Ann Kim is making us cry, and this time it's not the onions.
When my family and I hunkered down to watch the Minneapolis restaurateur tell her story in the Netflix food series "Chef's Table: Pizza," I could hear my 9-year-old son sniffling during some of the episode's most tender moments. He's got lots of company in this world.
Kim tells me she has been deluged with emails and DMs from places as far away as Italy, Denmark, India and Brazil ever since the show was released last month.
"I've been using my Google Translate a lot," she says. "The common thread is, 'I cried through the whole thing.' And it's like, well, I didn't want people to cry. I think it's a story of empowerment."
Spoiler alert: Kim found her path in life after she learned to live authentically and, um, reject fear. (A phrase I can't print here has become her unofficial, kick-ass tagline after she intoned it while accepting her James Beard Award in 2019). By quieting the voices around her and leaning into her true, gregarious, creative, Korean American self, she achieved wild success in the culinary world.
A former stage actor, Kim opened her first restaurant, Pizzeria Lola, at age 37, despite having no professional cooking experience. Then came Hello Pizza, Young Joni, and Sooki & Mimi, as well as a reputation for boldly expanding the boundaries of pizza with her signature kimchi and Korean BBQ toppings.
Still, she was surprised when the "Chef's Table" filmmakers reached out to her. She always regarded the series as "very chef-y." But Kim? "I never considered myself chef-y. I'm just an ordinary woman who decided to open up a pizza place."
The show's creators wanted to start filming in 2020, but the pandemic postponed it. When they revived the project in the summer of 2021, the episode's director, Zia Mandviwalla, was thwarted from flying to Minnesota because her home country of New Zealand had just gone into COVID-19 lockdown. Much of the story's narrative is drawn from an emotional four-hour interview in which Kim, seated in Minneapolis, answered the questions of Mandviwalla, stuck in New Zealand — all of which took place via Zoom.
Minnesotans will recognize much of the B-roll settings, whether it's Kim jogging around Lake of the Isles, ordering bibimbap at Dong Yang Oriental Foods & Deli, or inviting a stranger to share the deep-fried pickles she's about to devour at the State Fair. But what makes the show so special is Kim herself.
She speaks of her journey from South Korea to the Twin Cities suburb of Apple Valley when she was 4, enduring the shame of being teased at school for her eyes, her name and her lunch. Years later her parents disowned her after learning she was chasing a calling in the theater, believing "passion gets you nowhere." She found refuge on stage, where she could hide behind someone else's story, until she realized she lacked real agency due to the limited roles for Asian actors.
Now, just weeks shy of a milestone birthday, Kim is getting more comfortable telling her own story. Here are some highlights of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
The first line of the episode begins with you saying, "Growing up in America, there is very little representation of what an Asian American woman can be." But your story resonates so deeply with people of all backgrounds. Why?
There are so many of us that feel like we don't belong, or for whatever reason, people have been afraid to be their true selves. What's been stopping them is this fear of judgment. And by saying no to fear, they realize that they can open themselves up to all kinds of possibilities. Just recently, I realized that my purpose in life maybe is not so much to inspire through my cooking, but to inspire transformation through living authentically.
I also love that throughout the show, there were spot-on cultural cues even if they weren't meant to be. What is it about Asian dads and Old Country Buffet?
I don't know! Old Country Buffet was a fancy night out, maybe two or three times a year. I think it resonates because oftentimes Asian families, they come to this country, they don't have a lot. My parents had very little money, they didn't speak the language. Old Country Buffet — you pay, you sit down, and you just go pick what you want. I'm not gonna lie, my mom would line her bag with Ziplocs and fill it with extra fried chicken. I was mortified. I'd say, "Mom, you can't do that." She's like, "Your dad needs this for lunch tomorrow."
My grandma used to bring home bread rolls in her purse. And my dad made me lie about my age so we could get in at a cheaper price.
I'm sure my parents did that, too. And stealing butter packets.
Was there any footage you asked the filmmakers not to include in the final cut?
No. I think the part that they were nervous about was when I shared the story about my parents finding out that I was pursuing a career in the theater. That was really difficult. They were crying, and I was crying, and they disowned me for a period of time. They told me in their minds that acting was the equivalent of prostitution. This wasn't a respectable profession — putting makeup on your face and going out on stage. Hearing that was devastating.
The producers said, "We would like to include this in there, but do you think your parents would be OK?" They did show me a rough cut of the episode and said, "We'd like to keep it in there." It was a difficult part of my life, but shows that I persevered. It was a part of my journey of trying to find my identity.
Why you think so many success stories about Asian American women involve childhood trauma? Do you think our success is dependent upon not disappointing our immigrant parents?
There's great pressure for any immigrant child to succeed. My parents sacrificed a lot to come to a country they'd never been to because they wanted to open up opportunities for me and my sister. My mother had a lot of trauma that she's never been able to express. She's North Korean. She was 13 years old during the Korean War, and she had to uproot herself with her family, leave her town in North Korea in the middle of the night and make the long trek by foot down to the south as their town was being bombed.
There is that pressure to succeed because of their sacrifice. And in many ways, I was repressing who I was. For my parents, success was becoming a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer. It wasn't about pursuing the creative arts. They didn't come to this country so I could continue to suffer and struggle.
What struck me was just how at peace you seem to be now. How did you get to this point of acceptance?
I'm still working on it. It's taken a lifetime to get to where I am. You can live in your unhappiness, or you can make changes. My life is just a series of incremental changes based on being in conflict with my identity. Ultimately, isn't that what we all want for ourselves? To live a life that has purpose and meaning that's true to who you are?
How old are you now?
I'm going to be 50 in November. I didn't enter cooking until I was in my late 30s. I'm a late bloomer. I want people to be inspired by that. Don't feel like you can't pursue things because you're too old. My 40s were the most vibrant decade of my life. Especially for women, we feel like we're valued at a certain age, during our childbearing years or when we look youthful. Well, screw that. I feel like I've only begun.