Mi Kim of Raised Doughnuts is the definition of an early bird. The baker starts her mornings at 2 AM, opening up her shop in the Central District to prepare enough doughnuts, fritters, and frosted cakes for the day’s demand.
Before meeting Mi, I, too, considered myself a morning person. Those hours in between waking and real life are my quiet haven, counted in singular cups of coffee and many pages of Walt Whitman. But when I drag myself out of bed at the gritty hour of 3:30 AM to observe Mi’s morning routine, I miss my 7 AM sunrises, which now seem lazy in comparison to this pre-dawn purgatory. The chirpy and energetic Mi, on the other hand, is usually at the shop four days a week, from 2 AM till noon.
There is no better savior for my semi-awakened state than the dark, sludgy coffee that I brew right after walking into the bakeshop. I pour some out for Mi in a paper cup, but she’s absorbed in her task at the counter. She’s also “not a huge coffee drinker, anyways.” Besides, as a pastry professional with a culinary degree and a decade on the roster at nearby Macrina Bakery, mornings like these are as routine as spare change beneath a sofa cushion. I position myself on a corner stool behind the bar, nursing myself awake with the contents of my soggy cup and settling in to the shadow session with Mi.
Today, Mi is a one-woman show, although she usually has help from two or three shop assistants throughout the day. The yeasted dough has risen for two hours, and she’s beginning to shape it. She overturns the pale, pillowy mounds from their bins onto a dusted countertop and starts rolling and cutting them into rounds and rectangles. Nothing is wasted under Mi’s careful assembly. Scraps become apple fritters and raspberry holes, eaten later with as much delight as her glazed rings and frosted bars.
After the cutting, Mi starts to put the floppy dough through the industrial fryer. Deep within that metal well of oil is where the real magic happens. As the doughnuts react with millions of heated fat molecules, water “pops” out from the dough’s outer layers until the crust turns a crispy golden brown. Drop anything in sizzling oil and it’s bound to taste better, but it’s Mi’s recipe of hand-mixed flour, yeast, butter, and sugar that makes the treats at Raised Doughnuts so fluffy and addicting.
The shop opens at 7 AM, and Mi finishes glazing and decorating just before customers arrive.
As she greets folks, conversation drifts in easily. One person confesses to Mi how much they love apple fritters. They promptly order five to-go. Mi serves up their order with some extra raspberry holes thrown in. She does that a lot—doughnuts should be shared, not saved, Mi believes. Another woman explains how she drove all the way from Kirkland. “I’m such a big fan of your place,” she says. “I’m pregnant, and I’ve just been craving these doughnuts.”
These sorts of friendly interactions aren’t unusual. Customers span a wide spectrum of ages, but are mostly parents with kids or groups of hip teenagers. Some choose just one doughnut for the day; others can’t help but pick many. Since its early pop-up days in 2017, Raised has amassed a loyal following of doughnut aficionados. Managed by Mi and backed by local restaurateur I-Miun Liu (of Oasis Tea Zone), the bakeshop secured its current Central District location in 2018. Dedicated fans convene from all corners of King County for a taste of Mi’s creations.
Mi has loved doughnuts since childhood, when she would split a cinnamon cruller with her dad on commutes to the family’s American-style café in Sumner, which has now since closed. “It wasn’t even about the doughnuts themselves,” she says. “It was the tradition of it. Doughnuts were our thing.”
Mi’s parents immigrated from Korea—her dad in 1972 as a teenager and her mother 10 years after. Although Mi was raised in her Korean heritage, she also feels that her parents “were pretty Americanized” by the time she and her two siblings were born. “They were never the kind of Asian parents that wanted me to become a doctor or lawyer or anything like that,” she tells me. “And I made it clear from a young age that I was going to live my life my way. They were pretty good about handling it.”
I tell Mi about my mother and father, who left the poverty of their youth in China to face both poverty and perpetual foreignness in America. Assimilation was far from easy for my parents. It was a grueling ordeal, redeemed only by the promise of upward class mobility. Although educated and eventually wealthy, my parents’ anxieties continued into their relationships with my brother and me. I was raised in the doctor-lawyer-engineer path known by many in the second-generation.
For Mi, being Korean-American is simple. Straightforward. My own hyphenation is fraught with fragments of trauma, like shards of pottery in a half-finished archeological dig. We sit in silence, reflecting on the label of “Asian-American'' that both unifies and yet reduces our specificity. With no good answer in sight, Mi doles out some injeolmi almonds for us to snack on, and I shift the topic to the novel Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee, a heart-rending saga of generational love, loss, and longing.
Mi tells me she’s ready for the next chapter in her own story. Recently married to her partner Matt, a Black engineer at Boeing, the two are looking to start a family of three by the end of the year. Mi expects to step away from Raised Doughnuts for a time. By then, the bakeshop will also have moved to its new location right across 23rd St.
“My plan is to hire someone to replace me in the next few months and move the shop during winter break,” says Mi. I shadow Mi during March, so she has a few months until then. “And hopefully by the end of the year I’ll be pregnant and can let someone else take over.”
In the meantime, Mi will just “keep doing my thing.” Whatever this “thing” is, it’s working—Mi’s bakeshop often sells out long before closing time. But Mi prefers to stay grounded, despite the hype.
“I’m always surprised at the attention we get from people,” she shrugs. “It’s like, I’m just making doughnuts.”