Story by Ada Tseng.
The Cooking Channel’s Korean Food Made Simple, hosted by Korean American chef Judy Joo, is the latest installment of a culinary television series that previously included Mexican Food Made Simple and Chinese Food Made Simple. Part travelogue, part how-to guide, Korean Food Made Simple sent Joo all over Korea to gather inspiration, from fish markets in Seoul and the streets of Busan to the small islands off the coast of Korea. (“I’ve been to more places in Korea than my relatives, who have lived there their entire lives!” says Joo.) After exploring different foods around the country, she returned to London, where she’s been based for the last several years, to show audiences how to re-create Korean flavors in a regular home kitchen.
Joo was thrilled when she was approached to do Korean Food Made Simple, as she’s proud of her heritage and has brought a lot of Korean influences to the menu at the Playboy Club London, where she has been the executive chef since it opened in 2011. Some of the dishes that appear on the show — like the Spicy Mussels with Bacon and the Steamed Ginger Infused Sea Bass with Zucchini — have actually been served at the Playboy Club. “We also make our own kimchi at the Club,” says Joo. “And we have a version of the Korean fried chicken in our sports bar.”
Growing up in New Jersey, Joo was no stranger to the local disco fries or fast fixes at Taco Bell, but she mostly ate Korean food at home. Her mother taught her how to cook authentic Korean food, but she jokes that helping out in the kitchen as a kid felt more like slave labor than fun.
“This was when there was nothing pre-made,” says Joo. “So it’d be me and my sister in front of a mound of meat making dumplings. I remember brushing sheets and sheets of dried seaweed with oil, salting them and then having to fry them. Then going to the garden to pick sesame leaves. It felt like chores.
“Also, [traditionally] you’re supposed to cook each vegetable separately to keep it from getting infected by other ingredients,” continues Joo. “And you want to keep the integrity of the color, so if the vegetable is light, you’re not supposed to use soy sauce. But no one has time to cook seven different vegetables separately in one pan to make one dish!” She laughs. “So I say, just cook it all together, and if the carrots are a little brown, it’ll be OK.”
She also shares tips and shortcuts for any home cook who might not live near a Korean market. For example, if you can’t find mirin, a sweet rice wine that is common in Korean cooking, Joo says it’s perfectly fine to substitute Sprite or 7-Up. And if you can’t find thinly sliced beef, partially freeze it and cut it with a knife. “I don’t think that you have to be completely authentic or traditional in order for people to get a good taste of a cuisine,” says Joo. “Food is always dynamic. Food in Korea has changed tremendously in the past years and decades. It’s like languages; it’s always evolving.”
One of Joo’s favorite meals to serve at a dinner party is do-it-yourself kimbap. Instead of pre-rolling the Korean sushi prior to guests arriving, Joo gives each guest their own squares of seaweed and lets them make their own. Joo is also a big fan of do-it-yourself bibimbap, where she encourages guests to choose their own vegetables for the mixed rice dish.
Though Joo is now a recognizable TV food personality — she is one of the few who can claim to have been on Iron Chef as a competitor, an official Iron Chef (the only woman in the Iron Chef UK lineup) and a judge — her road to success was a winding one. Born to a physician father and a chemist mother, Joo initially aspired to a career in the sciences and ended up working in banking for many years before she had what she calls her What Color Is Your Parachute? moment and began to soul-search about what she really wanted to do with her life.
“My parents were not thrilled,” says Joo of the prospect of her giving up her prestigious gig on Wall Street. But to contextualize, she grew up in a stereotypically overachieving Asian American household where her parents were also “not thrilled” when she only got into Columbia and not Yale, where her sister went. She toyed with the idea of joining the Peace Corps (“My dad was like, ‘Why do you do that? That’s why I left North Korea!’”), but eventually enrolled in the French Culinary Institute in New York. Soon after relocating to London with her husband, she ended up working at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant and worked her way up from there.
But it wasn’t until she got into television that her parents started to understand the significance of her new career path. “When I got invited to the Blue House in Korea —the White House of Korea — that’s when my parents were like, ‘Oh, maybe you are doing something interesting and important,’” she says. “That’s when they realized I wasn’t just a line cook, I guess.”
Episodes of Korean Food Made Simple can be seen on the Cooking Channel, and a cookbook with recipes featured on the show will be available next year.
This story was originally published in our Summer 2014 issue. Get your copy here.