Oh, hell no! I love pizza, but I never thought being a chef would be a career. But, pizza sustained me throughout my college years—delicious, portable, available. I had it at least once or twice a week. It’s in my blood, but it definitely wasn’t something I thought of as a career at first.
First and foremost, to me, great pizza always starts with great crust. Fundamentally, if you have really great crust, the pizza is going to sing and shine, and be amazing. When I first started researching and thinking about what my dough was going to look like, I read several bread baking books on artisan bread baking. At the time, there weren’t really a lot of books on artisan pizza, and for me, great pizza is essentially great bread. So, I took very much a bread baker’s approach to making great pizza, and that’s been the foundation of what we do at our restaurants ever since.
Well, the Korean flavors come from my background as a Korean immigrant. I grew up eating Korean food; my grandmother immigrated with our family when we were young, and she was the primary cook. From a very early age I was eating all the quintessential Korean items. So, it’s in my DNA, and in every restaurant so far, you’ll see traces of that. When I opened Pizzeria Lola, I didn’t have any intention of putting those influences in there, but as I was experimenting with different toppings and combinations, I thought that Korean barbeque and kimchi would taste really good on great crust. So, I started offering Korean barbecue as a special, and when we took it off, we got a lot of angry phone calls wondering where it went! So, we put it back on the permanent menu, and it’s been there ever since. We also put it on at Young Joni, and it’s our number-one-selling pie.
What I think is great about Korean food is all the variety of flavors. Unlike Western food where you have a protein, or a starch, or something else, in Korea, it’s really about sharing. Every bite can be different depending on what side dish you choose. In Korean cooking, everyone has their own bowl of rice, but everything else is up for grabs. The panchang is all shareable, and you’ll find anywhere from five to twenty-five different side dishes depending on where you are. So, every bit is different! Some are savory, some are salty, sweet, or sour, fermented, pungent or mild. Depending on the combination, it’s a completely different bite. So, when I was thinking about pizza, the crust is a foundation like the rice is, and everything you add on top makes it the vehicle with which you provide these different flavors.
I mean, I’m an immigrant to the United States—a small suburb of Minneapolis in the late ‘70s. And it was really difficult to find Korean ingredients in grocery stores. What we couldn’t find, my grandmother and mother basically made from scratch. You couldn’t just go find things. We grew things in our garden you couldn’t find locally. My palette has basically evolved from that upbringing in the Midwest, where at the dinner table we’d have kimchi and panchang, but also Kentucky Fried Chicken. We were putting kimchi on hamburgers and whatever we could find in the Midwest and then combining that with our Korean heritage. We came up with tastes that work for us. Some people call it fusion, I just call it good food. Now that I’m a chef, I’m just creating food based on that background and flavors that really speak to me.
I think with Pizzeria Lola, I never intended it to have any Korean influence. I intended it to be a neighborhood, wood-fired pizza restaurant, and it wasn’t until I experimented with putting Korean barbecue or kimchi on a pizza, that people really took an interest. People were coming in asking what kimchi was, and their first experience as on a pizza! That surprised and delighted me, and a lot of people said it made them want to eat more Korean food. I think that’s what good food should do, really open people’s minds like that, because there is no formula or recipe to that, it’s just whatever you think tastes good. So, Pizzeria Lola and Hello, Pizza were really a testing ground for me. They’ve helped me push the boundaries a little bit and get people excited about these flavors, so Young Joni is really where I got to present all the foods I love in a more broad way, and push what people expected from me. A lot of people ask what kind of food it is, and I’d just say delicious. One table of food is going to look really different from another, and I think that’s really wonderful, and it all just kind of makes sense.