like some rice and a nice piece of grilled fish and vegetable.

What's next field for you to try as a restaurateur?

Mexican-inspired food. What we're going to focus on is the craft of the tortilla — just like we focused on the craft of pizza dough. From there, it's all sorts of possibilities on what you can eat with it, eat on it, dip into it. So, that's what we're going to do in Uptown in the old Lucia's space.

Click the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.