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LYFE Kitchen - Behind the Scenes with Chef Kim

By Caroline Gee

Courtesy of Stephanie Shi

Courtesy of Stephanie Shi

How did you get to LYFE Kitchen?
Culinary Institute of America grad, graduated in 2003 with my bachelor's degree. Originally, I moved to Memphis. I love Memphis as a food town -- it’s kind of like here where it’s growing. It’s changing, so it’s a great place to get a good start and with LYFE Kitchen, that’s what we needed. Again, Memphis is a very small food town. We all know each other; where everybody knows six degrees of separation, in Memphis, food is more like four degrees of separation, so everybody knows everybody. 

With LYFE Kitchen, I’ve heard about them, I tried their food, and a friend of mine actually worked for them and said, “Hey, we have this position for a corporate executive chef opened up,” and I was on board. I met with Chance, I met with his administrators. I did basically a “Chopped” for them where they threw a bunch of ingredients at me and said, “What can you create for us with what we’ve got in our refrigerators,” and it was intimidating. It was very intimidating with what LYFE aligns with, but we pulled it off, and they hired me, and the rest is history, where I really love where this company is going. 

The big thing for me is that I’m a mom. I have a two-year-old right now, I’m a first-time mom, and so I think about these things a lot more, not just for me, but also for my son. And your parents, I’m sure you’ve seen it -- busy. Worrying about this and that meal while for me, instead of taking [my son] to a fast-food place or something less healthy, I’ve got this option now. I can stand by this brand, and I just felt this connection with the company that I really didn’t feel before with any other type of restaurant, with where they were going and how they were representing themselves. 

There’s lots of growth, and there’s actually meaning for this, especially in Memphis and in the south. I want to say that with LYFE Kitchen, we were drawn to each other, with what we viewed and how we wanted to position ourselves in the restaurant industry and with what we wanted to introduce to the world. Memphis is home; I like that we’re based in Memphis, but I also like the fact that we do get to come out to places like this, like Tino, Palo Alto, Texas, and get to know the community with what you guys want us to be. You guys are the driving force of where we are going to be going. 

What do you mean by saying that we are the "driving force"? Is it by the way LYFE Kitchen aims to meet the needs for dietary restrictions?
Yes. And there is a need for that. Some people don’t go to restaurants because the minute they say that they’re vegan, it’s “shame, shame, shame,” or people look down on you and cooks don’t take it seriously. When they don’t take it seriously, that’s when accidents can happen. Somebody can get sick; somebody can die from gluten or an allergen. So we do take it seriously, and we want people to recognize that we treat everybody equally. Whether you’re a vegan, whether you’re a vegetarian, you’re our customer and we want you to come back. 

How else does LYFE Kitchen help people with dietary restrictions?
[In other restaurants], it’s like, “Oh, you’re vegan so all you’re going to get is a plate of broccoli.” Or you’re a vegetarian and so all you’re going to get is mashed potatoes, green beans, and it’s just the fact that you’re missing the meat on the plate. Whereas here, you’ve got so many better options. It can be boring for someone that’s vegan because they’re very limited and they’re very restrained in what they can eat, so let’s open the doors and let’s show the non-vegans that it’s really not that bad, that it’s doable and that the food can actually be good. 

Does any of this hit close to home for you?
For allergens, I’m lactose intolerant. It’s a very big thing for me; my son is also lactose intolerant. [At LYFE Kitchen], the only dairy product that we actually carry is buttermilk. That’s for honestly the fried chicken, where the other types of milk we use are going to be coconut milk, almond milk, and soy milk. So I don’t have to worry about it; I don’t have to worry about the chocolate dessert that you had. I can eat that no problem, my son can eat that no problem. I don’t have to put this emphasis on the fact that, “Oh, this is special just for you because of this, because of this lactose intolerance.”


Courtesy of Stephanie Shi

Courtesy of Stephanie Shi

What’s your favorite part about working at LYFE Kitchen?
The people that I get to meet. Also, the people that I get to train. Education is probably one of our biggest tools that we have in educating our employees and also in educating the customers. I know it sounds kind of cliché, but education is power. It really does give our employees a step-up above everybody, to understand what gluten is. I could probably walk down this street and ask somebody what gluten is, and they’re not going to have any idea. Or even people who live a gluten-free lifestyle and say, “Hey what’s gluten?” and go, “I don’t know, I just don’t eat it.” 

My cooks, they know what gluten is. They know what a vegan can and cannot eat. They can distinguish those things, and that does make them a hot commodity. That does make them wanted in our workforce whereas a lot of other restaurants don’t take the time to train them properly. That’s a very big thing for our business; we put a lot of time and money into it. But the more we put in, we see there’s an investment. The more we put in, the more we get out from our employees. If you go talk to them, they’re happy. 
We empower them this way, to be able to make these decisions, to know these kinds of specialized types of things. They’ve got a specialized training that not everybody is going to get. 

Have any customers ever actually come up and thanked you?
Yeah, actually they have. I think the biggest thing is that we’re not treating these dietary restrictions ; differently, we’re treating them like normal everyday customers and not putting this spotlight on them. 
Food is very important, and I want people to understand that what you put in affects what you get to put out. The things that we put in here, we hope that it’s going to be able to affect everybody in a very positive way. Mentally, physically, spiritually, and emotionally -- it’s a really good feeling as a chef. We can’t hide behind these doors as a kitchen. We have to make our presence known, and we are making our presence known in a very positive light. 

Do you think that what you are doing here is affecting other restaurants in the community?
Most definitely. They’re going to have to think twice about what they’re serving and how they’re going to be perceived by the customer. Customers are more educated about food than ever, and if you think about it, twenty, thirty years ago, people wouldn’t know what gluten is, wouldn’t understand what Alton Brown has done with the science behind foods. It puts a lot of pressure on us, but that pressure keeps us on our toes. We’ve always got to be thinking and be innovating because if we don’t, our customers are going to get bored with us. 

Courtesy of Stephanie Shi

Courtesy of Stephanie Shi

I know that not everybody is going to like our food, and that’s okay. But if at least I can change somebody’s perspective and open up their mind about something, I see that as a win. It’s the same thing in Memphis, where even if somebody comes in from Memphis and likes regular fried chicken but tries our unfried chicken and may not like it 100 percent, at least it opens their eyes to the possibilities out there. It educates them and empowers them and makes them more a more well-rounded person that way. 

If I can get somebody through the door and get them to taste the food once, I bet you I can get them hooked. I bet you I can get them to come back and try something else, and that’s all that I want. That’s really all that I want to build, and that’s how we’re going to grow.