Korean-American Chef Judy Joo on Culture and Hospitality
Glamorous Korean-American restaurateur and Chef Judy Joo worked in the finance industry before turning to food after graduating from the French Culinary Institute. After moving to London, she worked in several large kitchens in the British capital, then opened her first Korean restaurant in 2015. She has appeared on TV shows such as Korean Food Made Simple and Iron Chef UK, and recently created a new London company, Seoul. Bird.
You typically travel between the US, UK, and Asia. What do you miss in life on the road?
I miss discovering new cultures and eating all this amazing food! I love street food and discovering a country through the prism of the food and the people who cook it. When you take a bite of something, you taste a piece of the history and tradition of this country.
What are your favorite places to dine in the world?
I love to eat in Seoul and Busan, of course, because Korean food is my ultimate comfort food. Everything from high-end Michelin-starred meals, like in Gaon and Bicena, to dirty street offerings, such as tteokbokki and hotteok – it’s all so enticing and exciting. Hong Kong’s food scene is also bustling and vibrant. I love what May Chow does and some Japanese restaurants are as good as in Tokyo.
I also have a serious love affair with Italy, but who doesn’t? I typically go to the Amalfi Coast every summer and indulge in local specialties and freshly grilled seafood, just kissed with olive oil and local lemons. It’s heavenly, no frills and extremely fresh. San Sebastian is also one of my favorite foodie towns. I love to walk around and bite into pintxo bars for a few small bites and txakoli. And you also can’t miss some of the best fine dining restaurants out there – Arzak is divine and never disappoints.
I also love New York and still think it’s one of the food capitals of the world. I love Per Se – totally food-gasmic. You can also eat very well inexpensively in New York, and I love exploring ethnic enclaves for the best tamales, pão de queijo, gua bao, samosas and more!
How has your education affected your attitude towards life and entrepreneurship?
In Korea, food is served in all ceremonies, from weddings to funerals, and it is even associated with sacred religious rituals. My family is no different, and food has always been a language of love. Even though I was just sad about something, my mom was trying to feed me to make me feel better. Food is considered medicine in East Asian cultures and nourishes body, soul and spirit. I have so many wonderful memories from my childhood: Every day after school my mother would serve me a soothing rice porridge called juk (congee) which has a 3000 year history in Asia.
What does the art of organizing a good dinner entail?
My best tip for wowing people at dinner parties is to use an unusual ingredient to liven up a familiar dish. Whether it’s just adding a dash of soy sauce to your burger mix or sprinkling a little za’atar on your pizza, those little international touches add some serious flavor and make the ordinary really exciting. For example, I like to use yuzu instead of lemon when making English possets. The scent turns this humble dessert into something quite elegant.
What do your everyday work clothes look like? Are you often in chef’s white and, if so, how do you like to dress outside of the kitchen?
Since I mainly focus on my fast-casual concept, Seoul Bird, I’m not much into white chefs these days unless I’m doing events or demos. During the Covid days I was super laid back and put on a few pounds so it was really sportswear for me most of the time lately because I can’t fit most of my wardrobe! Ha! But I’m mostly jeans and a cool top, with a stylish jacket draped over a girlish-like top. I’m going to put on some awesome, stylish heels and jewelry to dress things up, and a trendy handbag.
How have your past experiences, like working for Gordon Ramsay and at the Playboy Club, influenced the way you run your restaurants and kitchens?
I had the pleasure of working with – and learning from – Chantelle Nicholson of Tredwells in London early in my career. I spent time in her kitchen, when she was still on the pass, and watching her command a squad of snarling men with finesse was impressive. She followed this fine line of being strong and energetic, without compromising her femininity and grace. She was clearly in charge and a slightly dreaded but revered force in the kitchen; yet her elegant, gentle, refined and unbridled creativity always shone through her dishes and plates. His way of working has definitely influenced the way I run my restaurants, for which I have only three rules: no harassment, no discrimination and respect everyone.
What routines keep you grounded?
I do a lot of Pilates and fitness in general, and I focus on wellness. I love tennis and try to hit the court at least once a week. I also make sure I get plenty of sleep – it’s so important and it’s the third pillar of health. I also try as much as possible to meditate and disconnect a bit, which is good when I go for a run. I also find baking bread to be extremely therapeutic – there’s just something about kneading the dough that I find soothing and relaxing.
Who are your style icons?
Amal Clooney, Robin Wright and Cate Blanchett
You are a busy woman. What’s always in your bag?
I carry too many things. My laptop and chargers. I am known to install a mini desk in taxis and Ubers! I have a makeup bag that contains my UV Mist pad, blush and bronzer, lip glosses and mini makeup brushes, and I always have a tube of Elizabeth Arden eight hour cream. I’m in a bad mood if I forget it. I am totally addicted, I have dry lips and this is the best way to shine and hydrate. I also have a luxury hand cream – since I cook a lot, I need a good lotion to repair the damage I have caused. I have a water bottle that is usually filled and mixed with some sort of collagen powder or energizing elixir. A vitamin pill box with my supplements – beauty starts from within! Face masks, hand sanitizer, a snack bar or nuts, and a pair of flats if I have to wear heels. I walk everywhere, so I must have comfortable shoes. Sunglasses, glasses, barrette and, of course, my phone and headphones. And a nice custom pen and notebook – I like to design my own covers. Right now the cover of the one I’m using now says “Judy Joo’s Profound Musings” and there’s a background of strawberries and lilies.
Where do you find the most inspiration for your recipes and restaurant concepts?
I am most inspired by my travels. I have to hit the road again!