The Iron Lady behind Jinjuu

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Judy Joo, the French-trained, Korean-American Londoner behind new eatery Jinjuu talks to Douglas Blyde about fixed income derivatives, Playboy bunnies, and her father’s escape to Jeju…

Judy Joo talks me through her restaurant-to-be. Meaning ‘pearl’, ‘Jinjuu’ is being banged, lathed and cemented into shape a little way beneath our feet at 6 Kingly Street. ‘Hopefully a hot receptionist I haven’t hired yet greets you to begin the seduction,’ she says, her American accent almost lyrical. Although Joo was initially ‘rather shocked’ by the public’s enthusiasm to partake of alcohol within the area, she soon embraced the drinking culture. Indeed, the venue’s ground floor, she reveals, will be based on ‘anju’, the Korean concept of ‘the food you eat when you drink.’ Dishes range from dried anchovies mixed with nuts, to dumplings, noodles and seafood pancakes, alongside signature fried chicken and Korean beer (or maekju) which she abbreviates to chi-maek.

Joo mentions that chi-maek proved so popular at her pop-up dinner held at Fortnum & Mason last October that all reservations were realised in fewer than 24 hours. Among the 97 guests elegantly shoe-horned into a space normally inhabited by 60 was the Korean ambassador.

Contrasting that upholstered heritage department store, Jinjuu’s scheme, envisaged in collaboration with Buddha Bar and Chinawhite designer Tibbatts·Abel, bears an ‘industrial feel,’ albeit ‘mixed with soft elements’. While upstairs embraces street food, downstairs submits to more substantial dishes, from versatile, rice-based hot pot, bibimbap, to Korean barbecue, although, unlike the small, family-run restaurants of ‘Korea-town’ enclave, New Malden, guests will not be expected to char their own food tableside. ‘Part of going out is not cooking,’ reasons Joo. Supplementing her well-honed recipe for fried poultry, there will be particularly healthy options, ‘like a multigrain bowl,’ says Joo. With a vim which belies her 5am wake-up call, Joo delights in telling me about chia seeds, first singing the optimistic ‘Chia Pet’ jingle, ‘Ch-ch-chchia!’ The pet that grew! You spread seeds on it, water it, and ‘hair’ grows! Now I’ve figured out you can eat the seeds and they’re really good for you.’

I do my best to lasso our conversation back to drinks and Joo begins to caress a frosted bottle of Korean soju. ‘Nothing like Chinese baijiu,’ she says, referencing the bold toasting drink which once gave me a hangover while still drinking it. ‘This one is 23%, and the other 41%…The bottle goes in-and-out slightly around the middle, and feel, it’s ribbed for your ‘joy and comfort’. You want to try it?’ I blame my blushes on the effortlessly smooth liquor’s hearty proof. It transpires that Hwayo, producer of these libations, plays classical Korean music to the soju as it reconciles in waist-high clay urns. ‘Vibrations help with ageing,’ she says. But what would Joo put on their play-list? Something mellifluous, she suggests. ‘Happy music. I wouldn’t want angry or sad soju.’

Joo delves deep into a Korea Foods-branded bag, returning intriguing beverages, bought to inspire her mixologist, Kristian Breivik (formerly of Trailer Happiness). These include a can of orange juice ‘with the little sacks in it,’ and brave considering its pickled nature, kimchi juice.

Playboy

Joo reports that Jinjuu’s core team members are less enthusiastic than she is about Korea’s national, cloudy-when-shaken rice brew, ‘makkoli’. ‘It’s quite funky’, she admits, ‘my chefs had it forced down their throats in various situations in Korea.’ Those talents include Andy Hales and Jamie Garbutt, who worked with Joo as head chef and pastry chef respectively, at Park Lane’s Playboy Club over her three-and-a-half year tenure at the Dining Room.

While Joo considered the culinary operation something of ‘an animal’ to manage, she is not shy about the commitment required at Jinjuu. ‘I’ve got skin in the game,’ she says, then reconsiders. ‘My entire body in the game!’ Again, I blush.

Unlike the Playboy Club, aspects of which were for members only, Jinjuuwill be much more accessible physically as well as fanning less the metaphorical flames beloved by armchair moralists. Notably, one critic, Chris Pople described the surroundings of Playboy as, a ‘Dantean nightmare’ populated by ‘grim-faced men (and it was all men) chucking their money at women dressed as animals…’ Joo counters, ‘I consider myself a feminist. Don’t ‘pooh-pooh’ the bunnies! If you want to be a bunny, fine; if you want to be the next Marie Curie, great! You don’t have any right to say what’s wrong.’ Compared to the aforementioned bunnies she describes as sporting ‘1960s swimming costumes,’ Joo believes the advertising, fashion and music industries of today flaunt far less wholesome images of women. ‘The bunnies are nothing compared to what’s on the covers of magazines and in music videos, which are practically soft porn.’

Heritage

From what terroir did spry Joo grow, I venture? ‘My parents were geeks. Dad was a physician in Psychiatry, which probably explains why I’m so weird. And I had a classic Tiger Mother upbringing. Mum was a chemist then real estate agent. Maybe my feminist aspects came from her? She’s hardly a shrinking flower.’ My eyes widen. ‘In a nutshell,’ Joo explains, ‘my mother came alone to the USA in the late 1960s. My grandfather, principal of a high school outside Seoul, was a big believer in education. While a lot of people weren’t sending their daughters to school, mum studied her butt-off and got a random scholarship at Ohio. She left with $50 and got her Masters in chemistry.’

Joo’s father, Eui Don Joo, was the eighth of nine children born into a North Korean family. ‘Traditionally the north was where the merchants lived while the south was for farming. Dad’s family was wealthy, but when their land was seized by the government, they had to leave everything behind, travelling by foot. Aged five, my father wore a backpack full of fine silk – because money had no value.’

Joo remembers watching her father show her how he escaped, tracing the route on a map. ‘At the border they had to run across tidal water in pitch darkness. Some families drugged their kids so they wouldn’t cry. But my father’s family made it all the way down south to the ferry. It was chaos: no one was paying. People were throwing eachother onto the boat.’ Against the odds, Joo’s father’s family made it to a refugee camp on Jeju island where they all inhabited a onebedroom apartment. ‘The older kids got drafted.’ Miraculously, appraises Joo, her father and his siblings survived the Korean War, fighting for the south. Like her mother, Young Nim, Joo’s father also took to studying with fortitude. ‘He studied so hard that, from the small island he made it to Seoul’s national medical school known as, “the Harvard of Korea”. His classmate was my mum’s older brother. That’s how they met.’

Although Joo often visits South Korea , she has not yet been able to frequent to her father’s birthplace. ‘What’s more frightening? Opening the restaurant or going to North Korea?’ she posits. ‘North Korea is just slightly scarier. Breathe the wrong way and they detain you.’

I’ll be the judge

Today, Joo is well-known in North America as resident judge on Kitchen Inferno as well as Iron Chef UK. And, care of Food Network, she also appears in the UK on Korean Food Made Easy. However, approaching the world’s cuisines in a professional context did not initially seem to be scheduled into her zenith. ‘When I got to engineering school I realised I wasn’t smart enough to become one,’ says Joo, although I disbelieve her modesty. ‘I went from close to the top of my high school to totally average at Columbia.’

Despite the fact Joo perceived herself as ‘dumb’, she completed studies to till the fertile fields of finance at Morgan Stanley, New York. ‘In 1997, money grew on trees. You could feel it in the air.’ Joo worked in fixed income derivatives, ‘which is very quantitative actually.’ She was enrolled into the two-year analyst programme ‘where they systematically tried to kill you off, ranking you against your peers. I was one of eleven back then, only recruited at the top level. At the end of it, you either stayed on as an associate or they ‘invited’ you to attend business school, as they phrase it…’

Joo later highlighted the similarities between working the trading floor and toil of a restaurant’s kitchen in an essay for the Wall Street Journal. She described them both thus, ‘places where there is no time for ‘thank you’ or ‘please’ but always time for a commanding profanity… a white-male-dominated, hierarchical environment…a testosterone arena, where tempers boil like pots of water and egos are as inflated as the bills.’

Food for finance

Client dinners for the successful associate were, along with fulsome remuneration, a highlight. ‘Back then we did a lot of entertaining. There was excessive Dom Pérignon. It was like, ‘have we got to go Le Bernardin again?’ My first taste of fine dining. And, as one of the junior members of the team, I was given the task to find new restaurants.’ In scarce free time, when she feels she ought to have been analysing The Economist, Joo gravitated towards food magazines, ‘although I read the other publications now because it’s not like homework anymore.’

Although Joo still ‘dabbles’ in shares, after five years of banking, it was time to follow her true calling, initially working in recipe development at Saveur magazine’s HQ. But her parents were distraught by her decision. ‘They totally freaked out. As immigrants they wanted me to take the path of least resistance. In their minds it wasn’t exactly noble to pursue a job in a kitchen. ‘We spent how much on your Ivy League education?’’

I ask Joo what she would do if by some devilish quirk, she lost her sense of taste. ‘I’ve probably got three books in me,’ she says. ‘So many stories came out of Wall Street. Back then we were still taking clients to strip clubs – and I didn’t think anything of it. And then there was working for [Gordon] Ramsay, and at Playboy. Plenty of back-of-house antics when you have, like, 80 young bunnies running around. And young chefs!’

But I have blushed enough for one interview, and Joo really must get back to bureaucracy, to complete a transatlantic bank transfer form. I notice her pen bears the words, ‘Per Se’, a sign of affection for restaurateur Thomas Keller, for whom she completed a stage. ‘My builders have to get paid,’ she says. Providing this restaurant goes well, does Joo envisages opening another 30 around the world, I ask? ‘Definitely,’ she says. ‘It’s not a vanity project.’

JINJUU 6 Kingly Street, London, W1B 5PS judyjoo.com

bibimbap, korean food

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