Celebrity Pizza Chef Ann Kim Serves Agency By The Slice 

(Left to Right) Celebrity Pizza Chef Ann Kim, Layla and Eve at Pizzeria Lola. Photos by Mike Hnida
(Left to Right) Celebrity Pizza Chef Ann Kim, Layla and Eve at Pizzeria Lola. Photos by Mike Hnida

The stigma came early for non-chef-y chef Ann Kim, early and often, beginning shortly after she started kindergarten in Apple Valley, Minnesota; her family—father, mother, sister, grandmother—having just immigrated from South Korea.  Her grandmother lovingly prepared bento boxed lunches consisting of rice, dried fish, kimchi, and good intentions…but Ann Kim was mercilessly teased about her midday repast’s foreign origins, forcing tears to gush from eyes that her all-white classmates called “funny.”

The poor kid was traumatized.  By stigma.  

A different stigma came early for a whole group of Americans, early and often—those living with HIV.  In the 1980s, at the beginning of the AIDS pandemic, HIV tore into the zeitgeist like a cyclone.  Those suffering from its hideous, fatal ravages were branded with the harshest of stigmas, the virus causing a disease which was as mysterious as it was fearsome.  Decades later, HIV is anything but mysterious…but all too often, its social taint remains.  “HIV stigma is negative attitudes and beliefs about people with HIV,” says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  “It is the prejudice that comes with labeling an individual as part of the group that is believed to be socially unacceptable.”

These twin stigmas will be simultaneously challenged on April 27, 2023, with the 20th iteration of Dining Out For Life.  According to the event’s website, “Dining Out For Life is an annual dining fundraising event raising money for community-based organizations serving people living with or impacted by HIV.”  DOFL will be found within urban centers all around North America…including the Twin Cities.

Celebrity Pizza Chef Ann

In Minneapolis, Saint Paul, and their suburbs, dozens of participating restaurants will donate a percentage of that day’s profits, ranging from 20% to 100%, to “a local HIV service agency.”  That agency has, since the twin towns first began participating in DOFL, never varied.  “The Aliveness Project was founded as a community center for and driven by people living with HIV,” proclaims the DOFL host’s website.  “For over 30 years, we have been facilitating connection to community, offering nutrition and wellness services, and linking our members to resources to lead fulfilling and healthy lives.” 

In other words, the Aliveness Project helps people living with HIV keep on living, and that’s not all: “Everyone should have the opportunity to lead a healthy, self-directed life,” the website continues, “and people living with HIV should not feel stuck, isolated, or stigmatized.”  One of the restaurants prominently participating in this stigma-stripping is Pizzeria Lola, co-founded by the immigrant girl stigmatized and traumatized all those years ago…but these days she severs the stigma by using a very stylized utensil.

“Agency,” Ann Kim states flatly, and this utility is borne out by her origin story: girl feels ashamed about lunch; wishing to be someone else, girl studies acting at Columbia University; girl works as a Twin Cities stage artist for eight years before losing her mojo; girl meets boy, boy tells girl, “You light up when you cook for people”; boy and girl empty their savings account and max out their credit cards to start a pizza place named after their “gentle, pizza-loving Weimaraner,” a restaurant which succeeds enormously.   Three others—Hello Pizza, Young Joni, and Sooki & Mimi—have since followed.  Agency wins.

In 2019, eight years after establishing her first establishment, Ann Kim won the prestigious James Beard Award, an accolade which is to your cakehole what the Grammys are to your sound-holes.  This burgeoning success beckoned, like steam fingers wafting from a cartoon pie, Netflix’s Chef’s Table series…and, although Ann Kim’s story was told as part of an arc featuring pizza, you wouldn’t know it by judging the reaction of those who watched.  “I’ve been approached by white guys who were still sobbing after seeing the part with my parents,” Ann Kim laughs, referring to the segment of the show that dealt with her mother and father (temporarily) disowning her for pursuing a “passionate” showbiz career.  

The episode featured triumph as well as tragedy.  “I’ve been approached by families of immigrants—not just South Koreans—who told me that felt seen, heard, and represented during the episode,” Kim remembers cheerfully.  “I’ve received messages from all around the world.  We all share the same fears, hopes, and desires.  People fear being judged.”  

The story of Ann Kim is ultimately one of enduring stigma, enduring it and discarding it.  “We’ve come full circle,” she observes.  “All the things I grew up with, all the things I felt ashamed about, are things that I’m now really proud of.”  What’s more, those things have become her franchise, as more chef-y chefs might put it, making Pizzeria Lola stand out via such entrees as Lady Zaza, a pie which prominently features the very kimchi that drew the saline-inducing taunts of her classmates all those years ago.  “When we break bread on common ground,” she notes, “we find out the things we have in common.”

Her tears long since dried, Ann Kim continues to slash another stigma to pieces…or, more precisely, to slices.  “2014 was the third year of Pizzeria Lola’s existence,” Kim recounts.  “That year, we asked our team, many of whom were LGBTQ, ‘Do you want to participate in Dining Out For Life?’  And everyone did.  We’ve participated every year since.  Last year, we raised $17,000.”

While one way to support Dining Out For Life might be to sink all of your savings and credit into an unlikely business venture named after your pet dog, another, more lateral way to further the cause is to, you know, dine out for life, a gesture which will grant the Aliveness Project the same stigma-shredding agency that has served Pizzeria Lola’s non-chef-y chef so well.  “I hope you’ll support a good cause,” Ann Kim rallies.  “You can eat some great pizza and feel good about it!”

Pizzeria Lola
Dining Out For Life

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