Determination, courage, and pizza dough are the main ingredients Pizzaiola Ann Kim incorporated into the creation of Pizzeria Lola—a popular pizza hub located in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Featured on our Korean-American Cities spotlight on the Twin Cities, Pizzeria Lola serves up a variety of unconventional and novel pies (spicy squid pizza, anyone?) that’s challenging the pizza landscape.
We had a tête-à-tête with Ann Kim, founding chef and owner of Pizzeria Lola, on the leap she took to change her career path and how her mom’s cooking and Korean roots influences Pizzeria Lola’s menu and ethics.
How did you go from studying law at Columbia University to graduating from Tony Gemignani’s International School of Pizza, all the while having an itch for theater in between?
Well, I didn’t study law at Columbia University. I did get a BA in English at Columbia and considered going to law school soon after. Instead, I moved back to Minnesota and pursued an acting career. I loved acting, and still do, but thought that I needed to have or make or find a career aka “a real job.” Soon after I found myself at Hennepin Theatre Trust (the non-profit arm of the State, Orpheum and Pantages Theatres) working in education and outreach. I was in a great spot career wise, at the top of my game career wise, but still something was missing. It was during this time that I started thinking about opening a restaurant. I have always loved good food, and cooking is an art form, like theater. However, I had zero experience. I knew if I was going to do this, I’d better focus on one thing and do it exceptionally well. I chose pizza.
I started my research which involved reading a lot of artisan bread baking books and experimenting with different pizza dough recipes in my home kitchen. I was limited to what I could bake in a conventional oven so I decided to go to Tony Gemignani’s pizza school. This decision was a game-changer for me. This man knows his pizza, all different styles. I initially thought I wanted to create a traditional coal oven style pizza, the kind my partner and I loved eating while attending college in New York and New Haven. Instead, I fell in love with the simplicity and beauty of cooking pizza out of a wood fired oven. I came back to San Francisco to apprentice with Tony and master the art of Neapolitan style pizza. I’ve developed a pizza recipe that is a cross between traditional east coast and Neapolitan style pizza.
From the name to the restaurant’s concept and menu, what was it like planning to open your first restaurant? Why did you decide to go back and open up shop in your home state of Minnesota?
The hardest part of opening a restaurant (or pursuing any dream) is just doing it. Once I quit my job at Hennepin Theatre Trust I was committed to make it happen. There was no turning back so I did everything in my power to make it happen. Of course there were doubters.
Everyone thought I was crazy to open a restaurant with absolutely no experience and to a certain extent, it was. Sure, it’s one thing to cook dinner for several friends, but it’s another thing to run a restaurant and cook for hundreds of people in one night. But I knew I had a good idea and wanted to bring great pizza to the people of Minneapolis. It also helps to have a great partner—both in business and in life. Conrad and I have been together for 7 years; we have a great partnership with skills that compliment each other. He manages the books and I manage the kitchen, both essential to running a successful restaurant. What we lack in experience we make up for in hard work and chutzpah.
My inexperience was actually an advantage in that I didn’t have any preconceived notions about how a restaurant should run. I had to rely on my intuition in creating the concept, design, menu and aspects of service. When the “experts” told me I should do things one way, I generally did the exact opposite. For instance, instead of a traditional Italian oven, I chose the Le Panyol not only for it’s beauty but it’s efficiency. This oven company has been making ovens for over a hundred years with clay from the original quarry in France. We also have an amazing team of managers, front of house and back of house staff that have truly become the heart and soul of the restaurant. The main reason for focusing on pizza was because I thought the good people of Minnesota needed and deserved better pizza. At the very least I think I’m making the pizza landscape here much more interesting.
Tell us about Lady ZaZa and how was it conceived.
Kimchi is a part of who I am. It was a part of every meal. One of my fondest memories are of making kimchi with my mom and grandmother every fall. We made so much kimchi my mother utilized our kiddy pool to serve as a bowl big enough to brine and paste the napa. So opening up a restaurant that didn’t serve kimchi in some capacity just seemed wrong. After some experimentation I found the right combination of flavors that made the pizza sing. I didn’t know how people would react to kimchi pizza, but it’s now one of our biggest sellers. I’ve since added another pizza called the Korean BBQ which features bulgogi style short ribs, mozzarella, scallions and finished with an arugula salad tossed in a gochujang vinaigrette. We can barely keep up with the demand of that pie!
On your website, you quote your mother: “Quality first. Eat your vitamins. Don’t work too hard.” How much has your mom influenced Pizzeria Lola’s menu and how you operate your kitchen? Was she bummed that you chose a culinary career with dough and tomato sauce rather than rice and kimchi?
My mom has had a huge influence on me. Everything I know about food, cooking and hospitality I learned from her. She’s the best cook I know. She made everything from scratch including kimchi and meju. The irony of it is that I didn’t tell my mom or dad that I quit my job to open a restaurant until a week before the soft open. I knew they would have never approved the idea so why have them worry about it? It wasn’t easy telling them I wanted to pursue a career in acting let alone the restaurant business. Opening a Korean restaurant wasn’t an option at the time, because that would have meant having to get my mother involved.
You were recently featured on The Food Network’s’ Diners, Drive Ins & Dives, where both Guy Feri and Andrew Zimmern were spellbound by the Sunnyside—a pie with La Quercia guanciale, pecorino, heavy cream, leeks, and two soft eggs to top it all off. How do you feel about the rising fame? Do you see yourself competing in TV cook-offs in the future?
It was an honor to be featured on DDD, especially after only being open for a year. I feel extremely blessed to be doing something that I love. Turning a dream into reality is a wonderful thing; the exposure of national television is icing on the cake. I don’t foresee myself competing on television cook-offs. My number one priority is to deliver quality and consistency in terms of food and service to the guests that walk through the doors of Pizzeria Lola.
What are your future goals for Pizzeria Lola? Do you plan on branching out and opening more restaurants?
Success to me isn’t measured in quantity. It’s all about quality. Iconic restaurants like Katz’s Deli in New York City or Sally’s in New Haven, CT are still around for good reason. They’re focused, defy trends and continue to deliver consistently great product for years. I’m not going to rule anything out, but I honestly don’t see myself opening up a chain of Pizzeria Lolas. I’d be ecstatic if Pizzeria Lola is around 50 years from now for future generations of pizza lovers to enjoy. Pizzeria Lola is more than about the food, it’s about the community we’ve created around the entire experience that makes us special. That’s not to say I don’t have some interesting ideas brewing in my head for future restaurant endeavors outside of Pizzeria Lola.
Lastly, as a person who has gone through multiple career changes, what advice do you have for those on the fence about their current career path or are afraid to quit and start over?
A person can waste a lot of energy wishing they were doing something else. Anything worth pursuing will come with a heavy dose of fear, naysayers and doubt. People are naturally afraid of the unknown, but the only way to overcome that is to just do it. Action is key. Other than that do your research, find mentors, work hard and do what you know (a.k.a. what you love).
[Photos: Courtesy of Ann Kim]