Updated: Sep 26
I'm 43 years old as I sit today and begin to write this little letter. Of course my thinking and overall being are much different than they were when I was 33, when I was 23. And I'm certain that at 53, I'll be able to look back to where it is that I find myself now and say the same. I hope so anyhow! It'll mean that I'm still alive and healthy enough to think such and that I'm conscious of my inevitable growth as an ever aging human.
The project that was most pivotal in transforming my life came to an end almost exactly 7 years ago as I sit back and date that important time for me. I think about that project and the woman that made it possible nearly everyday. I met Connie Kim in 2007 as she owned and ran the convenience store within the first neighbourhood that I moved into when I arrived in Vancouver. Connie is Korean and at the time, I had just left Korea after teaching English there for 3 years, so that fact served as our initial connector. And then I had a Korean friend moving to Vancouver that needed a place to stay. I was able to help her land in Connie's garden suite apartment. As I helped my friend move in, I couldn't help but notice that Connie's house was in need of a bit of attention. Connie was on her own at the time and her business required her to be working 7 days a week from 8:00 am until she closed shop at 10:00 pm. As I would visit my friend in her new apartment, I began to do some basic yard cleanup and maintenance work at Connie's home. And within her incredibly busy schedule, her food somehow began to find its way in front of me. She would cook when she got home following a 14 hour work day. Connie's food was nothing short of spectacular! She has the touch to say the least. She's creative and not afraid to try new ways.
An unlikely friendship began to form between us. I was a 31 year old east coast Canadian boy and she, a Korean woman, 20 years older. I started to do some work for Connie at her store and then she asked me to install a tile floor in her bedroom one day. The tiles were quickly purchased and she had her design illustrated and ready to go (a lot of mosaic), but what initially took me aback was the fact that she wanted to help me! Remember, her work day ended at 10:00pm. So, in fact, we did the tile work for a couple of night sessions upon her closing up her shop.
It was during this project that I got to know Connie a bit better and truly began to see the brilliance and specialness of this incredibly strong and wise woman. I eventually was able to move into Connie's garden suite where a close friendship and business partnership seemed to naturally evolve. It was during this time that Connie had decided to sell her business due to exhaustion from years of over working and with her having to endure so much throughout her personal life (details that I , of course, will not get into). Connie took a year off and leased out her business. The time allowed her to spend her energy within her home for the first time and her new circumstances were to powerfully influence and shape my life.
I was able to set up my first studio space, although I didn't actually even recognize it to be such at the time. I began collecting materials and tools and basically dove right into the work that I've continued doing for over a decade now. Oh my goodness. It was like an explosion of creativity and inspiration flowing through my veins, and it was Connie that allowed the space and opportunity for me to even begin to unearth the bottled up energy, filled with both joy and pain, that was desperately needing to be dug up. For nearly a year, Connie and I worked together in reinventing her house and unbeknownst to me at the time, I was gaining invaluable experience in design, style, technique - in everything! And also unbeknownst to me at the time, the person that was going to drastically influence, shape and help me change my life around by allowing me to become the person that I desperately was wanting to become, was naturally mentoring me all the while. She was able to lead me, to guide me in so many ways. We were able to do a lot of work, both inside and out, to her home and then her one - year break from her business neared to an end.
Connie was ready to sell her business and then I began suggesting otherwise. I had just spent the past year eating Connie's food, day after day, and I just couldn't believe that I was continuing to be fed in such a way. Her style, the ingredients, the presentation, the quality - were all so top grade. Connie is a true artist in life and has an incredible touch and sense on all things quality. Her love of great literature, timeless art, film and music are testament to just that. At the time, I had thought that my eyes and mind were wide open; I was to steadily be humbled as both my eyes and mind continued to open further and further.
Connie did hear me out on my suggestion that we transform her existing corner store to something nearly the complete opposite. She not only heard me out, but she was up to the challenge of having to carve out an entirely new path into a new unknown.
For me, there was really nothing at stake. As Bob Dylan wrote and sang - "when you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose" For Connie, it was her already existing business that was profitable. It was her mortgage. It took a lot of courage for her to lay things on the line!
So, we went to work. I was basically given a blank canvas to physically transform the corner store into its new identity, an identity that would still have her as the central focus, but this time - with her serving up her own creations from her new kitchen. It was out with the same old, same old, and in with the very different - almost the complete opposite.
We had settled on 'Connie's Cookin' very early into the actual renovation/makeover, if I do so recall correctly.
Connie's Cookin' - The cooking is Connie's.
Connie's Cookin' - Connie is actually doing the cooking.
Connie's Cookin' - Connie is on fire!
I can vividly remember making the sign as I reflect back as I write, here and now - right here and now.
It wasn't easy to close up a neighbourhood shop that had been in existence for nearly 100 years. A neighbourhood seems to collectively come to a routine and when the convenience of a convenience store is suddenly stripped away, it's sometimes forgotten or overlooked that, to those who must toil day after day, things aren't exactly what we would all agree to be 'convenient'. It was simply time for a change!
For me personally, it was truly an unbelievably maturing experience. I basically went from having no experience with such a renovation/transformation process to tackling an entire cafe/grocer/kitchen design and build in a very creative and free-flowing manner. A very basic layout was mapped out in my mind and I just got to work. I say 'I' because Connie had to return to Korea for some months to tend to her aging mother.
The materials that became incorporated into 'Connie's Cookin' were primarily reclaimed and found by myself and transported by my little 1984 Toyota Van and done so from all over Vancouver with lots of trips to and from the beaches.
I basically just began from a corner and continued to work my way out. It's amazing how a style and pattern began to naturally formulate for me and as I reflect back, it's very clear to me that my current techniques, although much more finely tuned, remain very similar.
I want to catch myself here before I continue on too long; I may have already done just that. I want you to simply know that Connie Kim was undoubtedly the central focus of the entire transformation. After her return from Korea, we went to work, day and night, for several more months to not only complete the physical renovation but to manifest our new working concept, to develop a menu and to equip the shop with quality items that often came from local artisans. I could go on and on about the space that came to be, about how amazing Connie is and about how life - transforming the project was for me!
I could only wish that for those of you struggling young adults out there that are seeking a healthy and responsible manner in which to share your inner creative desires and are even wanting to begin to understand what those even are, can chance upon the fortune to have a similar experience to the one that Connie and Connie's Cookin' awarded me!
The mentoring process is quite powerful if the right chemistry transpires and my current mentoring work stems from me having gone through very tough and confusing times and being able to come out the stronger person due to very caring and sincere mentoring influences. I just may be the right fit for someone out there reading like yourself.
And if you're a small business owner and are knowingly needing an overhaul, I just may be the right person for you to help you realize a vision that you are truly wanting to bring to life.
Connie's Cookin' was very successful! So many people out there were seeking such a place to come into. I run into old customers all the time and it makes me proud to hear their words about our space and food each occurance. It was an oasis of sorts. I was able to witness almost everyone's reactions when they entered our door and I kid you not when I say, some were moved to tears upon entering for the first time! It was a very powerful thing for me to witness, as I was beginning to understand what my true work was. I'm able to share photos of my work here with you, but unfortunately, I'm unable to give you a taste of the main reason that people came to us day after day - Connie's Work - her food! It was amazing and I was able to compile many written testimonies from our many beloved customers that would solidify my claim.
Connie's mentorship saved me in many ways. It allowed me to hit the wall that I needed to hit at the time and it picked me up - she picked me up and put an arm around me and I dedicate myself, through my evolving work, to doing the same!