MINNEAPOLIS — Last summer, Ann Kim announced that she would open a restaurant inspired by a trip to Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico, where she had tasted handmade heirloom blue-corn tortillas that moved her to tears.
The Twin Cities news media responded with reports about her intention to open a Mexican restaurant. A year later, Ms. Kim, one of this city’s most celebrated chef-restaurateurs, is still gathering ideas for the restaurant — and still worried that she sent the wrong message.
“Everyone was like, ‘Ann’s going to do a taqueria,’” Ms. Kim said. “I still don’t even know what the food is going to be. I’m a Korean that grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis who tried this tortilla that made me cry. That’s what I know.”
Ms. Kim, 46, has been defying preconceptions for much of her life. A former actress, she had never so much as waited tables before opening her first restaurant, Pizzeria Lola, in 2010 with her husband and business partner, Conrad Leifur, who was also a first-time restaurateur. Today the couple operate three successful Minneapolis-area restaurants, none of which are Mexican — or strictly Korean, for that matter.
They’re all pizzerias, to varying degrees. Two feature soft-serve ice cream, a tribute to the treat Ms. Kim’s parents allowed her and her sister on the special occasions they visited McDonald’s.
“I make the kind of pizza I want to eat, and I serve soft-serve,” Ms. Kim said. “No one ever told me you can’t do that because you’re Korean.”
Young Joni, which opened in 2016, is the newest and most ambitious of her projects. It’s a genre-bending restaurant that happens to serve pizza, and it has turned Ms. Kim into a bright star in a restaurant scene that, in the Midwest, arguably ranks second only to Chicago’s.
In May, she became the sixth local cook in 10 years to win the James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef: Midwest, and the first person of color, and first woman, from the Minneapolis area to receive the honor.
“One of the many reasons why this is such an exciting era for Twin Cities dining can be summed up in two words: Young Joni,” wrote Rick Nelson, the Star Tribune’s restaurant critic, in naming it restaurant of the year in 2017. GQ and Eater named it one of the country’s best new restaurants the same year.
The plaudits recognize the imagination and drive of a novice who turned her lack of restaurant experience into an asset. Young Joni draws on the creative tools Ms. Kim honed in theater, and brings to life the vision of an immigrant who arrived in the United States at age 4, and grew up eating her grandmother’s kimchi and banchan along with fried chicken from KFC.
The restaurant’s format is similar to that of regionally distinct, not-just-pizzerias like Roberta’s in Brooklyn, Hog & Hominy in Memphis and Gjelina in Los Angeles. These menus are filled with items other than pizza — in Joni’s case, a mix of artfully composed plates of seasonal produce and meats roasted in wood-fired ovens.
Many dishes — garlic-scape kimchi, spicy-sweet short-rib pizza, a farro salad based loosely on bibimbap — draw liberally from Ms. Kim’s Korean-American childhood, deepening the restaurant’s flavor palette while stopping short of defining its sensibility.
“This is just the food I like,” Ms. Kim said.
Growing up in Apple Valley, a Twin Cities suburb, she said, “I felt like a Midwesterner. I identified as Minnesotan. I never really identified as Korean. I’d always tried to hide it. My food is an expression of that.”
She entered the restaurant business around the time the foundation was being laid for the Twin Cities’ culinary flowering, fostered by an adventurous dining public and a multiethnic talent pool that belie outdated stereotypes of this Scandinavian stronghold.
The scene’s energy flows from a diverse array of tastemakers, like Gavin Kaysen, whose tutelage by Daniel Boulud is evident at his downtown Minneapolis flagship Spoon and Stable, and Yia Vang, a rising talent who is shining a light on the food of the large local Hmong population at Union Hmong Kitchen, a catering business that operates pop-ups and a food truck.
Hai Hai, an Asian street-food restaurant owned in part by the Vietnamese-American chef Christina Nguyen, and Colita, where the Argentina-born chef Daniel del Prado blends Mexican cooking with barbecue, are two of the most successful new local restaurant openings of the past two years.
Ms. Kim credits her fast rise to rigorous self-education. “I read, I ate, I reached out to people I respected,” she said. “I was a sponge.”
Alex Roberts, the chef and owner of the 20-year-old Restaurant Alma, near the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus, was one of the first chefs Ms. Kim tapped for advice. He was struck by the unusual combination of gifts she already possessed.
“Ann’s palate was already drawn to aromatics and umami, growing up in a Korean household — and now tastes are evolving in that direction,” Mr. Roberts said.
He believes her background in theater also gave her a creative leg-up on the competition. “She talks about her ideas with humility, and is open to collaboration,” he said. “It seems like she came out of nowhere, but maybe in fact she was more qualified than everyone else.”
Young Joni was constructed inside a former Polish community center in northeast Minneapolis. The open kitchen’s wood-fired ovens and grills cast a warm glow over the large dining room that is accentuated by a design heavy on natural wood. Exposed beams are set at an angle from the walls.
“When you come in, you’re at odds with the space,” said Milo Garcia, a founder of Studio MAI in Los Angeles, who designed Young Joni. “Turning something on its axis makes it feel a little more lived in.”
Ms. Kim cold-called Mr. Garcia after falling for the beachside atmospherics at Gjelina, a MAI client. The firm designed the Back Bar, a speakeasy behind an unmarked exterior door at the rear of Young Joni’s building, to resemble the lakeside cabin that her husband’s family owns in his native North Dakota. The small room is wrapped in vintage-style floral wallpaper.
“Everyone around here has a memory of a place like this,” said Mr. Leifur, a Yale-educated former investment analyst, sipping a beer from a Back Bar table across the room from his grandmother’s upright piano. “Ann likes to do things with a history and a past, and reimagine it.”
Ms. Kim and her collaborators refer to her creative process as “remixing.”
“It’s purely aesthetic and tactile and sensory,” said Dan Ibarra, a graphic designer who advises Ms. Kim on branding. “It’s more like an artist working with media.”
Mr. Ibarra and his business partner, Kevin Wade, joined Ms. Kim at the headquarters of Vestalia Hospitality, her and Mr. Leifur’s restaurant company, in the city’s Uptown neighborhood, to discuss the new restaurant, Sooki & Mimi, projected to open a mile away early next year.
All agreed that finding the right name was crucial for such a complicated enterprise. The team rejected Latin-sounding words, fearful that they would pigeonhole the restaurant. The name, Mr. Ibarra said, “definitely needed to be an empty vessel.”
Ms. Kim is also wary of any hint of cultural appropriation — a charge often leveled these days at chefs who work in cuisines they weren’t born into.
The topic became volatile in the Twin Cities last year, when the television celebrity Andrew Zimmern, who is white, made what he later conceded were insensitive remarks about Chinese-American restaurants as he prepared to open Lucky Cricket, his Asian fast casual restaurant in a Minneapolis suburb.
Ms. Kim is at pains to frame her efforts to master new cuisines — she is trying to learn how to hand-grind nixtamalized corn, and will travel to Spain this month to explore how churros are made — as an exercise in respect, not acquisition.
“I am not saying I’m the queen of tortillas,” she said. “Let’s make that very clear.”
Sooki was the nickname of Ms. Kim’s maternal grandmother, Sook Young Kim. Mimi was her “adopted grandmother,” Thelma Lange, the mother of her white, Minnesota-born uncle.
“He sponsored our family to get a visa and ultimately citizenship,” said Ms. Kim, whose family immigrated from South Korea to Minnesota in 1977. “His family became our only other family.”
“Sooki was the one who gave us sustenance and all the things that were Korean,” she added, “making the stinky gochujang in the jangdok, and the kimchi.”
Mimi, by contrast, “wanted us to assimilate. She wanted to make sure we read books and had season tickets to the orchestra and Children’s Theatre. I really kind of wanted to be Mimi.”
Ms. Kim’s experience growing up as one of the few Asians in a predominantly white suburb has become the animating tension in her professional life.
“I didn’t even tell my parents I was opening a restaurant until a week before we opened” Pizzeria Lola, Ms. Kim said. (Her other restaurant is Hello Pizza, a New York-style slice and sandwich place in suburban Edina.)
She had pleased her working-class parents by graduating from Columbia University, but then upset them by choosing acting over the more stable professions they preferred.
“My parents disowned me for a time,” she said. “They worked hard for me and my sister. They didn’t speak English. We were on government assistance for a time — I still remember the government cheese. Their dream wasn’t for me to struggle as an actor or a cook.”
Ms. Kim landed roles in productions staged by the most respected local companies, including the Guthrie Theater, and made enough to pay off her student loans. But she felt her race limited the parts she could get, and over time the “passion became a hustle,” she said. “I felt like I didn’t have any agency, regardless of how hard I tried.”
Ms. Kim alluded to her sometimes painful career path in an emotional acceptance speech at the James Beard Awards ceremony in May. “My journey has not been easy, it has not been linear, it has not been conventional,” Ms. Kim said. She described the courage it took to change professions with an alliterative pairing of an expletive with the word “fear.”
The hashtag-able applause line captured qualities that endear Ms. Kim to her creative partners. “Ann has this angst about her, this drive and stubbornness that we love,” said Mr. Garcia, the designer.
Ms. Kim regards every restaurant as a high-stakes gambit, but none more so than Sooki & Mimi. “When I opened Lola, nobody cared who I was,” she said.
More pressure comes from the symbolism of the new restaurant’s address. For more than three decades it was the home of Lucia’s, a beloved Minneapolis restaurant whose chef and founder, Lucia Watson, helped advance the idea of treating Upper Midwestern ingredients and recipes with reverence.
“I want to honor her legacy,” Ms. Kim said. “I’m excited, and I’m nervous.”
She was standing in the stripped-to-studs space that will be Sooki & Mimi’s dining room. She circulated among her collaborators, most of whom were seeing the restaurant for the first time.
The neighborhood, where businesses once catered to musicians and artists, is now dominated by national chains. An Apple Store stands at the former site of the Uptown Bar, a famed live music club. Mr. Kim wondered aloud how they might be able to honor Uptown’s bohemian past.
Scott McNiece, a sound designer and music curator, approached the chef, having cued up some Norwegian jazz music on his phone. Earlier, Ms. Kim had mentioned that Ian Heieie, the Young Joni executive chef who will run the new restaurant’s kitchen, grew up making lefse, the Norwegian flatbread.
“They’re not so different than tortillas,” she said. She recalled the raw tuna tostadas she ate at Contramar, Gabriela Cámara’s famous seafood restaurant in Mexico City. “I’m thinking we could do something like that with gravlax.”
Ms. Kim asked Mr. McNiece to find some music by Lee Mi-ja, the South Korean singer Sooki would play in her family’s home when Ms. Kim was young.
The chef puzzled over where Sooki would fit within her matrix of inspirations.
“I don’t really know what the food is going to be,” Ms. Kim said. “It just has to have meaning. I want it to reflect who I am.”