LKL meets Iron Chef, Judy Joo

The four iron chefs
The four iron chefs

As you might expect from an Iron Chef, Judy Joo’s handshake is firm. Not bone-crushing; just confident and strong.

We are meeting in one of my favourite pubs, in Marylebone Lane, just around the corner from Joo’s London home. I’m always impressed when someone who isn’t an Englishman goes for traditional bitter, and Joo duly orders herself a Bombardier. Maybe it’s a sign of her inquisitive taste buds.

Judy Joo, Iron Chef
Judy Joo, Iron Chef

We’re off to a good start. And then I discover she’s an ex investment banker: a former sales-trader on the fixed income floor of Morgan Stanley (my own day-job is trying to keep such people under control). It’s not a fashionable job any more, but she got out of the racket while it was still a good deal more glamorous than being an estate agent.

Because of an enforced move of city, she decided to throw in her lucrative job and instead chose to follow her passion: cooking. She enrolled at the French Culinary Institute in New York. Her speciality is the art of pastry.

Joo was born in New Jersey to Korean parents. Her father was originally from North Korea, and escaped with the rest of his family at the age of five. After staying in a Jeju-do refugee camp he graduated in medicine from Seoul National University. He left for the United States in the 1960s.

Joo has now been living in London for the past 5 years. She has spent time working at Gordon Ramsay’s in Chelsea, as well as a brief stint in Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in Bray. With her degree in engineering, Blumenthal’s style of cooking comes naturally. In addition, she has participated in writing cookery books and restaurant reviews (for Time Out). But now she has her big break: Iron Chef.

The format is gripping. Four challengers take on an Iron Chef. They are told their special ingredient, which has to be the theme for their dish, and then battle commences. Two challengers cook a starter each, two a main course. And the Iron Chef has to cook two of each. It’s a pressure-cooker environment, but the Iron Chefs are well chosen: they are selected for their robustness, and Judy fits the bill: tough, aggressive and steely. They only have 75 minutes to cook their four dishes, and then fight back against any hostile comments from the judges. And after 75 minutes of cooking against the clock, with heat and steam everywhere, not a hair on Judy’s head is out of place, and the red lipstick is still perfect.

Judy Joo's Crab Kimbap
Judy Joo's Battle Crab Kimbap. Just don't call it sushi.

She is, to my knowledge, the first Korean to appear regularly on UK prime-time TV1. And she’s doing her best to introduce Korean cooking to a wider audience. In one episode (“Battle Crab”), she makes kimbap – and does battle with a judge who dares to call it sushi. In episodes yet to air she tackles bibimbap, kalguksu (knife noodles) and samgyetang.

We agree that there doesn’t seem to be a user-friendly Korean cook-book for the English-speaking market. My nearest branch of Waterstones has several Japanese recipe books, a couple of Caribbean ones, even and Iraqi one; but no Korean one. It’s a gap that Joo aims to fill: she’s already started writing one of her own. Having seen some of her cooking on Iron Chef I suspect that it will be Korean cuisine with a difference. Maybe some fusion, maybe some variations: something to make Korean food a bit more accessible. Yes, Korean food has come a long way in recent years, but it still has a long way to go.

Judy Joo in action
Judy Joo in action

Iron Chef has so far been going for about 3 weeks, in a not very appropriate time slot. 5pm on Channel 4 isn’t the place to catch the audience who will watch an edgy cookery programme. But it will soon be moving to a slot later in the evening where it won’t intimidate the genteel daytime viewers.

Iron Chef is something different: the format was invented in Japan, and the compere is a zany, larger than life character that you expect from seeing Takeshi’s Castle or the spoof betting show Banzai, but one suspects that the commentators have been toned down from the ones in the original show. The format is a cult TV programme in the US, and has all the ingredients to be one in the UK once it moves to a prime-time slot such as one occupied by all the Gordon Ramsay evening shows.

I have a suspicion that we will be hearing and seeing a lot more of Judy Joo. Iron Chef is her big break, and I think we shall see her in due course as a significant force in the popularisation of Korean food in the UK.


  1. Though a Korean actor did appear in a few episodes of Holby City []

11 thoughts on “LKL meets Iron Chef, Judy Joo

  1. What do you mean by “UK Prime-time TV”?

    Technically, Jisung Park and Yoojin Kim have both been appearing on TV in the UK in prime-time for the past 5 years plus…

  2. Fair point, but I never think of footballers as TV people until they make the jump like Gary Lineker!

    Who is Kim Yoojin, other than an ex S.E.S member?

  3. Yes, I’ve seen some of the Korean cookery books in Daunt in Marylebone High Street – the only place I know of that stocks such things. They’re just about the only thing in their Korean section I haven’t bought, because the books look so unappealing.

  4. Colette Balmain: Great interview Philip. I saw the episode when the panel were critical of bitmap, saying that the rice wasn’t correct (i.e. sushi rice). Iron Chef UK seems to have been pulled for the moment, I am not sure why, but the gossip seems to be that it will be back in a later slot.

  5. Thanks Colette.

    If there’s a hiatus, it’s because they’re waiting for a mid-evening slot to become available. Judy thinks the series should resume (once a week rather than once a day) in a couple of weeks. That makes a lot more sense to me.

  6. Lost is on satellite? I’ve been away too long. I assumed it would be on mainstream somewhere…then it’s up for debate. She’s not really accessible to a lot of people, but I assume most would know her.

  7. Yup, the Underground is littered with posters whenever there’s a new season, and in the most recent poster I’m sure I recall seeing Kim Yunjin, but it’s Sky only as far as I’m aware.

    She was in one of the lads mags once ^_^, so she’s not unknown.

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