You don't hear about too many engineers turned restaurateurs, but that's exactly who we're meeting on a sunny morning in Soho. Judy Joo is something of a polymath, having tried her hand at engineering and investment banking before becoming a chef (with her own TV series, no less). Nowadays she's turned her attention to the London and Hong Kong restaurant scenes with Jinjuu – where Korean tradition meets Judy's sense of invention.
We caught Judy on a special day...
Despite the presence of our camera crew, we're not the most interesting event on the agenda in the restaurant today. That's because, they're making kimchi. After 24 hours of brining, the cabbage is being seasoned and mixed in a series of huge vats, before it's put away to ferment in peace.
Judy's eyes light up as she explains the process – kimchi is obviously one of her specialist subjects. "There's a lot of science to kimchi, as with all fermented food. It's all about temperature control and knowing your environment. If it's warmer or colder, it changes how long we ferment it. In Hong Kong our kimchi was fermenting in two days because it's so hot there. In London, we generally do it every two weeks.
"There's nothing artificial in our kimchi. We make it all in-house – it takes up a lot of room and a lot of effort. Think about it: where do you store all of that cabbage for two weeks to ferment? I'm particularly proud of our kimchi because it's our own recipe, and even Korean people say it's good kimchi."
That's the real mark of quality, and authenticity – and demand for that authenticity seems to be at an all time high. We all want to be secure in the knowledge that this is how they do it in Seoul. Kimchi has been riding that wave as the poster-child Korean dish, and Judy thinks it's a good ambassador. "It's so good for you. That's why Koreans eat it every day. It boosts your immune system. It keeps your gut and your digestion healthy, and your gut bacterial levels are very important in terms of your general health."
"When Korean troops go abroad they give them kimchi because it's so good for morale."
Health benefits are a nice-to-have, but there's much more to kimchi – it's an important part of the Korean national identity. "There's a joke that Koreans can't travel without kimchi, so they always pack it. It's considered a serious part of being Korean. Koreans eat kimchi at every meal, 365 days a year. It's that integrated into their diet and culture. When Korean troops go abroad they give them kimchi because it's so good for morale. It's a really integral part of being Korean."
The relentless tech-driven march of modern life has given us many amazing things, but it also seems hell bent on destroying simple traditions that you feel we should be trying to preserve. "It's kind of dying in Korea, but traditionally every year the entire community or the family would get together and make kimchi for the year ahead. It's called a Gimjang. They make it in massive vats, with a hundred heads of cabbage, then they'll ferment it for a full year. It's so cool."
It is very cool, and Judy's childhood was steeped in that food culture. "I was born in New Jersey to Korean parents, and back then you couldn't find any pre-made Korean food. So once in awhile we would take these long-haul trips into New York City, to the one Korean grocery store and buy ingredients. My mom really had to make everything from scratch because you couldn't buy it."
There was no dodging the draft to help in the kitchen, so for years Judy was a sometimes-willing assistant. When the time came to leave home for college, food was the last thing on her mind. "My father is a doctor and my mom was a chemist, so that's why I went to engineering school. All you really see is what your parents are doing, I didn't know that there was anything else out there. Then, when I got into engineering school and just thought 'My God, this is too hard. I can't do this."
Spoiler alert: she could do it. And while she did, her authentic food education reached a new level. New York, and her diverse group of friends at university opened her up to a whole new world of (crucially cheap) traditional, ethnic food. "You could get Russian food at Coney Island, Pakistani food at Brick Lane, and obviously we would go to Koreatown for great Korean food."
"It really was the Wolf of Wall Street days."
Still, food was for eating, not for a career. "I finished my degree, and I worked in finance from '97-2002. It really was the Wolf of Wall Street days. It was a bit nuts, but so much fun. That was my first introduction to truly fine dining, too. There was an excess of expense accounts and we ate in the best restaurants all over New York, drank the best wine and got the best of everything."
Fun as that sounds, you can't burn the candle at both ends forever, so Judy left the city for a quieter life. With time to kill, she decided to take cooking classes. "I went to the French Culinary Institute, so I'm actually a pastry chef by training. When I went to cooking school I thought I'd use it to have cool birthday parties for my kids. You never know where life is going to take you."
Life certainly has taken her on a journey. She has appeared on Iron Chef UK, hosted her own cooking show, worked in restaurants around the world and sold a few books too. "I never thought it would grow into this – ever. I'm a career-changer, but there are a lot of career-changers in this industry. Restaurants are full of people who were doing something else, became disenchanted and decided to go into food. I've met so many other restaurateurs or chefs who have left something behind to do it. It's a passion field. If you don't have the passion for it, I just don't know how you'd survive."
It's interesting that Judy would use that word. Survival is all about adapting to your surroundings, and she has done exactly that – putting the lessons learned from her experience in finance, and particularly engineering, to good use to make sure that her restaurants run as smoothly as possible.
"It's kind of like planning a city…"
"I majored in industrial engineering and operations research. When you build a restaurant it's all operations. It's all about efficiency, the design and process flow. Where do the dishes come out? Where do the waiters walk? Where are the till points? It's kind of like planning a city, where do you have the police stations? Where do you have the hospitals? Where do you have the fire stations?"
She laughs as she remembers the extra stress that this approach caused along the way. "I was always getting in fights with my architects, because they don't necessarily understand operations or functionality. So it's like, we could use this bartop in that material, but it's going to stain, it's porous, it's going to crack, and it's not going to stand up to the 500 cocktails that we serve in a day."
Judy has planned everything down to the finest detail, and it serves as a reminder of the amount of thought that goes unseen in successful restaurants everywhere. "When you design a building you do wind tests and earthquake tests on them. The same is true for a plate – how many washes does it take to chip easily? So I'm using that background in the sense of running the business, but also in recipe development."
Time for the tasty part then. One of Jinjuu's real signatures is their whole Korean fried chicken. It's probably unlike any fried chicken you've had before – and here's why: "Our fried chicken, that's all from science. There are over 33 ingredients in the entire recipe. I really worked on it and honed it over a long time. I use a lot of traditional techniques, but we add some special twists."
"It has also been called 'stained glass chicken' or 'eggshell chicken'."
"Ours is very original: number one we use matzo meal, which is a Jewish unleavened flatbread – it's extra crispy. It's the best breading and the best coating because it stays really crunchy. What makes Korean fried chicken different, is that you're looking for that extra hard crunch. It has also been called 'stained glass chicken' or 'eggshell chicken' because you want that crack, that crunch."
The crunch of a spoon hitting that crust is pavlovian, you just want to tear into it as soon as you hear it. Judy hits us with a second chef hack, and this one will be interesting for the gluten-free crowd: "Another thing that we use is vodka. Vodka prevents gluten development so you can avoid that claggy, chewy, soft texture. You can use any kind of alcohol that's 40 proof or higher actually."
Now, it's the time of the season for seasoning. "We add a tonne of dried herbs and spices to make sure that the crust has that flavour. Then we have two sauces: usually with Korean fried chicken you have to choose if you want a soy salty sweet one or a spicy one, but we serve both. Every bite you have can be different – I actually think it tastes good together."
That's the ingredients taken care of, but there's a scientific approach to the cooking technique too. "We use pressure fryers. They fry extremely fast, so it seals all the juices and the chicken isn't in the oil as long. If you tried doing a whole chicken in an open fryer it would take half an hour and it'd be soggy and disgusting. This way it cooks it under pressure, it seals all the juices in and it's really tasty." She laughs as she remembers the time spent perfecting it. "That dish took a lot of research."
Someone call The Chicken Connoisseur
And you can taste that devoted research in every bite. The crunchy batter is delicious, and it's a nice contrast with the juicy, tender chicken. As we dip each mouthful in the salty soy and the spicy sauce, we agree with Judy – they do taste amazing together. Pickled radishes bring some sharpness and bite, and it's topped off with corn salsa. Someone call The Chicken Connoisseur, we think he'd quite like this.
As our time at Jinjuu draws to a close, dessert seems like the appropriate way to finish up. Though they have their roots in traditional Korean fare they've also been given the Judy Joo fusion treatment. "Every restaurant has to put their own twist on something or else they're not able to compete. Even something like pizza, why would you go to one place over another place? 'These guys do it better.' 'Why?' 'They do it their way.'"
Judy is crystal clear on exactly what is "her way" and you get the impression that her methodical, exacting style is at the heart of her success. "We do western desserts with a Korean twist. So I'll take a classic posset, but with yuzu instead of lemon – which gives it that lovely fragrance. Our signature is probably a Korean flat doughnut called the Hotteok. Traditionally it just has brown sugar in it, but we put salted caramel in ours and we serve it with a peanut praline and chocolate so it has all of the flavours of a Snickers bar. We just change things to make them more fun."
There's a great phrase that Judy has been quoted as saying before, that "Today's invention is tomorrow's tradition". That's easier said than proven – fusion is almost a dirty word in some culinary circles – but she's managed to pull off the most delicate of balancing acts: traditional techniques and flavours are respected, but there's always something to surprise you on the plate.
If people love those new elements, they'll become part of the furniture before you know it. "Korean fried chicken isn't something that my grandparents ate, but now there are over 10,000 fried chicken shops in Korea and it's becoming a traditional thing." She shrugs, with the air of someone who understands that change is inevitable, and that good things will come to you if you learn to embrace it.
Quality + time + memories = tradition
Therein lies the cornerstone of the Jinjuu philosophy. What elevates a dish from a tasty treat to a treasured cultural tradition? If you were to take a leaf out of Judy's book and attempt to engineer it, we think it would look something like: quality + time + memories = tradition. It has to be tasty enough that you're proud to call it your own, and even though you eat it again and again the mere thought of it conjures up cherished memories of your home and your family.
That's what Jinjuu is bringing to life, while doing everything a restaurant has to do to survive in a fiercely competitive market. How many of Judy's dishes have a shot at cultural touchstone status? Only time will tell. One thing's for sure though, you can make plenty of happy memories with Jinjuu – and discover some dishes that will completely change the way you see Korean food.