People always say: ‘Oh, you’re a chef? You don’t look like a chef!’

Jul 30, 2021

If you’ve seen ITV’s glitzy new show Cooking with the Stars, you’ll already have clocked chef Judy Joo’s effervescent intelligence and drive.

But while such prime-time slots may seem all about fun and celebrity hobnobbing, television is a demanding business requiring a lot more than just culinary skills. Judy hasn’t been plucked out of nowhere – she’s developed her talents over ten years of filming, while simultaneously building a career as a chef and restaurateur.

Seoul Bird, her new restaurant group, opened during the pandemic in Westfield Shepherd’s Bush and Canary Wharf. It aims to do for fried chicken what Shake Shack has done for the humble burger.

Where does her incredible work ethic come from? Judy is the daughter of a North Korean war refugee. Her parents started with little but put everything they had into educating her and her sister, and in turn they were expected to study hard.

In time Judy won a place at New York’s prestigious Columbia University to do Engineering. After graduation, she worked as a banker on Wall Street (“in the Wolf of Wall Street Days”) but disenchantment set in and she left her high-paying job to follow her passion: the culinary arts in general, and pastry in particular.

Judy downscaled her life, signed up at the French Culinary Institute and (you won’t be surprised to learn) graduated top of her class.

Here she speaks to Jenni Muir about her tv career, encounters with racism, and the surprising usefulness of an Engineering degree in running a restaurant.


Your first big break on tv was landing the role on Channel 4’s Iron Chef UK. How did that come about?

I’d been popping up on Market Kitchen and the show’s producers recommended I go along to the Iron Chef casting calls. At the time, I felt underqualified, which is something women do often anyway, but it was early on in my career. I was the only one without a restaurant or a Michelin star – the others all had serious resumés and I was basically a commis chef. So I practiced and trained like a maniac, and I kept getting called back.

What advice do you have for chefs and other cooks hoping to make it onto television?

TV really is hard work. It involves very early wakeup calls, oftentimes awful hotel rooms, being on the road, bad food, no proper meals…

Production crews have dozens and dozens of people. You’re there to perform a role and you’ve been hired by the production company and the director to deliver. You can’t delay things, it costs money. You have to be on time, camera ready, you have to read the teleprompter quickly and accurately… You have to be there with a great recipe, an interesting demonstration, be energetic, give witty soundbites, and use rich vocabulary while also not being too intimidating. It’s a lot to think about – and you have to look good doing it.

How do you feel about the role of women in the food world at the moment?

People always say: ‘Oh, you’re a chef? You don’t look like a chef!’ I feel like it’s because I haven’t emasculated myself. Like: if I was covered in ink and piercings, I’d be taken more seriously. I’ve done so much – tv shows, two books, opened international restaurants, and yet people still second guess me because I’m a female and East Asian minority. If I was a different minority, I would have been picked up for more things. There are people with fewer accolades getting recognised more, for whatever reason.

Tell us about that…

It’s almost as though the East Asian minority doesn’t check a box. It’s like we’re voiceless and don’t exist. We’re expected to keep our head down and stay quiet. But as my generation has gotten older – we have voices, speak English perfectly, and it’s time for our opinions to be heard.

So many things about East Asian culture are embraced, like our food, but the people aren’t ironically. I’ve been living in Britain 18 years, I’ve been paying taxes, I have a British passport, and still people treat me like a foreigner.

It is slowly changing. You see more East Asians in advertising these days but that’s because of our spending power – the retailers have finally figured it out.

You’ve said that when you opened Jinjuu, all the food critics compared it to a Thai restaurant…

Yes, lime and fish sauce were invariably mentioned! The tendency is to group Asian countries altogether and say we all use the same ingredients and flavours – and it’s not all the same. Asia is more fragmented than Europe. Korea and Japan are not tropical countries. We don’t grow lemongrass, limes, or galangal. Even the way we eat isn’t the same.

Does it blow your mind how trendy kimchi has become?

I love that kimchi’s become so trendy. I love that people have embraced flavours and ingredients from around the world in general. But there is some cultural appropriation going on – I think you always have to give a nod and credit the chefs and the country who introduced it to you.

Your own cooking style is modern and international rather than traditional Korean…

Yes, I’m a French-trained, Korean-American Londoner, so I’m very global and understand how to meld flavours. Things like kimchi mac’n’cheese just come naturally to me. I do a gochujang lamb biryani that’s so tasty, a Guinness and kalbi steak pie, and a fish and chips dumpling with kimchi tartare sauce. I add my own creative twist to things and that’s where I can excel because I have a strong hold on three different continents.

What advice do you have for people wanting to establish their own food style?

Copying someone else will get you nowhere. What’s going to distinguish you in the world of cooking is coming up with truly different flavour combinations, techniques, and original ways of plating.

You can only be a success if you have your own personality that shines through your food. It doesn’t have to be wild or whacky; it could be home cooking, or one-pot meals, or five ingredient recipes. But, coming up with your own focus, identity, and making food that is uniquely yours is essential.

Presentation is an important part of it. You have to add your own final flourishes. Find a way to plate it differently – cut it differently, use an unusual  mould, a unique frosting style. And, don’t forget to do your research, because sometimes you come up with an idea you think is original, and then you Google it and find it’s been done 500 thousand times already.

It’s true there are a gazillion fried chicken recipes out there, but I hyper-engineered my recipe – it uses matzo meal, vodka, Korean spices – that’s what made it mine.

Have either your Engineering degree or time on Wall Street proved useful as a chef and restaurateur?

Engineering is a way of thinking. I’m using it all the time. It’s such a fabulous background for anything, and great for problem solving – even if the problem is just your life and how to organise your day!

I was an Operations Research major which is a massive part of restaurant process flows and design. It’s an exercise in using efficiency design to maximise profits and time. You put on so many different hats designing and running a restaurant, it’s not just a creative project.

For example, a menu has to work cost-wise as well. You must write menus so they are tight, cohesive, and make sense monetarily. The supply chain has to be cost-effective. Then you look at the analytics of what sells – you can’t have emotional attachment to things. You have to understand Profit & Loss and eliminate the laggards. It’s hard.

Working in finance on Wall Street makes you petrified of making a mistake! You’re triple checking everything all the time. You can’t ask people to repeat stuff because the market’s moving and there’s no time for thank you or please, it’s just manic. It’s a sink or swim environment, highly competitive, and you have to learn through osmosis.

Kitchen service is easier, in the sense that repercussions end in the dining room. You’re not going to crash a whole economy or bankrupt a government. It’s high pressure in a kitchen, but it’s all doable.

Social media doesn’t seem that important to you – which is quite unusual in the food world these days…

Having 100 likes on a post is not a bonafide achievement, in my book. I’m sorry, but it’s not.

I won’t deny that social media is a useful, powerful marketing and pr tool, but you have to do things because they make YOU feel good – not because you want to put it on social media and brag.

We have social media accounts for Seoul Bird, obviously. And I definitely see the value in my personal accounts, but I do not inherently love social media.  I do it mainly because I have to for my business. Cooking with the Stars has definitely brought me new followers, and I do love sharing the flavours of Korea with the world. But I do not go to social media for personal affirmation or validation.

But in my personal life, I prefer to keep that personal.  When I have a meal with someone, I want to give that person 100 per cent of my attention 100 per cent of the time. That’s actually what matters the most. Your confidence and the value of your life should not come from an app or the number of likes you get--  it comes from your self.

I wish people would just live their life and not look at it through the lens of a camera all the time. Nowadays, it’s like an event never happened unless it is flaunted on social media and gets applause.

My view is that if you only get two likes for a dish you’ve cooked or something that you have done, it’s still an achievement because the win is the act of cooking or doing it, not the amount of likes.

Cooking with the Stars airs on ITV 9pm Tuesday evenings, or can be viewed on ITVhub

Follow Judy on Instagram and Twitter @judyjoochef, and Seoul Bird @seoulbirduk

📸 Emli Bendixen

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