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Sweet and Salty: Pastry Chef and Artist Heather Kim

She makes desserts that seduce sweet teeth as well as those who usually only eat savory. Heather Kim pulls from many influences and the results are irresistible.

Pastry whiz, Heather Kim
Pastry whiz, Heather Kim
Joy Summers

It was a little over a year ago, as Heather Kim was working on the first dessert menu for the about-to-open Rabbit Hole when she was met with skepticism from a nearby voice. She was determined to put a sweet red bean paste pastry on the list. "I just don't know how you are going to sell that in Minnesota. Beans for dessert?" said the well-meaning skeptic. What happened next?

The opening menu desserts at The Rabbit Hole including Hottek with adzuki beans

Here's a hint, if you'd like to see Heather Kim kick some major ass, tell her she can't do something. The result was a disk of flaky pastry that cradled sweet adzuki bean paste, drizzled with luscious caramel dulce de leche, spiked with warm cinnamon and anise. While her other desserts were undoubtedly good, this was on a different level.

"My idol - a batshit cray gangsta."

Kim isn't one to walk an easy or traditional road to success. Her intention was never to grow up and work in a kitchen. She grew up in Chicago, where her father ran two restaurants, including an Italian/Korean pizza spot. It is her father whom she credits for much of her work ethic and drive. "He's got a big personality," she said. "My idol - a batshit cray gangsta."

While aware of the family business, Kim was busy spending most of her time drawing. Later in life she would be diagnosed with synesthesia, a condition that allows her to experience the world in different sensations. Simplistically described as being able to mix senses, colors have sounds. Wikipedia describes it as,"one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway." Several well-known artists identify has experiencing the world this way including Pharrell, Tori Amos, Leonard Bernstein, Vincent Van Gogh and Itzhak Perlman.

Hola Arepa's Chevre cheesecake with tart gastrique

Kim says, "All kids draw, you know, I just never stopped." She found her way to Minneapolis like so many lured to our chilly climes, by love. She followed her college sweetheart here and applied to MCAD's graduate program. She never even considered that she wouldn't be accepted. (She was).

As she continued to pursue her art, she worked as a bartender to support herself. "Mojito was the first 'real' restaurant I'd ever worked in," she recalled. It was there she met and became friends with the pastry chef Sun Cowles. "We were just like, two peas in a pod."

Like, a Hot Cheeto brittle. I'm still trying to figure out how to use that

After years of living alongside Cowles, watching her work and tasting her desserts, Kim began to get a feel for the work that went into the pastry station. When her friend was short a worker, she threw back her shoulders, cocked her head and said, "I've seen what you do. Let me try that." Her friend scoffed. That was all the motivation she needed.

While the job did prove to be tougher than it appeared at the outset, Kim took to the pastry and quickly began working beyond standard dessert menu fare. "I like to take whatever I want to eat right now - like, say, Hot Cheetos and find a way to work that into a dessert. Like, a Hot Cheeto brittle. I'm still trying to figure out how to use that."

She met Thomas Kim (no relation) and Kat Melgaard when they first opened The Left Handed Cook stall inside Midtown Global Market. When the duo decided to move over to a full service restaurant, Heather collaborated with Thomas to bring his ideas for the pastry menu to life. It was a job she held until a week ago.

While working at The Rabbit Hole, she met Birk Grudem and Christina Nguyen of Hola Arepa. She and Nguyen formed a fast friendship. When those two made the move to open the brick and mortar counterpart to their truck, Kim was a natural fit for the restaurant. "They're inspiring."

Rich chocolate cake is balanced by a bright mango sauce and dusting of chili flake

Speaking with Kim, it's easy to fall into intense discussion. She listens to questions intently and pauses for long and sincere consideration before answering. As an interviewee, she fires back as many questions as she fields. She's funny, kind and incapable of turning off a brain that's whirls through ideas on several levels at onces. Conversations turn in concentric circles, pulling from pop culture and classical art influences.

Her desserts are as difficult to pin down as they are fun to eat. Diving into the Corn Pops and Fritos spiked ice cream cookie sandwich at Hola Arepa is reminiscent of the first tasting of a Christina Tosi dessert. The flavors coax childhood giddiness, college dorm room munchie cravings and a dance on the edge of sweet and savory.

It's like four perfect desserts in one - with pork cracklings!

Sadly, the cookie has gone for the season, "Who wants to eat an ice cream sandwich outside of summer?" she said. It's been replaced by a new dessert that demands your full taste bud attention. A fluffy, tender corn cake is topped with a sticky, tacky, toffee rich pecan pie coin adorned with plumped golden raisins, served alongside dreamy vanilla ice cream, garnished with a corn tuille and crumbles of chicharron. The entire dish is gluten-free and a glorious play on textures. That little savory note from the pork skin enhances the nuttiness of the pecans and coaxes toasty vanilla depths from the ice cream.

Rick Nelson described the chess pie as, "her crowning achievement.' A single service crust has the butter-rich texture of shortbread meets sugar cookie. The sweetness is balanced by a pillow of sour cream and it's all topped by tiny diced pieces of pineapple.

A delicious take on the Southern classic

Kim has a lot in the works right now, the Hot Cheeto brittle, her painting, a tattoo apprenticeship and possibly a new adventure with an old friend. About her dessert inspiration, she laughs. "I'm greedy! I want it all. Then I'll, throw it in a dessert or pastry."

Hola Arepa

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