Judy Joo on putting her heart and Seoul into her Korean fried chicken brand

21 July 2021 by

Wall Street isn't the usual breeding ground for internationally famous chefs, but Judy Joo isn't your usual entrepreneur. Yes, she may have a background in high finance, but her inspiration for Seoul Bird, known for its Korean fried chicken, started with a humble takeout of KFC. Fiona Sims discovers her journey.

Judy Joo is on a mission. The American chef, TV personality, entrepreneur and author wants us all to know our bibimbap from our bulgogi. This month she opened her second Seoul Bird restaurant, in Canary Wharf, where crispy double-fried, Korean-style chicken, inspired by her heritage, is the order of the day. "It's the ultimate comfort food," grins the 46-year-old chef, recognising that comfort is something we all need right now.

With its 78 seats and smart, colourful interior, Seoul Bird Canary Wharf is a more grown-up version of her first opening in Westfield London, a counter-style operation with shared food hall seating. And this won't be her last Seoul Bird either: it's a formula she is planning to roll out around the country and beyond, she tells me. The Big Apple? "Sure! I'm already looking at sites," she reveals.

But Joo is not quite what she seems. The chef is glamorous, bejewelled and animated on TV, where she makes regular appearances on programmes such as BBC's Saturday Kitchen and Channel 4's Sunday Brunch, as well as being one of eight celebrity chefs on ITV's new primetime show, Cooking with the Stars, airing this month. She juggles her days running her two restaurants with her latest TV project, finalising the menu for her guest spot at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, writing magazine columns, preparing for regular slots on US chat shows, such as NBC's Today and Good Morning America, and dividing her time between London and Manhattan (pandemic permitting).

"Some people think I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but they need to know that I'm the daughter of a North Korean war refugee," she says, not a little indignant.

Some people think I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but they need to know that I'm the daughter of a North Korean war refugee

In addition to her intriguing back story, she has a whole country's worth of food history to share with a mostly unknowing British public.

She says: "People should respect the distinct cultural differences in Asia and realise that you cannot just lump all of Asian cuisine in one basket and say that the whole continent uses the same ingredients. That is categorically incorrect, and culturally ignorant. Korean food is extremely different from any other country in Asia. For one, it is not a tropical country and there are no ingredients that are similar. Korea has its own culture and cuisine, with a distinct flavour profile. It's punchy and very in your face, bright and vibrant."

Judy Joo
Judy Joo

It's those flavours that Joo wants to trumpet. She did it first at Jinjuu in Soho (in which she is no longer involved), in her two-season US and UK TV show, Korean Food Made Simple, in her two cookbooks, and now at Seoul Bird.

Poultry perfection

Admittedly, the British food cognoscenti have been wise to Korean cuisine for a few years now, with some curious cultural appropriation among the foodie set, which Joo sees as both good and bad. While Korean culture is making a big noise globally, thanks to K-pop, Korean soap operas and Korean beauty regimes, the wider British public seems to be stuck on fried chicken in whatever form.

But before you roll your eyes and mutter not another chicken shop, recent openings include Philippines-born chain Jollibee, which is being rolled out nationwide; Wing Shack, which has just opened its sixth branch in Selfridges; and Humble Chicken in Soho, where Gordon Ramsay-trained Angelo Sato focuses entirely on chicken yakitori. At Seoul Bird Joo offers 24-hour soy-brined, twice-fried secret recipe battered chicken, with an appealing glass-like crunch, served with daikon pickles and Asian slaw, plus a fiery, umami-rich sauce, alongside other favourites such as rice bowls, sweet potato noodles and Korean fried cauliflower.

Seoul Bird: Bucket of fried chicken, Asian slaw and pickled daikon
Seoul Bird: Bucket of fried chicken, Asian slaw and pickled daikon

Though you might be surprised to know that fried chicken is a relatively recent thing for Koreans. "My grandparents never ate it. Fried chicken came over to Korea with the American Forces during the Korean War," explains Joo.

At a time when food was scarce, fried chicken – and a few other American imports, such as Spam and corned beef, were highly sought after and are still coveted today – pan-fried Spam served with rice, and corned beef served in noodle soups remain popular dishes in Korean households, particularly for Joo when she grew up in New Jersey.

Taste of home

"I want to tell you about my parents, which tells you a bit more about me," she announces.

Joo's father escaped across the border from North Korea as a young boy with his parents and eight siblings, and he spent the rest of his childhood in a refugee camp in the south. He studied hard and gained a place at Seoul high school and then at Seoul medical school. The US, at the time short of doctors, offered his graduating class visas, and Eui Don Joo ended up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he completed his specialisation as a psychiatrist and met his wife, Young Nim, who was in the US studying chemistry. They had their first child there, Sonya, before moving to New Jersey, where Joo was born 18 months later.

Seoul Bird: chocolate, berry and vanilla milkshakes
Seoul Bird: chocolate, berry and vanilla milkshakes

"New Jersey was Whiteville USA back then, so mum made everything from scratch. We had jars of kimchi fermenting under the patio, perilla leaves growing in the garden, chillies drying in the sun, seaweed hanging in the garage. We'd get big packages through the post from Korea filled with dried anchovies, persimmons, gochugaru and the like. We ate lots of American food, too, of course – mac 'n' cheese and bologna sandwiches were favourites – but our biggest treat was a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken," she remembers, with a grin. It was a taste she never forgot.

But being a chef was never on the cards for Joo. "As both of my parents had science backgrounds, that was all I knew when I was growing up. They really pushed us – it was all about getting into a top college. Yes, it was a strict upbringing – there was zero partying – but I needed my arse kicked to study," she shrugs.

For Joo that was an Ivy League university in New York, Columbia, where she studied industrial engineering and operations research. In 2018, she was invited back to do the keynote speech for the graduating year – an honour given only to select alumni, among them Barack Obama – which was one of her proudest moments.

Seoul Bird: Korean fried cauliflower
Seoul Bird: Korean fried cauliflower

When Joo graduated in 1997, Columbia was a feeder school for Wall Street. "My entire major went into finance. Money was growing on trees back then," she recalls. She ended up working in derivatives sales in the fixed-income division at Morgan Stanley, but after five years Joo became disenchanted with the industry. "I kept getting sick from the ridiculous hours I was pulling. I only took four days' vacation a year. I didn't have time to spend the money I was making. It was unsustainable," she says.

The only thing she ended up loving about her job was entertaining clients in smart restaurants. "I became intoxicated with the restaurant world," she says. "It was all about that coveted reservation and knowing who the best chefs were, and I loved all that," she remembers. So she ditched her high-flying job in finance and enrolled in the French Culinary Institute.

Her husband, David Allen, whom she met and married while working at Morgan Stanley (they've since divorced), was then posted to London with his hedge fund.

Seoul Bird – Seoul burgers: signature chicken, kimchi chicken, and portobello mushroom
Seoul Bird – Seoul burgers: signature chicken, kimchi chicken, and portobello mushroom

"I was a corporate wife for a while – and a bit of a dilettante too, if I'm honest. But it didn't sit comfortably with me. Anyway, one evening I was dining out with David and some of his clients at Gordon Ramsay's Royal Hospital Road when we were invited to see the kitchen. I got chatting to head chef Simone Zanoni. I told him that I had a cooking diploma and he asked whether I wanted to come and do a stage. I think he was rather surprised when I said yes." Joo ended up working there part-time for two years (unpaid), on the pastry section, fitting it in around her jet-setting lifestyle.

She then went on to do a stage at Maze, ghost-wrote a cookbook for its chef, Jason Atherton, and worked at head office, even pitching for potential new sites for the group. "I learned a ton of stuff. I started thinking, maybe I could do this myself," she says.

Judy Joo
Judy Joo

Happy bunny

It was around this time she met Wincent Lau from Caesar's Entertainment. Lau found Joo after seeing her on Channel 4's Iron Chef UK and asked if she would come up with a restaurant concept for the Mayfair relaunch of Playboy Club London. She agreed, and led the kitchen there for three years.

Seoul Bird: Bucket of grilled chicken, Asian slaw, pickled daikon and kimchi
Seoul Bird: Bucket of grilled chicken, Asian slaw, pickled daikon and kimchi

"First and foremost I see myself as a feminist. But life is about having some fun too, and taking risks. And OK, this might sound rather controversial, but Hugh Hefner is an inspirational business owner. He built up a superbrand in one lifetime. That little bunny logo is recognised in deepest Africa – that's incredible. And the bunnies? Everyone has a right to earn a living, however they want to. Hef was a real pioneer for racial and LGBT equality in the workplace and people don't realise that. I had a great time there," she says.

First and foremost I see myself as a feminist. But life is about having some fun too, and taking risks

It was while Joo was working at the Playboy Club that she met an Iranian-born, London-based businessman who liked her food and wanted a new concept for his Kingly Street restaurant and offered to go into partnership.

"Jinjuu was London's premier modern Korean restaurant when it opened in 2015. I went to great pains to showcase Korean culture and I imported more Korean beverages than anyone else. I really put Korean food on the map in the UK and I'm very proud of that," says Joo, who left the business in 2019.

Seoul Bird iced tea
Seoul Bird iced tea

She is still importing lots of Korean beverages to sell at Seoul Bird – most notably soju to wash down her best-selling dishes, namely the signature fried chicken burger and the rice bowl with fried chicken and a side of kimchi. The funding for the business was initially all down to Joo, but she has since brought in other investors who are excited by Seoul Bird's expansion potential, while her business partner and chief operating officer is Andrew Hales, who has worked with Joo for over a decade.

It's 11.30am at Seoul Bird Canary Wharf and the doors, modelled on those found in a traditional Korean home, open for the first trickle of customers, a seductive waft of ginger, garlic, sesame and chicken greeting them.

So who comes to Seoul Bird? "Everyone," she grins. "Young, old, families, black, white, brown – it's a multicultural crowd." But who doesn't like fried chicken? Colonel Sanders might have met his match in Judy Joo.

Judy Joo explains Korean cuisine in a nutshell

Seoul Bird
Seoul Bird

"The main flavours in Korean cooking are garlic, ginger, sesame (both the seed and the oil), perilla leaves and chillies – though these aren't indigenous, as they were brought over from Japan in the 17th century.

"There's lots of fermentation and a bit of sweetness to balance everything out. The use of sugar or pear juice, pear purée, apple juice or mirin is very common. Food is viewed as medicine in Korea, and it's all about balance. Traditionally, every meal is meant to include the five flavours (sweet, hot, sour, salt and bitter), five colours (red, yellow, green, white and black) and five preparations (raw, sautéed, braised, pickled and fermented).

"When you look at a traditional Korean table, it's full of side dishes. It's about diversity – fish, seafood, vegetables and meat, all prepared in different ways.

"What one dish sums up Korean cuisine? Bibimbap. It has the five colours, flavours and textures. On top of the rice, you have different vegetables, protein and kimchi and the starch with the crispy rice at the bottom. It's the perfect meal."

10 Korean ingredients you should know

  • Gochujang (Korean chilli paste)
  • Gochugaru (Korean chilli flakes)
  • Doenjang (Korean soya bean paste)
  • Myulchi (dried anchovies)
  • Ggaennip (perilla leaves)
  • Soju (a distilled spirit made traditionally from rice)
  • Chamgireum (sesame oil)
  • Gyeoja (Korean hot mustard)
  • Yeongeun (lotus root)
  • Mu (Korean radish)

Featured photo: Emli Bendixen. Food photography: Lateef Photography

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