When the Rutgers University–Newark class of 2012 was ordering caps and gowns for their graduation ceremony, Coco Kim was packing her bags to go to South Africa for two weeks with a church group to help women in small communities there develop their own businesses. The organization she worked with was called Zimele, which is Zulu for “to be able to stand on your own.”

“A lot of churches go to other countries and build something, then leave, or try to convert people, but that wasn’t the goal here,” Kim NCAS’12 says. “It's not about the outside world putting influence on them. It’s more about having them stand on their own two feet and trust each other. I thought it was worth missing graduation for.”

Kim has worn a lot of hats in the 11 years since she graduated with a degree in visual arts: as sous chef at a prestigious New York restaurant, competitor on the Food Network’s “Chopped,” and graphic designer at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, to name a few. “I’ve had different identities: graphic designer, a chef, front of house manager, software engineer,” she says. “I’m thankful that I had these opportunities to explore all different sides of me.”

Kim credits Rutgers for giving her the confidence and leadership skills she needed to brave these adventurous choices, starting with living in Rutgers–Newark’s dorms away from her former high school social network. Not knowing anyone there made her stretch to put herself out into campus culture, serving as president of her residence hall council and the campus chapter of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Ultimately, that stretching gave her confidence.

“It gave room for me to explore what I wanted to do and try different classes, and not worry about going to the same class as my friend,” she says. “I love the community that we built—that helped me build my confidence as an artist. And that confidence put me in a place that I am now where I’m confident enough to chase what I want to do.”

Coco Kim preparing dishes

Today, with her 2019 TV celebrity appearance behind her, one of her key identities is as a Rutgers alumna who has blended her culinary skills with her love for volunteerism.

During the pandemic, Kim began volunteering with a program in her hometown of Englewood, New Jersey, called the Bergen Family Promise. This program collaborated with World Central Kitchen, whose donations paid local restaurants to provide meals for those who needed them. Local restaurants got money to stay afloat, and the community got the food it needed.

Through this program, Kim and her mom helped pass out free meals and groceries two or three times a week. She also helped launch the Hot Wheels Dinner Initiative, led by a local chef in Englewood, which cooks meals for low-income developments in the city.

“We would cook three hundred to four hundred meals for the community of Englewood once or twice a week,” she says. “It really fed my soul. I figured I have time and I don't have to worry about money right now, so why not help?”

When pandemic unemployment relief ran out, Kim began trying to figure out how she could help people while earning a living. She got a job at a restaurant in New York, which was working with a social service organization to deliver four hundred meals daily to low-income neighborhoods through their own food truck.

Kim has since moved into other roles, working part time as a personal chef and part time mentoring at-risk youth in Englewood through a program called MetroLIFE, following a group of high school students through their entire high school career. She also teaches Sunday school to fourth and fifth graders at Metro Community Church.

“I stay with the same kids for their entire high school career, mentor them, build relationships, create bonding opportunities, community service opportunities, emotional support, homework help,” she says. “I'm big on helping the community. It took me a while to realize how much that speaks to me. COVID really opened my eyes because I thought my passion was cooking. Now, it's all about people.”

Lunar New Year with Coco Kim

Coco Kim shows us how to prepare one of her favorite Lunar New Year dishes.

Lunar New Year video cover image

Lunar New Year Dishes with Chef Coco Kim (SASN '12)