Raised on a diet of Mum’s dumplings, home-fermented kimchi and comforting tofu stew, Judy Joo grew up in a traditional Korean household in New Jersey. With every home meal made from scratch, helping out in the kitchen wasn’t optional. From washing dishes to enduring reeking, stained fingers after tirelessly picking perilla leaves in the back garden, the seeds of Joo’s culinary passion were sown early. Despite being plunged into kitchen duties from an early age, Joo’s pathway into a career in food was far from conventional. Growing up in a tight-knit family, her Korean immigrant parents, in many ways, informed Joo’s early career choices:
“I had three piano lessons a week. With a physician for a father and a chemist for a mother, education was massively important from day one. I was taught that you had to go to college no matter what. Science and maths were easier to me and provided the basis of a strong career-oriented degree. I gravitated towards Engineering.”
From studying engineering, to excelling in the world of finance, it wasn’t until 5 years into her fast-paced career that Joo realised her passion in this field was dwindling. She decided to make the life-changing decision to embark on a new adventure. What that adventure was going to be however, was yet to be determined.
Ultimately, all aspects of Joo’s upbringing and life experience culminated in a longing for change, a change that would be determined by her deep-rooted love for cooking. Attending pastry arts school harked back to her childhood, and the hands-on methodology of a kitchen was comforting in its similarities to the lab. Believing that this pastry school experience would simply help her “throw cooler birthday parties for [her future] kids”, Joo was wholly unaware of the fast-track to entrepreneurial success that she was now embarking on. “I really didn’t have any goals or ambition” she explains. “I had no idea where it was going to lead. I went as a kind of dilettante.”
Each step of Joo’s career developed with a distinct spontaneity – she is a self-confessed “accidental restaurateur”. “In a million years I never thought it would turn into what I’m doing now. I never thought it would be this much of a career. I have always loved food and cooking. […]I liked working in finance, but I didn’t love it. I have a passion for food”. Trading numbers for flavours, Joo moved on to attend New York’s French Culinary Institute, graduating top of her class. Subsequent celebrity status has followed after being plucked from her restaurant to display her gastronomic talent on Iron Chef UK and then Iron Chef USA shortly after. Joo has now opened three of her Jinjuu restaurants – two in London and one in Hong Kong, all of which showcase her diverse cultural influences in their fusion approach to Korean cuisine.
Reflective of the ‘melting pot’ American immigrant experience, Joo’s menus blend street food like Korean Fried Chicken with traditional plates such as Sundubu-jjigae (spicy Korean tofu stew). In dishes such as the pork belly tacos marinated in Korean spices, the combination of Korean flavours and western techniques is simply genius. Much like the organic path that led to her to become a restaurateur, the style of Joo’s cooking evolved naturally. Fond memories of “Korean style Thanksgivings” at home, shaped her instinctive methods of combining multiple cultural elements to mouth-watering effect.
For Joo and her family, the power of food to create a sense of belonging has never been underestimated. Bringing kimchi with them wherever they travelled, food represented a sense of belonging and identity. A New Yorker at heart with a strong connection to her Korean heritage, it’s clear from Jinjuu’s menu that food is a means of expressing Joo’s identity, both as an American and as the daughter of Korean immigrant parents.
A proud ambassador for Korean food, Joo is on a mission to “make Korean food global”, to champion the flavours, comforts and pleasures of Korean cuisine and to introduce them to the world. From picking perilla leaves in the back garden to taking the restaurant world by storm, Joo may not have planned her journey to the culinary excellence, but now that she has reached it, she’s absolutely determined to make her mark.
Judy Joo’s Soho Jinjuu restaurant can be found at 15 Kingly Street, London W1B5PS.