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.
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.
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.
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.
- Though a Korean actor did appear in a few episodes of Holby City