IMAGINE, for a moment, the head chef at a Playboy Club. Whatever image just sprang to your mind, I am fairly certain it is not Judy Joo. A Korean-American former Wall Street banker (she was a sales-trader on the fixed income floor of Morgan Stanley; her husband works for a hedge fund in London), Joo has been executive chef at Park Lane’s revamped Playboy since it opened in June. The New Jersey-born graduate of Columbia University’s School of Engineering left banking and a fat salary to become a chef – taking rather a gamble on many fronts. We meet this most impressive and unlikely Playboy employee.
Q.What made you decide to make the leap from banking to cheffing?
A.I suddenly realised: I’m enjoying being a banker but I don’t love it. I was regularly taking a shuttle from LaGuardia to Boston and found myself grabbing the free cooking magazines in the bus station. I felt like Barrons and the Economist were more like homework. So after a while I was like: why don’t I just do what I love and follow my dream and my passion?
You got to compete on Channel Four’s chef cook-off, Iron Chef. How was the experience?
Being one of the four Iron Chefs in Iron Chef UK was one of the most stressful things that I have ever done. Being a judge on The Next Iron Chef in the States (released on 30 Oct) was much easier. Eating and talking is much less stressful than cooking under pressure.
You were a banker in the heady boom days – you must have been very driven to leave.
Yes, expense accounts were really healthy. There was a lot of excess going on, but I’ve never looked back.
Had you ever imagined this kind of future?
Never in a million years had I thought that this little hobby would turn into what I’m doing now.
How serious about food were you before you went pro?
I always loved cooking, and grew up in a Korean family where everything was centred around food – you showed your love through food; you know, stuff someone to show how much you love them. When I moved to New York for college, I began really exploring the city’s diverse offering. You have everything: Korea Town, Curry Row, Little Japan, Russian food in Coney Island. It was a way to understand people’s heritage.
Did your banking career help you in your current one?
After eating at all these great cheap ethnic places as a student, in finance there was a lot of fine dining. Client entertaining at the best restaurants across the country opened up to me how eating out isn’t just a meal, it’s an experience, a memory.
You have a science and engineering background. Do you use it in the kitchen?
I’ve always been very interested in baking because baking in particular has a very strong science element to it. In test kitchens, for example, you make the same thing over and over until it’s correct. You have controls and variables. You might have the wrong type of fat/lard/oil. Or sugar: there’s honey, brown sugar, molasses, all different in effect. There are catalysts, alkaline, bases. Mixing something with a fork has a different effect to whisking or folding with a spatula. It’s all chemistry.
How did you come to work at Playboy?
They came to me, I was freelancing at the time and it sounded great. They knew me from the Iron Chef TV show.
Do you feel any ethical twangs, as a woman, about working at a club where women serve in bunny suits?
I love it! I don’t have a problem with it – I consider myself a very strong, educated woman. I went to an all-girls school. The way I see it as that these women are choosing to do it – they’re proud and happy. Plus, the way things are these days, the bunnies aren’t even that scantily clad. In this day and age you can’t get away from sex. If you’re going to attack Playboy, you’d better attack the whole thing: the ads, movies, music videos.
You say the bunnies are proud. What are they proud of, exactly?
To be a bunny is to be a status symbol, to be part of a global brand. You cannot deny the power of Playboy. You could compare Hugh Hefner to Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey – he’s one of these brand champions on a global scale. The bunny is a logo as powerful as those of Coke or Nike, which is an incredible achievement for one person.
Would you have accepted the job if you had to wear a bunny suit?
That would be a health and safety risk! Plus, I’m Asian – I am flat on top and bottom. And, I’m 36, I’m not that tight anymore. The bunnies are young – 23 and 24.
Do you miss New York?
I do, but I love London; the restaurant scene has exploded since I’ve been here. I remember coming here 15 years ago and there was nothing to eat. Foodwise, Europe is phenomenal; the produce is so good. It’s a bit more garden to table eating too; the US tends to be more industrialised, though that’s changing.
PLAYBOY | FOR NON-MEMBERS
Lunch: 12-3pm, no deposit, no cancellation policy Monday through Sunday.
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Tables of 9 or more will have a set menu.
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