From Iron Chef and the Playboy Club, to her own Korean Kitchen in Hong Kong
If you were to ask Judy Joo ten years ago where she would see herself today, being restauranteur and owner of one of Hong Kong’s hottest Korean concepts, Jinjuu, wouldn’t have even crossed her mind! From a top chef at the Playboy Club in London, to Iron Chef and now cookbook author, this talented lady is kicking ass and inspiring women across the country to pursue their dreams in the big, bad culinary world. We got the inside scoop on the challenges she’s faced throughout her career, her top tips on using Asian ingredients and how to whip up a storm in a teeny-tiny Hong Kong kitchen…
How do you find balance when trying to lead a healthy lifestyle?
I don’t believe in diets! I believe that if you want to change the way you look, you have to change your lifestyle. Embarking on a series of yoyo diets is such an unhealthy way to look at food, and of course being a chef I celebrate food! To me, one the world’s greatest pleasures is eating and it can definitely be difficult to achieve balance all the time. You shouldn’t limit yourself to cheat days but instead learn to love food – I do what I can to be healthy and try to feel good about what I’m eating, but you know what, I don’t make it to the gym every day and sometimes I do eat the whole tube of Pringles! But it’s all about being realistic when it comes to food – it’s not the enemy. Go to France and eat the baguette, go to Italy and drink wine, indulge in amazing experiences and memories through your favourite meals. You only have one life to live so enjoy it!
You mentioned creating memories with food, what’s your favourite dish that reminds you of home?
It has to be traditional Korean food! As an after school snack, my mum used to make a spicy spinach soup with beef and I loved it. She wouldn’t make it all the time, only as a treat but I remember coming home every day after school to a steaming bowl of rice and rich broth soup, some kimchee and a little meat. That really takes me back!
For anyone who’s not so familiar with Korean food, which top dishes would you say that they have to try?
Korean BBQ, definitely. Some of the amazing stews and hot pots can be a little bit scary at first, as some of the ingredients aren’t really identifiable! But we Koreans love to show off the freshness of our seafood, which means we use the entire animal, from the heads to legs and shells – it’s kind of like the sea threw up in our bowls! Kimchee, our national dish is of course a ‘must-try’, but Korean fried chicken (okay, it may not be that traditional) is something we have also fallen in love with. And definitely Japchae Noodles – unique, chewy noodles made from sweet potatoes with a salty sweet sauce with sesame and vegetables – they’re really different from Japanese of Chinese noodles (they’re also gluten-free!).
Apart from Korean cuisine what are your other favourite cuisines?
Chinese and Japanese! I love South East Asian foods – it’s food that I just naturally gravitate towards. I mean, I love Italian food but I can’t seem to eat copious amounts of pasta and bread without feeling a little sick. I believe in epigenetics, where your body tends to react to what you’re genetically meant to digest, and that sometimes you just need certain types of food to make you feel better. But at the same time I also grew up in the States, where I ate a huge amount of Western food!
What would you say are your favourite comfort foods?
My favourite dish has to be Silken Tofu Stew! It’s a mash up of seafood and tofu, served messed up hot and bubbling while you crack an egg into it. And rice. I mean I love bread but definitely rice, it’s warming and comforting. Basically all things spicy!
Read more about Team Sassy’s favourite Comfort Foods here.
Living in Hong Kong we don’t have a lot of space in our small flats. Do you have any tips or tricks for cooking in small spaces to save on time and of course, space?
Honestly, you don’t need much to cook – a good frying pan, a cutting board and chef’s knife is all you need! And living in Hong Kong, it’s so easy to go shopping every day and I feel like doing so actually pays off. The ‘Costco culture’ has killed the way we shop and prepare food, where we shop by mass and then eat everything that comes of out a freezer – it’s just not a very fresh and healthy way to eat. It can be hard to cook fast and eat well on a budget, but it’s so quick and easy to sear some fish and vegetables!
Invest in a slow cooker, or even use a rice cooker, which nowadays doubles as a pressure cooker and have meals cooking all day and ready for you once you’re home from work. I would also say be prepared and make use of all your leftovers as these can last you throughout the week. A roast chicken one day is chicken fried rice the next – it’s really just about taking fifteen minutes at the start of the week to plan out your meals. It’s okay to take short cuts and grab a load of pre-cut vegetables – it’s a great way to save time without buying processed foods full of stabilisers, colourings and additives. You’d be surprised that you will naturally loose weight just by eating at home and avoiding the added butter and oil put in food at restaurants.
We hear that you have a new cookbook coming out, are your recipes mainly Korean dishes?
Yep! The book is full of healthy, fast recipes that you can just whip up, as well as comfort foods like delicious dumplings that you can make on mass and keep in the freezer for a rainy day!
Do you have any plans for future restaurants?
This restaurant wasn’t planned – London wasn’t planned either! I’ve been extremely lucky. I was all set to move back home to America until I received a call from a man who was given my number from a friend. He introduced the idea of leasing a space in Soho, London and creating a concept together. We met up and had a chat, but I really did have to think about the challenges that would come with taking on a restaurant – I mean, I was ready to pack up, but in the end I said yes!
We opened London in January last year and in the summer had a table of forty guests, one of which was a young girl who booked in her 20th birthday party there. It turned out she was Rachael Rockowitz, daughter of Bruce and Coco Lee, and they loved the food and the concept! They thought that the restaurant would do amazingly in Hong Kong, we found the spot, opened in December and the rest is history. Funnily enough, I never set out to be a restauranteur…
What is the biggest challenge you’ve had to face since opening doors in Hong Kong?
There were definitely a few! I’d have to admit that staffing is hard in Hong Kong as people move around so frequently, so we’re often faced with a lot of turn over, so it can be really hard to be be consistent. And, the opening… it was interesting. We never actually had a soft launch, it was scheduled but between the clean up, moving in furniture and setting up the restaurant it kept on being delayed. We had a dinner for all the investors with the idea to resume staff training the next day, but as soon as we had the meal I was told to open the doors and that we were open! Imagine, Friday night in Lan Kwai Fong, with no training or method of payment set up and ultimate chaos! Nothing was working, we ran out of food and I’ve never been so exhausted, but it was the most amazing experience and we’ve come through leaps and bounds since.
Stay tuned for our review of Jinjuu’s new brunch, coming to Sassy Hong Kong soon!
What advice would you give to any of our readers who are aspiring to be a female chef or restauranteur?
Honestly, if you’re striving to be at that top level, just know that it’s hard work. The blood, sweat and tears that go into the business are gruelling, but it’s so, so worth it. Unfortunately, and I hate to say it, but as a female, it’s that much harder; we face discrimination, chauvinism and pay cuts – in America for every dollar a man earns, a women earns seventy cents – sometimes we’re just not taken seriously but it is getting better. It’s all about having a positive attitude and not giving up.
I say, if you have the heart and passion for what you do then just go for it, there are always bound to be obstacles to over come, but as women, we have so much to offer in the creative world. A woman’s touch goes so far in the restaurant industry and our input is so important. Above all I’d also say, stand up for yourself! Don’t give up, speak up and be smart. I have a love/hate relationship with Korea in this way, as so much of the way women are perceived there is to be passive, girly and cute. I would love to see that change and see women take pride in their careers, be in management roles, showcase female empowerment, take new paths and be role models to the rest of the country!
Do you have any role models yourself?
Absolutely. Essentially all the women in the world who have done their own thing! Role model chefs? Namely Julia Childs and Martha Stewart, but it’s far too hard to choose just one as there are so many incredible chefs out there. One which has always stood out to me however is Anita Lo. I remember standing in line at a store and seeing her on the cover of a magazine for ‘Top Female Chefs’ and thinking how cool this chick was. This woman who looked like me had done something so amazing, breaking the Asian stereotype and making girls, like myself, realise that all this is actually possible. She touched a younger generation and that’s what being a role model is really all about and I hope that I can do that too. I think you have to accept that when you’re in the public eye, people look up to you whether you ask for it or not, and that’s something I take really seriously.
What are your goals for the future?
I’m not sure, if I’m honest! I won’t be doing this forever, put it that way! Maybe the family thing? As much as I love what I do, I want to look back when I’m eighty years old and remember the amazing experiences which come with good friends and close family. If you had asked me ten years ago if I would be doing what I do today – I would have laughed, no chance! I seriously thought that I would just be planning awesome birthday parties for my kids, and well… here I am. This is the stuff of dreams!
Jinjuu, UG/F, 32 D’Aguilar Street, Lan Kwai Fong, Central, Hong Kong, 3755 4868, www.jinjuu.com/hk