Ann Kim, chef/co-owner of Young Joni and Pizzeria Lola, both in Minneapolis, and Hello Pizza in Edina, was named Best Chef: Midwest by the James Beard Foundation at its annual awards gala in Chicago on Monday evening. Two days later, in the dining room at Young Joni, she recalled the evening.
Q: You gave one of the all-time great Beard awards speeches. Starting with a Spanx joke immediately endeared you to the audience, but that probably wasn’t in the text you had stored in your phone, was it?
A: No. And then I was scrolling so fast that I got to the point where I was supposed to thank my husband and tell him how much I loved him, and of course I totally skipped over that. And later he was like, “You know what, nobody wants to hear that anyway, and I know what I need to know.” But I wanted to say it, because people don’t realize that he’s 50 percent of what we do here. But he understood.
Q: Like just about every other James Beard award winner’s acceptance speech, you thanked the people working in the restaurant. Why?
A: Because without them, we have nothing. In this industry, it’s not a singular achievement. They’re the key; they’re the backbone. This sounds cliché, but this award is ours to share, and we’re going to hang it proudly here. We’ve made a habit over the years where we don’t post our awards. You know, the best this and the best that. They mean a lot to us, but they don’t define who we are. But this is different. This is something that all the team members can be proud of. I want them to see it and say, “I was a part of this.”
Q: What’s it like to walk around at the gala party after the awards, wearing a Beard medallion?
A: If you want to make friends, just put a medal around your neck. I couldn’t believe how many people told me that they were moved and touched by my speech. The pièce de résistance was Daniel Boulud. He was at the after-party at Girl and the Goat, and he came up to me and he said, “I cried, and I’ve never cried for a speech.” He kissed me on both cheeks, the French way. He held my hand and he said, “Let’s take a selfie.” I was like, “Wow, I’m taking a selfie with Daniel Boulud. I’ve made it.”
Q: After you won, did your phone blow up?
A: Oh my gosh, it has been nonstop ding-ding-ding. I’m still trying to catch up on responding to all of the sweet notes and messages of support. It’s been great.
Q: The award is connected to your work at Young Joni. What does it say about that restaurant?
A: It’s not like when we opened this restaurant that I was on a mission to win the James Beard award. That was not part of my reality. For me, it was about creating a restaurant that I wanted to eat in, and creating an experience for people in a neighborhood that I think is really awesome. I’m not happy with the status quo. I’m never satisfied. I always want to push. Steven Brown [chef/owner of Tilia and St. Genevieve] sent me a text. He said, “What you did with Young Joni is you raised the bar, and now everybody wants to go above that.” I think that’s amazing. Let’s bring it. I think it’s important to push the edge. To be competitive, you have to take some risks.
Q: Since 2009, six Twin Cities chefs have been named Best Chef: Midwest. What does that say about this place?
A: That we’re not flyover country. I think people are recognizing that more and more. It’s an exciting time to be cooking in this city. Our food scene has grown and evolved exponentially. I think that we’re a hidden gem, and I hope that we’re not so hidden anymore. I also hope that, despite having just experienced the worst winter of our lives, that this will bring more talent to the city, and more people will travel here, and eat here.
Q: What does it mean for you to win the James Beard award?
A: I don’t even know if I can put it into words. I’m still trying to digest it and really absorb it. I think I’m still on a high right now. But I do know that it’s not an honor that I take lightly. Many people have reached out and said, “You have no idea what this is going to do for our city now,” and I was like, “What? I’m just a cook.” It’s an incredible honor, and I hope that I can live up to it, and do our city, and my friends and colleagues proud.
I’ve heard from people like Paul [Berglund] and Alex Roberts and Tim McKee [all previous Best Chef: Midwest winners], and they all said, “Your reality will change now.” That medal does hold a lot of significance, and I want to make sure that I use it in a really powerful, meaningful way to push what we do forward. That’s a lot of weight for a perfectionist like me, but I’m ready to take it on. It’s an honor, and I want to represent.
But those two words, James Beard. It’s like I said in my speech, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” And 10, 15 years ago, I don’t think this would have been possible. But we’ve evolved into a place where the boundaries and the barriers to entry are becoming less and less, allowing someone like me to be able to open up a restaurant. I know it’s not just because, “Oh, you’re a minority, and you’re a woman, and we’re going to do that now.” I know that’s not why I got what I did. It’s hard work; it’s good food. So it feels really good. To be cooking in this place, and in this time, feels amazing.