Tag Archives: food

Photo by CandaceWest.com3-26-2014,Bao Las Olas1200 E. Las Olas Blvd. , Fort Lauderdale.

Simon Bai Returns to Asian Roots at Bao

by STEVE HAN | @stevehan

Simon Bai speaks Dutch and Creole. His Spanish is also “all right,” he says. MEGA 94, Miami’s local Latin music station targeting its massive Central and South American immigrant population, is his car’s default radio station.

One of the reasons this 33-year-old, South Florida-based entrepreneur opened Bao, an Asian-themed bar and restaurant in Ft. Lauderdale, earlier this year was that he grew frustrated with feeling “so not Asian,” even though he’s a full-blooded Korean. “I wanted something to tell me I’m still kind of Asian somewhere, you know?” Bai says, as he sits across the table from me at his bar. “Like, I wanted to do something Asian!”

Born in Brazil, Bai was raised in Suriname and settled in South Florida after he graduated from Penn State with a degree in mechanical engineering in 2003.

“I’m a little screwed-up in the head,” Bai says, laughing. “I’m not Surinamese, technically. I’m not Latin, technically. I’m not Korean, technically. I don’t know what the hell I am. I’ve lived in the U.S. as long as I lived in Suriname. So, am I American then? I don’t know. I won’t consider myself American until the friggin’ immigration gives me a green card.”

Green card or not, South Florida is where Bai, who’s in the U.S. on an investor visa, feels at home more than anywhere else in the U.S. After finishing college, he landed a job at Motorola, which had a plant near Miami until 2004. That’s when Bai took the entrepreneurial route and started a frozen yogurt and cupcake business amid the nation’s Pinkberry craze. The business took off, Bai says, and that’s what shepherded him into the hospitality industry. He ran a wine bar and then a sports bar, which he sold last year to start Bao.

Opened this past February, Bao (which could mean “treasure” in Mandarin and also refers to a popular bun in Chinese cuisine) is located by the waterway on the strip of Las Olas, Ft. Lauderdale’s hip and bustling shopping and dining district, where even those cruising on a boat could pull up for a cocktail by the water.

What’s more impressive is that the bar, built using wood from the Munguur tree, complemented by Indonesian teak furniture, was mostly designed by Bai himself. He transformed what used to be an old Chinese restaurant into an attractive nightlife destination in only six months.

“I’m the restaurant vulture, the restaurant rehabilitator, or whatever it is,” Bai says. “I always try to find failing restaurants, see if there’s an opportunity, and I’ll go and redo everything. When you grow up in a third-world country, you grow up without resources. So that’s how I approach everything. Every restaurant I buy, I basically gut it.”

Bai’s father, who picked up Portuguese during college in Korea, first moved to Brazil in the 1970s, when an American seafood company with offices in Brazil hired him to communicate with Korean fishermen and ship captains. After Bai was born, his family moved to Suriname, where his father started his own business, exporting shrimp to the U.S. and Japan.

Sensing that the only way to ensure quality education for their two children was by sending them abroad, Bai’s parents sent him and his sister to Miami in 1998. Bai has been in the U.S. since, but still visits his hometown of Paramaribo several times a year to reunite with his friends—with whom he shares fond memories of going “stray dog hunting.”

“We had packs of stray dogs,” Bai recalls. “That’s how third-world it was. But I loved the place. That’s home, where anything is possible.”

Even in Suriname, Bai grew up in a traditional Korean household—attending piano lessons and taking taekwondo throughout his childhood—but today, he only speaks broken Korean (his first language is Dutch and second is Creole). He remarks that this reporter is the first Korean he’s met in person this year, aside from his sister who came to visit him a few months ago. But he proudly says that his upbringing in Suriname, where resources are vastly limited, helped him develop the business mind that inspired his growing hospitality empire.

“I look at different start-ups and I’m like, ‘Why are these guys so spoiled?’” Bai says. “They do rounding, funding and raise all this money. They kind of operate comfortably. I operate like I’m going out of business every single day because, then, there’s that fire up my ass, and I just run. That’s what I do.”

At Bao, Bai’s fifth project, the kitchen is almost fully exposed to the dining area, so that anyone at the bar could watch its executive chef, Mark Rivera, make both authentic and fusion Asian cuisine. Bai and Rivera both take great pride in using high-quality ingredients.

“South Florida’s dining destinations kind of suck,” Bai says. “It’s more geared towards tourists and volume, as opposed to quality. That’s what we’re trying to change. Everything is actually cooked. Everything is fresh grown, which is new. In California, you have more opportunity to go from farm to table. I’ll give you an example. It’s extremely hard to find wild sockeye salmon. We literally seek it. That’s why we also run out of a lot of things. That’s our biggest complaint right now. Grass-fed beef, for instance, they run out of them. We literally seek farms, fisheries, to provide us with better ingredients.”

Bai is even willing to leave money on the table by refusing to serve sushi and pad Thai, just so that they could protect the brand they’re trying to build with Bao.

“If you go down the strip here, there are four Asian restaurants,” says Bai. “They do what sells—California rolls and pad Thai. I don’t even know how much money we lost because we don’t have sushi. The idea behind that is so that people don’t pigeonhole us as ‘that other Asian restaurant.’ When  they talk about us, whether it’s good or bad, I want them to say, “Oh, let’s go to that crazy place where they don’t have your typical Asian dishes.’”

The next goal for Bao is to expand its boundaries. Bai is already in negotiations with two other locations in South Florida, where he hopes to run “express” versions of Bao.

“The current version [of Bao] is fine dining,” Bai says. “We’re a dinner destination. So I’m pushing that lunch aspect, lunch and light dinner. We’ll take the current menu and dumb it down to fast food. You look at the Chipotle model, they’ve got an amazing model, so we’re trying to be the Asian version of that.

“This is my first Asian concept,” he adds. “I wanted to do something Asian [because] I’m friggin’ Asian! I’m trying to go back to my roots.”


Photo by CandaceWest.com.

This article was published in the October/November 2014 issue of KoreAm under the title “Finally Friggin’ Asian”  Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the magazine issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).

The RushOrder team

Online Food Delivery App Taps into L.A.’s Koreatown


Ordering delivery from a slew of neighborhood restaurants, all from the convenience of your smartphone or mobile device, has never been easier thanks to apps like Seamless, Eat24 and other brands.

The latest product to join the online food delivery space is RushOrder, a Los Angeles-based start-up that aims not only to minimize wait times for things like the check or a latte for the busy person on the go, but also to bring small mom-and-pop-type establishments in Los Angeles’ Koreatown into the online delivery fold.

This pairing of Korean restaurant options with the technological ease of ordering menu items online (let alone discovering such a place exists within several miles of your location) is one thing the team behind RushOrder believes separates it from its competitors.

“We’re familiar with these places and the people who go there, so we’re able to bring these restaurants into our system,” said Eric Kim, RushOrder’s chief operating officer. “We’re providing access to users and customers who haven’t had access to these restaurants before. A customer can now order from restaurants that serve Korean blood sausages.”

RushOrder originally was conceived as a way to eliminate inefficiencies of the dine-in experience, such as waiting for a server to take an order or bring the check. The product has since undergone several “pivots,” as the team members put it, by focusing on partnering with restaurants and capitalizing on the growing popularity of L.A.’s Koreatown.

RushOrder launched in February. Though it aims to serve cities all over the country, it’s concentrated in L.A. for now.

Available on Android Google Play and Apple iOS for the iPhone and iPad, the RushOrder app hopes to fill a large gap in the online food delivery space.

“The thing we want to emphasize is Koreatown and how those restaurants are not really on these online platforms,” Kim said. “We want to introduce this older generation of Koreans who own these businesses to technology.”

“On the tech side,” he added, “a lot of online ordering companies haven’t been able to access this market because the people who run it aren’t familiar with this space and the language barriers.”

Kim, a 30-year-old former Wall Street consultant who grew up in Koreatown, credits popular chefs like the Kogi Truck’s Roy Choi and culinary television personality Anthony Bourdain for helping put Koreatown on the map as a food destination, thus making it a prime source of savory dining options for the online delivery crowd.

RushOrder will soon be offering delivery and takeout from nearly 300 restaurants in the greater Los Angeles area, including lesser-known places like Nak Won House, Wako Donkasu, Myung In Dumplings and Jang Teo Bossam, in addition to pizza joints and delicatessen staples.

“The mobile ordering payment space is pretty competitive,” Kim acknowledged. “There are lots of companies like us running around. The challenge isn’t getting the restaurants on board. The important metric is, how fast are they growing orders and users, and are they bringing in business?”

So among the plethora of online delivery platforms that seem to be expanding by the day, is there really room for another product?

“Yes,” says Kim. “Delivery is becoming a much greater part of peoples’ lives. Everyone is so busy these days. People spend less time going out to eat and more time working and keeping themselves busy.”

“Even in a place like L.A.,” he said, “the need for delivery is growing rapidly.” Plus, Kim adds, “The Koreatown community is becoming much more popular in Los Angeles.”

Photo Courtesy of RushOrder


‘Calculus Chocolates’ Offer Sweet Relief for Korean Students


Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.

That is, unless you buy a box from Piaf Artisan Chocolatiers in South Korea. And if your life revolves around studying, like most Korean students during the annual college entrance exam season, a box of Piaf Artisan chocolates might be exactly what you’re looking for.

The latest work from the Seoul-based chocolatier features candies decorated with calculus equations. Assuming the chocolate is delicious, this could very well be the perfect food for thought.

Chocolate 1

“I hope these can bring a smile to their faces as they get themselves prepared for the exams,” creator Ko Eun-su told the Wall Street Journal.

Ko, who left a seven-year career as a computer engineer to pursue his passion in chocolate-making, explained that he took the project “very seriously.” But the feedback wasn’t quite what he expected.

“[Customers] said people cracked up when they got these [chocolates],” he said.

The calculus chocolates are sold in box sets of four, nine and 15, and they will run you 13,000 won ($12), 25,000 won ($23) and 39,000 won ($36) respectively. Each box also comes with a helpful booklet explaining the equations.

Chocolate 4

Chocolate 5

You can check out the rest of Piaf Artisan Chocolatier’s creations at their Facebook page.

Images via Piaf Artisan Chocolatier

Screen Shot 2014-11-07 at 5.35.32 PM

LINK ATTACK: Jamie Chung, Hallyu Beauty Storm, Kim Jong Il’s Former Bodyguard

North Korean Defector: ‘I Was Kim Jong Il’s Bodyguard’
“When Kim Jong Il would arrive in his vehicle, 60- to 70-year old advisors would run away and throw themselves onto the grass. They had dust on their clothes but they wanted to hide from him,” said Lee Young-guk, who was a former body guard to the late Kim Jong Il for 10 years. “They are scared because even when he was happy he would be rude and could chop off their heads.”

Skin Care Products from South Korea Catch on in the United States
Although the beauty market has long been led by European countries, South Korean beauty products are starting to become a popular trend in the States.

Vietnamese Translation Errors Could Affect Prop. 46
“An error in translation for voter materials for Proposition 46, which would require drug and alcohol testing for physicians, could be affecting the way Vietnamese Americans vote on the measure.”

The Super Jamie Chung in Big Hero 6
KoreAm‘s sister publication Audrey Magazine interviews Jamie Chung, the voice actress behind the speed demon GoGo Tomago in Disney’s latest animated film, Big Hero 6. 


The Odd Friendship Between North Korea and Its First American Surfers
Julie Nelson was one of the first people to ever surf in North Korean waters and led the reclusive country’s first-ever surf camp, which showed North Koreans what a surfboard looks like and even taught some locals on how to swim.

OC Korean American Voter Turnout Increased Twofold Since June
“The number of Orange County Korean American voters who participated in Tuesday’s general elections increased about twofold since June primary elections.”

Son of South Korea Ferry Owner Is Convicted of Stealing Millions
“The eldest son of the South Korean business mogul who controlled the company that ran the Sewol ferry, which sank in April, leaving more than 300 people dead, was convicted of embezzlement on Wednesday and sentenced to three years in prison.”

Asian American Horror Thriller The Unbidden Launches Kickstarter
The Unbidden follows the story of four women haunted by the ghost of a tortured man, who knows their dark secrets from their past and seeks vengeance. Starring an all Asian American cast with Tamilyn Tomita, Julia Nickson, Elizabeth Sung, Amy Hill, Jason Yee and Karin Anna Cheung, this psychological thriller delves into the issue of domestic violence and the morality of retribution.

7 Deadly Spicy Korean Ramens to Try
Think you can handle spicy food? Koreaboo lists seven of Korea’s spiciest instant noodle brands.

South Korean Monk Tends to Souls of Dead Enemy Soldiers
A South Korean Buddhist monk cares for the graves of 769 North Korean soldiers in a forgotten cemetery along the SFXI Highway that runs from Seoul to the barbed wire fences of the demilitarized zone.

Japanese Swimmer Denies Stealing Camera at Asian Games
Naoya Tomita, a Japanese swimmer who was accused of stealing a camera during the Asian Games in South Korea, denied the allegations earlier this week, stating that an unidentified male forcefully put it in his bag.

The Unbelievable Story of a Woman Who Taught North Korea’s Elite Undercover
Suki Kim, an American journalist born in South Korea, talks to Huffington Post about her surreal experience teaching at the all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.

Heard in Seoul: Views on Reunification
Korea Real Time hits the streets of Seoul and asks South Koreans about their thoughts, hopes and concerns for a possible reunification with North Korea.


A Journey to the Heart of Korean Cheese
“Imsil, in North Jeolla Province, was where Korea’s first cheese was produced in 1964 by Belgian missionary Didier Serstevens, who wanted to bring the community a sustainable income…”

South Korea Tries to Re-brand DMZ as Rare Animal Sanctuary
The South Korean government pushes for the construction of a wildlife sanctuary in the middle of the DMZ as part of a trust-building strategy between the two Koreas.

5 Most Innovative Korean Restaurants in NYC
Korean cuisine has been growing steadily popular among New York foodies. Here are five innovative Korean restaurants in NYC you don’t want to miss.


Why Most East Asians Are Lactose Intolerant


It’s been several hours since you enjoyed that delicious milkshake, and now your belly protests with rumbling, cramping — probable harbingers of flatulence and watery diarrhea quickly heading down the pipe, your pipe.

You could digest milk as a kid, so what happened to you? Why did you lose such a useful biological power?

Let’s start with some basics. Lactose is a sugar found in mammalian milk — the milk of cows, humans, even East Asians. It’s composed of two simpler sugars linked together.

Enzymes are proteins that behave like chemical factory workers in your body and are typically named with the suffix -ase. A particular enzyme will perform a specific function, like joining two molecules or splitting one apart. Lactase enzymes in your small intestines break down countless lactose molecules into glucose and galactose, which are small enough to be absorbed by your gut lining.

Unless you don’t have enough of this enzyme, that is. Most human children feature lactase in their intestines, which allows them during their breastfeeding years to digest milk produced by their moms. But some of us will experience a drastic decrease in the amount of this enzyme, often around age 5. This reduction is known as lactase nonpersistence. If the lactose isn’t reduced for absorption, it remains in the intestines, pulling in water from the rest of the body (hello, diarrhea) and being converted by our intestinal bacteria into unpleasant stuff, including lots of hydrogen gas.

Many East Asians and Native Americans, up to 90 percent in some ethnic groups, become lactose-intolerant after the early childhood years as their genes direct a slowdown in the production of lactase. A nearly opposite ratio of lactase nonpersistence exists in people of northern European descent, who can digest dairy throughout adulthood. Why the difference?

Those human cultures that relied on dairy as an important source of nutrition created a survival pressure on its members. Those individuals who could absorb lactose were more likely to survive and pass on their genes, including those for lactose digestion. The individuals who had trouble absorbing lactose experienced diarrhea, malabsorption of other nutrients, and were therefore more susceptible to disease and earlier death, reducing their chances to establish a lactose-intolerant family.

There are other ways to be lactose intolerant. Some persons have a genetic issue preventing production of lactase enzymes, even in infancy. Others may temporarily develop lactose intolerance during an illness affecting the bowel. Lactose intolerance is not the same as allergy to milk proteins, which is a problem of the immune system, not of lactase deficiency.

So how do the lactose intolerant navigate their way through a dairy-laden world? You can consume just small amounts of dairy at a time. You can veer toward cheese and yogurt, which tend to contain less lactose than milk. If you want milk, there is the option of buying milk pretreated with lactase that has broken down lactose into its constituent sugars; since you now have two sugars in place of every lactose molecule, lactose-free milk tends to be sweeter than regular milk, a bonus for those who have to pay extra for the lactose-free variety.

And you can buy over-the-counter lactase enzymes to consume along with your favorite dairy item, though be aware that the pills might not perfectly deconstruct every molecule of lactose present in your food — in other words, you still might experience some of the symptoms of lactose intolerance, though hopefully at a lesser intensity.

Lastly, the lactose intolerant can simply avoid dairy altogether. Today there is a multitude of dairy-free options that allow us to enjoy the taste of our favorite dairy items without suffering as some of our ancestors would have.

Dr. Sean Chung is an internal medicine physician based in Southern California.


KoreAm put together a list of some dairy-free alternatives to some of your favorite foods. 

This article was published in the October/November 2014 issue of KoreAm under the title “Dare to Have Dairy”  Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the magazine issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).


KFC SKorea’s New Double Down Makes You Feel Like a King


It’s not often you see fast food from around the world outdoing the sodium-laden, artery-clogging and calorie-loaded fast food of the United States. But globalization is sometimes a wonderful thing, and its latest product hails from KFC South Korea.

The Zinger Double Down King is the latest in the KFC Double Down evolutionary line, which had its humble beginnings in 2010 with two fried chicken fillets acting as buns to encase cheese and bacon. Now, the Zinger Double Down King (Zinger refers to the spicy chicken available at KFC) includes a beef patty and barbecue sauce.

This fearsome construction of beef, pork and chicken carries 750 calories, but on the bright side, it’s all yours for a very lucky $7!

Image via Tumblr

If you take your cheat days seriously, be sure to check out the other iterations of the Double Down. The Zinger Double Down Maxx, released last year, feature bacon, cheese and a hash brown between the fried chicken buns. It is now apparently a permanent menu item due to popular demand.

Looking for other Asian fast food treats (abominations)? Be sure to check out Burger King Japan’s burger with black cheese and bun and McDonald’s Japan’s response, the black “Squid Ink Burger.”

Image via KFC South Korea


Chef Corey Lee’s Benu Receives Three Michelin Stars


San Francisco’s reputation for excellent cuisine soared as two more of its restaurants were awarded three stars by the 2015 Michelin Guide to Bay Area restaurants, which was released earlier today.

As of yesterday, Chef Corey Lee’s Benu and Joshua Skenes’ Saison joined Bay Area’s restaurants the French Laundry and the Restaurant at Meadowood in the esteemed three-star category.

Michelin’s international director told Mercury News what set Benu and Saison apart were a “dazzling and distinctive fusion of local ingredients, Asian inspiration and Northern Californian gastronomic sensibility.”

Lee opened Benu in August 2010 and was given two stars by Michelin in October 2011. KoreAm had the opportunity to talk to him then about the food he serves, as well as his journey to becoming one of the most well-known chefs in San Francsico. You can read the article here from the November 2011 issue of KoreAm.

Expect to hear a lot more about Lee and Skenes and their cuisine in the coming months. Lee, a French Laundry alum, opened Monsieur Benjamin, a 90-seat bistro, over the summer, and he is putting together a cookbook. Skenes also has one on the way, and he plans to open a hand-pulled noodle restaurant with Umami Burger founder Adam Fleischman in 2015.

Mercury News also noted the rise of Asian-inspired restaurants on the Michelin list. Along with Benu and Saison, sushi restaurants Kusakabe and Maruya joined the one-star roster. Seven out of the 13 newcomers to the 2015 Michelin Bib Gourmand honors, which is bestowed on excellent restaurants where two courses and a glass of wine costs $40 or less, were Chinese, Japanese or Asian-inspired. You can find the full list of the 2015 restaurants here.

According to SF Gate, it’s the first time in history that San Francisco proper has had a three-star Michelin restaurant, let alone two. The French Laundry and the Restaurant at Meadowood are both in Napa Valley.

If you’re looking to make a reservation at the newly-christened Benu or Saison, do it quickly and expect to pay a good amount. Saison was already among the most expensive restaurants in America, and Benu could understandably raise their prices.

The West Coast now boasts four Michelin three-star restaurants, although unfortunately for Southern Californians, they’re all in the Bay Area. Chef Roy Choi is quick to defend the Southland, however.

The 2015 Michelin dining guide for San Francisco, one of just three U.S. regions to have its own guide, goes on sale today. The Michelin Guide discontinued its Los Angeles version two years ago.

Photo by Vivien Kim Thorp


Chef Ambassador Judy Joo

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.

F-Judy-AS14-Korea1Joo in a rural village, where she gets to help make dubu (tofu) for her show Korean Food Made Simple, which takes her to off-the-beaten-path parts of Korea. (Blink Films/Media Story 9 Production)

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.

F-Judy-AS14-DosirakJoo with a dosirak maker on her show Korean Food Made Simple. (Blink Films/Media Story 9 Production)

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.

F-Judy-AS14-IronChefUK1Joo was the sole female Iron Chef on the UK version of the popular TV cooking competition.

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.”

F-Judy-AS14-Korea2Joo at an organic tea plantation in Boseong. (Blink Films/Media Story 9 Production)

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).