Interview with an Innovator

Jinjuu’s Judy Joo: ‘I think that people don’t realise that Korean food is not just barbecue’

The chef talks about her Korean restaurant’s most popular dishes, the new food coming to the menu, why bugs won’t take off and how Indonesian could be the next big cuisine.  

22 March 2019
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Joo on Paper – CV

  • Switched her corporate career to become a chef, gaining experience at high-profile restaurants like the Fat Duck and the French Laundry
  • Has appeared on Iron Chef UK and America, as well as on the Food Network
  • Opened Jinjuu in Soho in 2015, with a Hong Kong branch following later that year

When chef Judy Joo first opened her Korean restaurant Jinjuu in London four years ago, she was stunned by the reviews – but not in a good way.“The top three critics were comparing me to Thai restaurants and Thai food and Thai dishes. It was absolutely shocking to me that they didn’t look at a map and do their research,” she comments. “And comparing Korean food to Thai food is like comparing Japanese food to Vietnamese food – they are two totally different cultures with nothing shared and no real ingredients shared.”

Thankfully, Joo now believes that awareness of Korean food is growing and that the cuisine is having a moment globally,due in part to the growing number of people exposed to the country’s K-pop, soap dramas and beauty regimens. She is confident that Korean cuisine will only increase in popularity among consumers – although she is keen to educate people that the food isn’t just about barbecue.

Growing up in New Jersey in a food-obsessed family, Joo says her mother would dry chillies on the picnic table in the backyard and kimchi pots would be stored underneath the porch. These food memories drive some of her dish development – albeit often with modern flair. Her scientific background also has an influence as she approaches the kitchen like a laboratory.

Recently, Joo has been working on her second cookbook, which is due for release in October in the UK and US. Some of the dishes from this forthcoming publication will be showcased at her restaurant over the next few month, including passion projects – she loves playing with Western desserts and giving them an Asian twist.

In a chat with Sarah Sharples, she reveals how she approaches food development, what ingredients and meals Londoners aren’t yet ready to embrace, and her hopes for the future of Korean cuisine.

 

Jinjuu is my take on Korean food, it’s not 100% traditional or 100% authentic, it’s modern, contemporary Korean food. It reflects my upbringing – I often describe myself as a French-trained, Korean-American Londoner, and I am really spanning the globe when it comes to where I pull my inspiration from.

The whole reason I wanted to open up Jinjuu was I really felt there was a gap in the market in terms of there being a nice Korean restaurant in London, where I wasn’t embarrassed to bring my friends or work colleagues. Coming from a banking background, there have always been nice, chic, cool and hip Chinese, Japanese or Thai restaurants, but there was never anything where you could get a good martini or a good cocktail, where there was nice music playing and the lighting was appropriate for Korean food. I really wanted… to open Korean food to the masses, so that’s what I’m most proud of.

Not surprisingly, some of the bestsellers are the fusion dishes or dishes that perhaps are not totally traditional Korean, but are uniquely Korean – something like the Korean fried chicken.

Korean fried chicken is known for its extra-hard crunchy crust. That’s what makes it different to any other fried chicken that is out there. To achieve that crunchy crust, I use something called matzo meal, picked up from my background growing up in New York, which is made from the Jewish unleavened flat bread. I feel it makes for an extra-hard crusty crunch. We also use vodka in the batter.

Another bestseller that we have is something a little bit more traditional: the bibimbap balls. It’s mixed rice balls with various different vegetables on top. You can choose your protein and can mix it together with a hot, spicy, sweet sauce.

Something we made up which was inspired from street food is the Sae-woo Pop. They are these prawn lollies – round, crispy, lightly fried prawn balls – which people describe as four bites of heaven. We serve them with a gochujang mayonnaise.

In Hong Kong, people are more familiar with strong, pungent, spicy flavours, so things that would work in Hong Kong that are a bit more funky won’t necessarily work in London.

Doenjang hasn’t necessarily worked on my menu here. It is a fermented soybean paste, basically Korea’s form of miso, but it’s stronger, funkier, coarser; overall it has a more pungent taste to it, which is great to add to a number of things to kick up that umami flavour.

We have tried putting something on like budae jjigae, which is a potluck of various different types of meats in a hot spicy broth, but it’s based on the old army rations so you have many different types of sausages. We made a knight’s version with English sausage and different things, but I don’t think people could quite get their head around it.

Even things you would expect to sell sometimes don’t – I’ve never really been that successful with lamb on my menu. I don’t know why. People just want to order all the beef and pork dishes. I’m putting lamb on the menu again this season. We’re just going through the process of a menu change now, so hopefully people will start ordering it.

I just finished shooting my new book, so I will look at a lot of traditional Korean recipes and I will pull from my knowledge of food today and my travels and where I’ve been.

For instance, there is a traditional potato pancake that is made with white potatoes in Korea. I was like, sweet potatoes are all the rage now, so why don’t we do it with that and add a bit of beef and pumpkin seeds and make it a savoury/sweet type of thing? And we tested it and it worked out brilliantly, so it’s really about thinking out of the box and taking something traditional and adding my own creative twist to it to make it extraordinary.

Dessert is also one of my passions and fortes. I love taking Western desserts and adding Asian flavours to them – it’s so much fun. We have some new things coming up from my book. In Asia, the scorched rice on the bottom of the pot is a big thing, like the bottom of a paella, or in Iranian food that bottom scorched rice that is really crispy and caramelised. In Korea, it’s a big thing and they actually sell it by the bag… I thought, why don’t we use that to make a rice pudding? It is also using rhubarb and strawberry that are in season to put on top to lighten it a bit, which I’m quite excited about.

There is basically only one supplier [for our ingredients], two perhaps. It’s hard. When they run out of something, it pisses us off a lot, as then we’ll have to use a different brand or different type of soy sauce, when not all soy sauces are created equal. So there is a lot of improvising, we have to change constantly to make sure the taste is where we expect it to be.

The Korean food scene is mixed. I think there are very few of us who are actually doing it at the level we are doing it at – we have really trained, skilled career chefs and creativity behind it and we are making absolutely everything from scratch, from our kimchi to our sauces. We are not cooking with MSG.

You get these canteens and Korean restaurants that cater to the student scene and are at a much cheaper price point. They buy a lot of things in and are not really making things, and a lot of the ingredients are not even Korean – they are getting them from China.

I would love to see more Korean restaurants that are a little bit more elevated that can showcase Korea’s beautiful culture and cuisine at the level that it deserves and is not just student food.

I think that people don’t realise that Korean food is not just barbecue.

People need to be educated more about what Korean food is – that it has a very diverse culinary offering with all these beautiful, bubbling hot stews and soups for the bitterly cold winter. Then the summers are ridiculously hot so you have this tradition of cold soups and cold noodles soups and things that are quite refreshing – and barbecue obviously comes along there too.

Not everything is spicy, chillies were only introduced into Korea through Portuguese missionaries who were travelling with the Japanese troops in the 18th century, so chillies aren’t traditionally part of Korean cuisine. They did stick and people love chillies in Korea, but not all the food is spicy at all.

Apart from Korean food, I’m also seeing this trend of vegetarian, veganism and plant-based eating. We get a lot of vegans coming in to Jinjuu, particularly Indians – that’s because the flavours are still really strong.

I don’t think this whole fad with eating bugs is going to last. I personally don’t like eating bugs, caterpillars and insects. I don’t find it that appetising or flavourful. I’ve tried them a lot and I find that they are always just taking on the flavour of the butter or the sauce.

I find Mexican food in the UK isn’t nearly as good or celebrated as it is in the United States… There are so many parts of the cuisine and flavours and regional specialities that people just don’t know about in the UK.

I also think that some other Southeast Asian cuisines like Indonesian cuisine haven’t been explored yet properly. People tend to lump Malaysia, Indonesia and all of those countries together. It isn’t fair to not distinguish between them, so I think that Indonesian food could become more popular. The UK does have such a strong infinity to Indian food, so I think they will also embrace the flavours of Southeast Asia as well.

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