Serving up Korean food with a sexy twist

Serving up Korean food with a sexy twist

It is clich to say that life takes interesting turns, but for celebrity chef Judy Joo, that may very well be the best way to describe the path that life has taken her.

The Korean-American who now lives in London began her career on the fix income-trading floor at Morgan Stanley upon graduating Columbia University with an engineering degree. She enjoyed her success but her heart was not in it. It was the fine dining that she was introduced to as a high-earning Wall Street trader that kept tugging at her heart.

“My job felt like a chore. Restaurant was my passion. Then I had my epiphany. ‘Life is short, do what you love,’” she said during an interview with The Korea Herald last month at Bicena, a modern Korean restaurant in Itaewon. She was in Korea for a few weeks in September with two English chefs for research in preparation for the opening of Jinjuu, a new Korean restaurant-bar due to open in December in London.

Celebrity chef Judy Joo (Judy Joo)

Determined to follow her passion, Joo enrolled herself at the French Culinary Institute where she graduated valedictorian. In 2007, she moved to London where a chance meeting with chef Gordon Ramsay led to her joining his famous kitchen. Two years later, she found herself becoming one of the four Iron Chefs in the U.K., which led to a TV career as a judge on several cooking survival shows. When the Playboy Club decided to open a restaurant in London in 2011, it turned to Joo, appointing her the executive chef.

Then Joo received a phone call sometime in April or May this year. “He had hunted down my phone number. He loved my food at Playboy Club and was looking for a new concept at his space,” said Joo.

She was referring to Kia Joorabchian, a football agent and entrepreneur who owns several restaurants. Ali Jassim from the United Arab Emirates is the other backer for the project, which ultimately aims to expand the restaurant globally. Everything was settled in the first meeting. “It was like a shotgun wedding,” she said.

“I want to bring in the cool K-factor and create a fun, sexy restaurant-bar. Jinjuu will occupy two floors on a Kingly Street building in Soho. “The area is becoming a gastronomic destination. It is open to pedestrian traffic only and there is a lot of drinking,” Joo said.

Taking advantage of its location, Jinjuu will offer bar services along with snacks and Korean-style tapas, or anju. It will also serve Hwayo, premium soju by Kwangjuyo, which launched in Fortnum and Mason recently. The dining room, located on the basement level, will feature large sharing plates. “People like the fun of interactive dining. This is the way people want to eat now,” said Joo, a self-professed casual concept fan.

Opening a Korean restaurant poses a unique set of challenges. While people have expectations about food that they know and expect consistency in how the food is served, the complete opposite holds for a Korean restaurant in London.

Judy Joo visits a fish market in Seoul with a camera. (Jason Lang)

“A lot (of people) will not know what they are eating. It is going to be a challenge to introduce and be critiqued. The bar is so low and people don’t have the knowledge,” said Joo, recalling an episode from Iron Chef. She had prepared gimbap and one of the judges said it needs more vinegar. The judge was familiar with the Japanese cousin of gimbap, futo maki, which uses vinegar seasoning in the rice; Korean gimbap does not.

In addition to the challenge of educating the public, staff education involving extensive training is important, according to Joo. That is why her chefs have accompanied her on several trips to Korea to educate their palate, finding inspiration and discovering design elements.

Another challenge in opening a Korean restaurant in London is the ingredients. Joo said the ingredients are not 100 percent authentic as she would like. “There are challenges to procuring MSG-free, preservative-free doenjang and gochujang, for example. Rules and regulations are very difficult,” she added.

At her soon-to-open restaurant-bar, Korean fried chicken is the star, bringing the chimaek (chicken and beer) sensation to London. “Korean fried chicken really goes well with beer,” she said. Korean marinated meat and ssamjang will also be featured prominently.

How is Korean food received abroad with the Korean government making a big push to promote Korean cuisine globally?

Abroad, kimchi is in vogue right now. Her U.S. television show, “Korean Food Made Simple,” featured kimchi and the response was overwhelming, she said. “Everyone wanted to talk about kimchi and its probiotic aspect,” she added.

Ssamjang is having a moment, too. “I featured bossam (broiled pork) and ssamjang (seasoned mix of doenjang and gochujang) at the Meatopia food festival and people loved it. It is quite addictive,” Joo said.

Another sign that Korean food is going worldwide: Joo just judged a new food show where one of the challenges was to give a Korean twist to the dish.

At Jinjuu, expect to find surprising modifications to traditional Korean dishes. “We will have a kimchi burger featuring bulgogi seasoning in the meat petty, oiji (picked cucumber), doenjang and gochujang. Call it fusion if you will, but I would call it modern Korean,” Joo explained.

Another perennial favorite given a new tweak will be japchae (transparent vermicelli with assorted vegetables and meat). “My japchae will be teeming with vegetables, mushrooms, shrimp and onions. I am elevating it to a gourmet dish again,” Joo said. “I am taking the best-loved dishes of Korea and beautifying them,” she said.

Given the restaurant’s location in a hip area, Joo expects young, trendy customers to come through her doors. Lunch would be priced at around 15 pounds while dinner with a drink can cost from 35 pounds to 40 pounds. Adding a cool vibe to Jinjuu will be a DJ who will be spinning music three nights a week.

“I am not trying to be authentic. Food is constantly evolving. There is a saying, ‘Today’s invention is tomorrow’s tradition. You can’t keep it authentic and globalize it,” she said.

“Some things are just not workable. You need to take Korean food and modernize it, make it appealing and palatable for the world,” said Joo, who was recently appointed goodwill ambassador for a Korean food festival organized by the Korean Food Foundation which is taking place Oct. 24-25 in Seoul.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.