Leading Lights – Judy Joo

Korean-American Chef, TV personality and restauranteur Judy Joo currently runs Seoul Bird, a Korean Fried Chicken restaurant in two locations in London.

Following an engineering degree at Columbia University and a career on Wall Street, Judy became disenchanted in finance and decided to follow her true passion in life: food. After enrolling with the French Culinary Institute in New York, Judy received her Grand Diplome in Pastry Arts before becoming a test kitchen and editorial assistant at SAVEUR magazine.  

Judy has worked in some of the world’s most prestigious restaurants including Maze, Claridges and Pétrus in London, 3 Michelin-starred The French Laundry in Yountville, California, Heston Blumenthal’s 3 Michelin-starred The Fat Duck in Bray and Bangkok’s 1 Michelin-starred Nahm restaurant.  We caught up with her earlier in the year to learn more about what drives her innovative style of cooking and what she has learned from operating her own restaurants.

Having had a breadth of international experience and working for renowned chefs such as Gordon Ramsey and Heston Blumenthal, how did you develop your own style of cooking?

Every chef has to develop their own style in order to distinguish themselves.  I consider working for other great chefs as a way to lay down the foundation for your career and development. It is from this foundation and way of working that you can grow from and develop your own style, techniques, and flavour profiles. 

Your recipes have been described as “food without borders.” Are fusion dishes an integral part of your work as a chef?

Absolutely.  I often describe myself as a French trained Korean American Londoner.  I have deep roots in three continents and am constantly pulling inspiration from many different cultures.  I meld flavors and techniques from all of my travels.  I think this fusion is what makes modern cuisine so exciting these days. 

What excites you about fusion food?

The unexpected flavor combinations that surprises and makes you say “wow”. 

I love taking something completely traditional and modernising it— I think it gives people a fun playful hit of nostalgia while appealing to modern tastes not only in flavour, but also in presentation. 

When working on new dishes, what is your development process?

I test and test and test again.  The kitchen is a laboratory to me with controls and variables.  I don’t settle for just good tasting food— It has to be fantastic. 

How is the Korean food trend evolving in the UK?

Now, I am seeing that people are somewhat more aware that Korea has its own cuisine and it is not in South East Asia.  People are slowly becoming more educated about Asia as a continent as a whole, and not just assuming that all of Asia shares one flavor profile.  Korean food is becoming more and more popular and items like kimchi are practically main-stream now.  

Where should a chef visit in Korea to experience/learn about the variety and flavours of Korean food?

Seoul, Korea the capital is a great start… and just eat on the street. Street food is wide and varied in Seoul—everything from a sidewalk barbecue to savoury pancakes, noodles to donuts. 

What inspired you to open your first restaurant in London and why did you choose that specific location?

I have been living in London for 18 years now; I am a British citizen. I saw an opportunity and gap in the market; no one was doing modern Korean food at all in modern fun way.  Soho, with its young and multi-cultural clientele seemed like the ideal place to open my concept.

What were your stand-out memories of the first year of trading?

Customers were very curious about the cuisine, but there was a lot of education necessary.  Even with the professional food critics— I had to explain to them that Korea doesn’t grow let alone cook with lime or lemongrass!  The concept of wrapping food in leaves was also a bit lost— we had to really explain everything. 

What lessons have you learnt that you applied to the launch of Seoul Bird?

People love comfort food and fried chicken is loved all around the world.  Chicken is eaten by more people around the globe than any other meat.  

What inspires you to continue innovating?

My travels always inspire me to invent new flavor combinations and dishes.  

With multiple recipe books, restaurants and tv shows under your belt, what’s the next challenge?

I would love to successfully franchise Seoul Bird internationally.