Featured photo by Mark Edward Harris
No stranger to TV, Chef Judy Joo used to battle fierce competitors on ‘Iron Chef UK.’ Now she’s back on the small screen, introducing Korean cuisine to the masses on the cooking channel’s ‘Korean Food Made Simple.’
story by NAMJU CHO
David Chang did it with his slow-cooked pork bossam. Roy Choi did it with his galbi taco. And now, Judy Joo may be next in line to bring Korean-inflected flavors to the gourmet masses. Boricha (barley tea) sourdough, anyone? How about some of her kimchi carnitas French fries?
Joo is certainly poised to make this happen.
The 39-year-old, classically trained chef not only has the pedigree as the first and only female Iron Chef from the UK edition of the popular TV cooking competition, but she also enjoys something that superstar chefs Chang and Choi did not have before they hit the big time. Earlier this year, the London-based Korean American debuted her TV show, Korean Food Made Simple, on the Cooking Channel. It’s the first series dedicated to Korean cuisine for a mainstream American cable television channel. In its debut season, it was one of the top-5-rated, non-primetime shows on the Food Network spinoff.
The series follows the popular travelogue and cooking format of Jose Andres’ Made in Spain on PBS and Tyler Florence’s The Ultimate on the Food Network, in which the host draws inspiration from the bustling food stalls and fish markets overseas, and then returns to a home kitchen to make a dish inspired by the experience.
On Korean Food Made Simple, Joo gets a chance to travel to some off-the-beaten-path parts of Korea — places she says even her immigrant parents have never even been to — as she introduces viewers to experts in haemool pajeon (scallion pancake with seafood), kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew) mandu (dumplings) and even gimbap (rice rolls) making. Many of the establishments she visits are holes in the wall, with old ladies who have been cooking there for decades imparting their techniques — and aren’t shy about sometimes critiquing hers.
In an episode about dubu (tofu), Joo is seen stirring massive vats of the piping hot soy beans with a group of halmeonis in the countryside of Korea. “It was really fun. They ask you to call them imo (auntie),” says Joo. “Every time I asked why they were doing something a certain way, they were like, ‘That’s just the way it is.’”
When Joo started to stir the dubu in the wrong direction — it’s supposed to be clockwise the imos wasted no time in setting her straight. “It took longer than usual to make the dubu, and they blamed it on the stirring,” Joo says, chuckling.
Back in her home kitchen in London, Joo demonstrates for viewers how to make a dubu salad, featuring pan-fried dubu rectangles with a Korean-inspired vinaigrette of soy sauce, gochujang, sesame oil and scallions.
She is unapologetic about creating shortcuts or substituting ingredients as she makes Korean food “simple” for her viewers (“Cooking vegetables separately for japchae to keep the integrity of the vegetables or cutting things in the right shape — it’s very labor intensive,” she says. “I take shortcuts because I don’t have time.”).
Joo is also mindful that many in the show’s audience are being introduced to this cuisine for the first time.
“People have a genuine curiosity, which is nice,” says Joo. “[But] in 99 percent of America, this is the first glimpse into Korea and Korean food. So we tailor it to make the food as inviting and easy as possible.”
Purists might take issue with the series because of that tailoring, but Joo considers it “Korean Food 101.” She believes she brings authenticity by using decidedly Korean ingredients, and is staying true to her mission: “to spread the flavors of Korean food, and make it one of those global cuisines like Chinese or Mexican food that everyone knows about.” Joo wants classic ingredients such as duenjang (fermented soy bean paste that she describes as “miso paste on steroids”) and gochujang (red pepper paste) to become as common in the layperson’s culinary lexicon as wasabi or guacamole.
Perhaps the ultimate endorsement for the show’s authenticity lies in the fact that the South Korean government, as part of a campaign to promote Korean cuisine globally, is the primary sponsor of Korean Food Made Simple.
Born and raised in Summit, New Jersey, with no Korean markets nearby, Joo probably never imagined she would one day become a Korean food ambassador. The daughter of a chemist mother and physician father, she was more interested in studying science — she admits today she still geeks out on science magazines. Once you dig deeper, however, her career doesn’t seem as far-fetched, considering her food-centric upbringing, as she watched her mother prepare dishes at home—often summoning her two daughters to help. The matriarch used to grow her own chilies in the family’s garden and dry them to make gochugaru (Korean red pepper). She also grew kennip (perilla leaves), which Joo was often tasked to pick.
“The kennip used to prick my fingers,” recalls Joo, who also used to help her mom make large quantities of kimchi in an old baby tub.
In college, Joo pursued her scientific interests, studying industrial engineering and operations research at Columbia University. While in New York, though, she was introduced to the intriguing, fast-paced world of Wall Street and, after graduation, would work as a fixed income derivatives trader, energized by the job’s frenetic pace and earning a comfortable income. After five years of the same, she found herself spending more time leafing through cookbooks and cooking magazines instead of reading Barron’s and The Economist, and realized it was time for a major career and life change.
She left the trading floor and enrolled in the French Culinary Institute in New York. She graduated in 2004 at the top of her class.
She spent the first few years after culinary school working at the test kitchen for Saveur magazine in New York, developing recipes and researching food traditions. She also got involved in what she calls her “proudest moment as a chef,” running a program for a Harlem-based school in partnership with the nonprofit organization Slow Food USA, which aimes to educate inner-city children about making healthy food choices.
“It was about teaching underprivileged kids about food and where it comes from, changing food habits for life. I showed the kids broccoli and corn on the cob, and nobody knew what they were.
“Slow food needs to be in schools like this.”
Joo later relocated with her then-partner to London, where she eventually landed a job at celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s eponymous restaurant. She worked in the kitchen part-time, while also ghost writing a cookbook for mentor and friend Jason Atherton, formerly with Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant group.
In 2007, she became a full-time pastry chef and also worked at Ramsay’s other restaurants, including Maze, Claridge’s, Petrus and Boxwood Café.
Joo notes that professional cooking isn’t as “glamorous” as it sounds.
“It’s physically exhausting,” she says. “You’re standing on your feet for eight hours straight and on the job 10 hours a day, [sometimes] well over 12 hours a day. You need support stockings and special shoes, and your back starts to hurt.”
But Joo would have to stand up to more than just physical exhaustion when in 2010, she got her big break to become one of four UK Iron Chefs.
“It was the most stressful thing I’ve ever done in my life,” says Joo.
She was the sole female of the four Iron Chefs, which included Sanjay Dwivedi and Michelin star-winning chefs Tom Aikens and Martin Blunos, and had the least experience. Yet, she was able to channel the former Wall Street trader in her who regularly confronted intense stress on the testosterone-laden bond trading floor, as she duked it out on the “kitchen stadium” set.
The televised, over-the-top cooking competition that pits one of the Iron Chefs against a team of four challengers was adapted from a Japanese franchise and is known for throwing rare and unconventional ingredients at accomplished chefs. They are challenged to come up with multiple dishes using the “secret ingredient”; a prominent panel of judges then tastes and critiques the dishes.
The most challenging battle for Joo: calf’s liver.
“Disgusting,” she says. “It’s so big, bloody and vascular.” But Joo made it work by fusing different elements of her background — Korean heritage, American sensibility and French culinary training—into her food. She prepared a savory calf’s liver parfait using sweet wines and bacon onion cream; calf’s liver bibimbap, a take on the popular mixed Korean rice dish; and calf’s liver kalguksu, a comforting hand-cut noodle dish in broth.
The exposure helped her land the executive chef position at the Playboy Club London, where she led the kitchen from 2011 to 2014. Though the bar featured a “big-boy” menu, which celebrated American classics like burgers and steaks, Joo managed to leave her mark with distinct items like bulgogi buns, halibut served on top of kimchi fried rice, and kimchi carnitas French fries.
“We took kimchi bokkeum (stirfried kimchi), curd cheese and slow cook the pork for 48 hours,” Joo says, describing the preparation of the kimchi carnitas fries.
Boasting a longstanding relationship with the Food Network, Joo has also appeared as a judge on the network’s Iron Chef America and The Next Iron Chef. While judging the latter, Joo notably recorded a promo in which she said she fully expects to have no less than 12 “foodgasms.” (She got them.)
Now Joo herself may be delivering some foodgasms to viewers through Korean Food Made Simple. Audience response has been overwhelmingly positive so far, she says, and the Cooking Channel has already renewed the series for another season.
“I had people emailing me saying they wanted to visit Korea or that they didn’t realize that Korea is a modern, vibrant country with super-cool nightlife,” says Joo. “My neighbors in London went to Korea after seeing my show.
“What actually gives me pleasure is when people send me [a picture of] what they cooked at home using my recipe.”
Photo by Mark Edward Harris
Before filming starts on the second season of Korean Food Made Simple, Joo is busy working on two big projects: writing a cookbook due out in 2016 and opening her very own restaurant, Jin Juu, (Korean for “pearl”) in London later this year.
“It will be the first Korean restaurant in London that brings Korean food to the masses in an upscale, cool and fashionable way,” she says.
Starting with about 30 name choices, Joo whittled them down to a few and, after consulting with her investors and staff, Jinju came out on top. When they learned that Jinju’s copyright was taken, however, they tweaked it to be written as “Jin Juu,” which happens to coincide with Joo’s Korean first name, Jin, and her surname, Romanized differently.
The restaurant will be serving her eclectic brand of Korean American-inspired dishes. “Stuff I like to eat, like Korean fried chicken,” she says. “The ground floor is based around anju style (bar food) eating, serving Korean mini burgers, pajeon, japchae.”
Joo admits she’s both nervous and excited about the new venture, which like Korean Food Made Simple, seeks to “bring real Korean flavors to the masses in a very inviting and fashionable way.
“Jin Juu is going to be a very sexy, cool restaurant,” she adds. “[I want it to be] a fun, comfortable, casual yet highend experience with great food, friends and drinks. We will even have a DJ three nights a week.”
Though she took a meandering path to her current career, Joo has clearly found that her passion lies in food and encourages other Korean Americans to follow their heart. Joo notes that her mother initially couldn’t fathom her daughter’s decision to drop a well-paying job at Morgan Stanley to pursue what she considered a hobby. But she eventually came around to the idea of professional cooking after Joo was invited to the South Korean presidential residence, the Blue House, as a delegate for a cultural conference preluding the G20 Summit in 2010. Joo adds that both her parents love her cooking show, and were “quite chuffed” to see themselves on TV.
“The hardest thing growing up was realizing that there are other options than being a doctor,” says the chef. “[Anchorwoman] Connie Chung was the only person who looked like me on TV. This generation is lucky that there are more Korean Americans doing crazy things in traditionally non-respected fields like acting and entertainment that didn’t give parents bragging rights. I think the younger generation should not be scared to pursue something they want to, if they have a passion for it.”
This article was published in the August/September 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the August/Sept. issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).