Joo Won

Joo Won

Joo Won

Combining the flavours of his native Korea with the European dishes and techniques he's prepared professionally for years, Joo Won's cooking style is offering a new twist on a much-loved cuisine.

Korean food is a hugely popular cuisine in the UK – you can now find kimchi in most supermarkets and there are plenty of restaurants serving their interpretations of Korean fried chicken (even if some of them aren't exactly true to the original). But the food of Korea has so much more to offer. From the traditional dishes comprised of the country's unique fermented pastes to the more modern east-meets-west street food scene, there's plenty to get your teeth into. Despite growing up in South Korea, Joo Won decided to visit the UK to develop a grounding in classical French cookery and ended up never leaving. Only recently has he returned his gaze to his native Korea, putting his own spin on the cuisine and earning plaudits for his take on the food he enjoyed as a child.

Brought up in Busan, Joo was always surrounded by great food prepared by his mother and aunt but simply wasn’t interested in eating it. ‘I did more complaining about food that eating,’ he laughs. ‘I liked the smells and the atmosphere sat around the dining table but I was very picky. I didn’t start getting pleasure from actually eating until I was thirteen, when I started to notice how much other people enjoyed food.’ Encouraged by his mother to learn practical skills as a teenager rather than studying (‘I wasn’t very good academically’), Joo wanted to prove her wrong and went to study industrial engineering at college. After six months, however, he realised it wasn’t for him. After two years of national service in the navy, Joo reluctantly returned to college just to get a qualification, all but confirming he wanted to follow a different path.

Aged twenty-three and unsure what to do next, Joo got a job at his local bakery and immediately felt at home. ‘It was the first time I really felt like I had a bit of skill,’ he explains. ‘People would come in and say ‘how did you make that?’ because they wanted to make things the same way as I did. It was a lot of fun and I realised that it was what I wanted to do as a career.’ With his mind set on working in a kitchen, Joo started training in pastry at a local institution – but not before trying to cook Korean food professionally for the first time. ‘I thought why not give it a go,’ he says. ‘But then I realised that it’s actually quite a difficult cuisine to master, so I quickly gave up.’ In the meantime, he began to realise he was a few years behind his contemporaries, so on the advice of his lecturer he decided to travel to Europe to hone his cookery skills, planning to ultimately return to Korea and open his own pastry shop.

Joo's first idea was to move to France, but in 2000 Joo decided to move to the UK instead as he was able to speak English. Following a stint studying hotel management in London, he spent some time in Glasgow working professionally as a chef, hoping to ultimately open a Korean restaurant in Scotland with a friend. However, some advice from his head chef made him rethink. ‘He told me that he could see I had a talent and was enjoying myself,’ Joo explains. ‘But he also said that I had no idea how long it would take for us to open a restaurant. I didn’t have any experience, and I needed to be in London.’

Joo heeded this advice and headed straight back down to the capital. Hearing about the concept of the Michelin guide for the first time his mission soon became trying to get a job working in a restaurant with a star. Joo signed up for a nine-month course at Le Cordon Bleu but needed to find a way of financing it, so began searching for positions and quickly landed on his feet, getting a part-time job at the Michelin-starred Orrery under André Garrett. ‘André made it very clear to me that the work would be very hard,’ he explains. ‘But I worked weekends for nine months straight without a day off and I think he was quite impressed, so he eventually offered me a commis chef role and it also meant I got a visa.’ Spending three years at The Orrery, Joo developed a real grounding in classical technique learning from André, who ultimately became a mentor to him.

When the opportunity arose in 2006 for Joo to join the launch team at the Park Lane Hilton’s Galvin at Windows alongside André, he jumped at the chance to be a part of a restaurant from its conception. ‘I was so excited to work in a big hotel and to try and earn a Michelin star of our own,’ says Joo. ‘When it first opened, we worked so hard – it was almost too much and after two or three years I kept almost leaving, but then something would stop me.’ Galvin at Windows went on to win a Michelin star after just a year and Joo started to work his way up the ranks, continuing to develop his skills both as a chef but also as a manager.

This eventually culminated in him taking over as head chef from André in 2013. ‘Having that opportunity at such a young age made me so nervous,’ Joo explains. ‘But I also got such a buzz from it as it was my chance to prove myself. I could also change whatever I wanted for the first time in my career.’ Over the course of the next seven years, Joo retained the restaurant’s Michelin star and developed a close working relationship with both the Galvin brothers and general manager Fred Sirieix. It was only after a trip to Korea with Fred and Chris Galvin that led to him leaving the restaurant. ‘We went for a week just to get inspiration,’ says Joo. ‘But it completely opened my eyes and my palate. I was suddenly looking at Korean cooking in a completely different way from when I was younger. I realised I didn’t know anything about Korean cooking and I wasn’t necessarily as proud of my country’s cuisine like other chefs were.’

After well over a decade at Galvin at Windows, Joo realised that it was finally time for a change and hung up his apron in 2020. Deciding to combine his skills in classical European cookery with the flavours of Korea, he began developing dishes inspired by the flavours he remembered from his childhood, travelling back to different parts of Korea to learn whenever possible. Currently on the hunt for a site to open a restaurant of his own, Joo has been cooking his unique east-meets-west style of Korean food at pop-ups including Carousel and Soho’s Bun House to much acclaim. This once fussy eater is fast becoming one of the UK’s biggest ambassadors for the delights of Korean cuisine.