Glamourous Korean American restaurateur and chef Judy Joo worked in the finance industry before turning to food after graduating from the French Culinary Institute. Moving to London, she worked in several top kitchens in the British capital, then opened her first Korean restaurant in 2015. She’s appeared on TV shows such as Korean Food Made Simple and Iron Chef UK, and recently set up a new London venture, Seoul Bird.
You’re usually flying between the US, UK and Asia. What do you miss about life on the road?
I miss exploring new cultures and eating all that amazing food! I love street food and learning about a country through the lens of food and the people who cook it. When you take a bite of something, you’re tasting a piece of that country’s history and tradition.
What are your favourite places to dine around the world?
I love eating in Seoul and Busan, of course, as Korean cuisine is my ultimate comfort food. Everything from high-end Michelin- star meals, like at Gaon and Bicena, to the down-and-dirty street offerings, such as tteokbokki and hotteok – it’s all so enticing and exciting. The food scene in Hong Kong is also bustling and vibrant. I love what May Chow is doing, and some of the Japanese restaurants are as good as in Tokyo.
I also have a serious love affair with Italy, but who doesn’t? I usually go to the Amalfi coast every summer and indulge in local specialities and freshly grilled seafood just kissed with local olive oil and lemons. It’s heavenly, no fuss and exceedingly fresh. San Sebastian is also one of my favourite food cities. I love just strolling around and nipping into pintxo bars for some small bites and txakoli. And you can’t miss some of the best fine dining there, either – Arzak is divine and never disappoints.
I love New York, too, and still think it’s one of the food capitals of the world. I absolutely love Per Se – totally food-gasmic. You can eat on the cheap very well in New York too, and I love exploring the ethnic enclaves to seek out the best tamales, pão de queijo, gua bao, samosas and more!
How did your upbringing affect your attitudes to life and entrepreneurship?
In Korea, food is served in all ceremonies, from weddings to funerals and it’s even associated with sacred religious rituals. My family is no different and food was always a language of love. Even if I was just sad over something, my mom would try to feed me to make me feel better. Food is considered medicine in East Asian cultures and nourishes the body, soul and mind. I have so many wonderful memories from my childhood: every day after school, my mom would serve me a soothing rice porridge called juk (congee) that has a 3,000-year history in Asia.
What’s involved in the art of hosting a great dinner?
My top tip for impressing people at dinner parties is to use one unusual ingredient to jazz up a familiar dish. Even if it’s just adding a dash of soy sauce to your burger mix or sprinkling a bit of za’atar on your pizza – these little international twists add serious flavour and make the ordinary truly exciting. For example, I like to use yuzu instead of lemon when making English posset. The fragrance transforms this humble dessert into something quite elegant.
What do your day-to-day work outfits look like? Are you often in chefs’ whites and, if so, how you do like to dress outside of the kitchen?
Since I’m mainly focused on my fast-casual concept, Seoul Bird, I’m not in chef whites much these days unless I’m doing events or demos. During Covid times I’ve been super casual and packed on a few pounds, so it really has been activewear for me most of the time lately as I can’t fit into most of my wardrobe! Ha! But I’m mostly a jeans and cool top, with a stylish jacket draped on top kind of girl. I’ll slip on some great stylish heels and jewellery to dress things up, and a statement handbag.
How did your past experiences, such as working for Gordon Ramsay and at the Playboy Club, inform how you run your restaurants and kitchens?
I had the pleasure of working with – and learning from – Chantelle Nicholson of Tredwells in London early on in my career. I spent time in her kitchen, back when she was still on the pass, and watching her command a brigade of surly men with finesse was awe-inspiring. She walked that fine line of being strong and forceful, without compromising her femininity and grace. She was clearly in charge and a slightly feared but revered force in the kitchen; yet her elegant, soft, refined and unbridled creativity still shone through her food and plating. The way she works has definitely influenced how I run my restaurants, about which I only have three rules: no harassment, no discrimination and respect everyone.
Which routines keep you grounded?
I do a lot of pilates and general fitness, and I focus on wellbeing. I love tennis and try to get on court at least once a week. I also make sure that I sleep a lot – it’s so important and the third pillar of health. I also try as much as I can to meditate and just zone out a bit, which is good when I go for a run. I also find the act of baking bread extremely therapeutic – there’s just something about kneading dough that I find healing and relaxing.
Who are your style icons?
Amal Clooney, Robin Wright and Cate Blanchett
You’re a busy woman. What’s always in your bag?
I carry around too many things. My laptop and chargers. I’m known to set up a mini office in taxis and Ubers! I have a make-up bag that has my UV Mist cushion, blush and bronzer, lip glosses and mini make-up brushes, and I always have a tube of Elizabeth Arden eight-hour cream. I’m in a bad mood if I forget it. I’m totally addicted – I have dry lips and it’s the best for shine and moisturising. I also have luxury hand cream – as I cook a lot, I need a good lotion to repair the damage I’ve done. I have a water bottle usually filled and mixed with some kind of collagen powder or energy- boosting elixir. A vitamin pill box with my supplements – beauty starts from within! Face masks, hand sanitiser, a snack bar or nuts and a pair of flats, if I have to wear heels. I walk everywhere, so I have to have comfy shoes. Sunglasses, glasses, hairclip and, of course, my phone and earpods. And a nice pen and bespoke 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 it has a background of strawberries and lily flowers.
Where do you find most inspiration for your recipes and restaurant concepts?
I get the most inspiration from my travels. I have to get on the road again!
This story first appeared on Prestige Online – Hong Kong