From Goldman Sachs on Wall Street, New York, to the kitchens of JinJuu, London – it is without doubt that both environments are fast-paced, manic, exhilarating.
With her maiden restaurant, JinJuu, opening in Soho in January 2015, Judy Joo’s phoenix appeared from the ashes of finance and found its flame in the fires of the kitchen. Already renowned for her skill and innovation as a chef, Joo is looked upon as an inspiration for many, a pioneer to some, and is now emerging as a strong businesswoman, ready to rub shoulders with the big boys and expand her global brand. We sat down with Judy to hear about her remarkable transition from finance to food, and what the future holds for JinJuu.
You started out working with Goldman Sachs before moving onto a longer tenure with Morgan Stanley. For what you’ve become in such a creative industry, how did you start out in the finance sector?
I went to school in New York City and everybody was going to Wall Street. Columbia University is a feeder into Wall Street so everyone was either going into finance or consulting. I ended up in one of these analyst programmes where your mind kind of just gets killed over 2 years. I stayed for a little while longer and decided I didn’t love it, it wasn’t for me and I went to cooking school.
Do you enjoy the sensationalisation of the switch in industries and professions? It’s a great story but for you how does it feel?
I guess it’s kind of unusual. There are a lot of career changes out there, but I guess what makes my story a little bit different is that I was at such great companies in one of these coveted positions – in my analyst class I was one of nine people in the entire country! I was working with the best and the brightest but I just didn’t like it, so I think that’s probably part of it. I think also when you go into the food world you’re essentially working longer hours for a lot less pay, like a fraction of what you make in these city jobs or these wall street jobs, so there’s that element to the story too – it’s a really stark jump!
Do you feel this pushed you on and has had some sort of part to play in your own success?
Definitely! My whole pressure and stress skill was completely higher than what they were in the kitchens. You’re making food, you can’t bankrupt an economy or make a mistake that’s going to have repercussions that go on and on – if you don’t line up treasuries correctly then you lose a million. You’ve seen what’s happened with these rogue traders, what kind of damage they can do and it just kind of snowballs out of control. At the end of the day in a restaurant – yes, it’s your reputation – but it ends in the dining room. If someone gets their meal 5 minutes late it’s not the end of the world, whereas if you’re 5 minutes late on the trade it’s gone, the markets moved and you’ve lost millions. It’s a very different situation.
So on leaving finance, how did you ascend so quickly into prime restaurants such as Maze and Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s? Yours doesn’t sound like the typical route?
What I will say is, it’s not particularly hard to get your foot into these kitchens – it’s hard to stay. As long as you have perseverance you can get there. I did skip a lot of steps in between, I didn’t grow up in kitchens and obviously my background is very different to a stereotypical chef. It was probably my rout in the food media world that gave me the big leg-up, and I would have to owe a lot of that to my education. Being a chef and running a restaurant isn’t just about cooking anymore, especially with the whole celebrity chef thing coming into the forefront of the media, you really have to be able to write, speak well, and articulate yourself. The easier you are to work with, the more they’re going to use you – particularly with magazines and publications. With just the whole downsizing of media companies and outlets, one editor is doing five editor’s jobs now. They don’t have time to rewrite copy; they don’t have time to rewrite a recipe, so if you can deliver something that is cohesive and coherent on the first time, or if you can deliver a sound bite that is articulate and eloquent on camera without having to do it over and over again then it’s better. It just makes everybody’s life easier. I owe a lot of my skipping some steps on the rungs of the hierarchy of chefdom due to that advantage.
More recently before JinJuu you were working for Playboy as Executive Chef. Tell us about that experience.
Playboy was so much fun! I thought long and hard about it before I took the post but Playboy is iconic, it is one of the few brands recognised worldwide – it has 98% worldwide recognition so its up there with Nike, Coca Cola, Disney, there are only 5 or 6 of these brands that exist in the world. So despite it having a rather controversial reputation, it was also fun – and life is about having fun. You learn a lot about people because you’re working with different types of people everyday, and you learn about the different elements of the brand. Before working at Playboy, I was a bit judgemental towards some of the girls or the bunnies posing naked, but after meeting and spending time with all these women I thought they were great people. Not everyone is born hot or skinny or fat or smart or whatever. Just as not everyone wants the same – it’s all about seeing what your role in life is and what your path is and where that takes you. They’re happy, happy women. I went to the Playboy mansion and I met Hugh Hefner a few times also – he is sharp as nail. You can really tell he is extremely bright and you can tell he has a strong vision – anyone who can build that in a lifetime is a true visionary! Call him whatever you want but that takes talent and that takes a lot of hard work. On top of my role as executive shift I was a brand ambassador. They were using me as a spokesperson to some extent – many people don’t know this but playboy is a big advocate for the underdog. Historically, they were the first company to put a black person on the cover of a magazine, they were the first company in the United States to give gays equal rights (in terms of pension and health benefits), and ironically they’re very much an advocate for women.
You are fast approaching a year since opening – tell us about the genesis of JinJuu and how this maiden year has been for you?
It’s been a whirlwind! It’s been full of challenges but it has been exciting. I have my head chef Andy Hales – he’s the engine. Then I have Kristian Breivik, he’s the head bar manager – he’s also one of the engines here. I’ve got a great solid team and that’s really what it’s about – surrounding yourself with people who you can trust and who understand the business, the commitment, the drive, and the creativity also. Andy has been working with me for about 5 years now, so a lot of the dishes were things that we had tried and that we had been working on together at Playboy. He’s been to Korea three or four times now, so he’s familiar with the taste and the flavours. It’s something that we had been mulling over, as we knew there wasn’t anything like it in London. I really wanted to create a place that was fun, hip and sexy, kind of like a Hakkasan, or Nobu, or Zuma, obviously with a much lower price point as we’re in Soho, and just bring it to the masses for once. I am coming from a very specific chef background and so is my team, they’re career chefs and we have a commitment to quality that I think is unprecedented in the Korean food scene right now. Our food features no MSG, we have providence for all of our meats and we know where everything is from. There are no tablecloths, it’s not white glove service, it’s just a fun casual place where you can come with your friends and have some fried chicken and beer!
And what are your plans for your brand? Where do you see it going and do you see it evolving in any particular way?
Well, we’re opening up JinJuu Hong Kong in November, so site number two is coming up really quickly. The exec team and I are going to go out to execute that. That’s in a more upscale area so you’re always going to tailor things to the location. We might see some variation in terms of price point or things on the menu but I suspect most of the menu will stay pretty similar. I would love to use local ingredients obviously, in China we will be able to get our hands on a lot more ingredients that we can’t get over here – so, we will be able to kick the menu up a notch there.
Your strength in character is quite prominent. You come across like a really strong person; I can imagine you being an inspiration for many women out there. Do you feel that’s another aspect to your standing in society?
Yes, definitely. Any women in the public eye is somewhat a role model, regardless of whether they want to be or not, so I think that you always have to keep that in mind. I also think being a minority woman can be seen as particularly pioneering because they’re so few of us on TV or in the media or in big positions. It’s difficult but I’m hopefully making it easier for generations to come. I am only one of two Asian females on the whole of the Food Network in the United States – there’s just two, and that’s just not enough. The more of us there are, the more we can support each other, the easier it’s going to be moving forward. I think we just have to really stick together, I don’t understand women who don’t support other women – I really don’t. We need all the help we can get because it’s already hard enough. To be able to wear the pants and still keep your femininity and be a woman in every sense is really difficult to do. I feel strong family foundations are so important because my mother is really strong, she was always working and taught my sister and I that we can do anything. Just shoot for the stars, you might not catch one but at least you’ve got to try! I think a lot comes down to your upbringing and your confidence, especially with women, it kind of scary raising daughters these days. Reality TV, the internet, social media – there’s so much bullying out there and it’s just become so much more superficial with what you look like, what you’re supposed to look like, what size you’re supposed to be – it’s just crazy. I’m constantly trying to remind young women and teenagers that beauty over time fades. It’s a depreciating asset. What appreciates is your brain and your wisdom so invest in that and use it – that’s where your self-worth should really be centred in.
Outstanding. So outside of JinJuu, do you have any other projects you are looking to get moving in the future?
I have my book coming out in May, that’s Korean Food Made Simple. I am in the middle of filming the second season of my show Korean Food Made Simple – that’s going to be on Food Network and The Cooking Channel globally. Opening up JinJuu Hong Kong in November whilst working on some other TV projects. That’s it!
So what is Judy Joo looking for?
I can’t really say, I get asked this all the time – do I really want a restaurant empire? I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure out what makes me happy! It makes me happy to have a team to employ and lead – making other people happy brings happiness. And just simple life – I just want to create memories, that’s where I spend my money and my free time, not so much saving up for a watch or a piece of jewellery, it’s saving up to go on that amazing vacation.
If you could cook for any person, who would it be and what would you cook?
Can I pick a group of women? Probably Tina Fey, Lena Dunham, Hillary Clinton and probably an upcoming artist. I would make something very homely, nothing fancy, so I’d probably just make a huge roast suckling-pig with great salads. I’m huge salad person, so probably four different salads with amazing vegetables, quinoa, and different grains – so the meal has that healthy thing going on but you can still also pig-out, literally, on crackling and pork. I would throw out some awesome desserts – ice cream, sundaes, and stuff like that. Nothing fancy-schmancy.