Korean-born Jina Yoo, owner of Jina Yoo’s Asian Bistro on Forum Boulevard, spent her childhood practicing music. Yoo’s mother barred her from entering the kitchen in fear that she might cut her fingers and miss valuable practice time. But her father would often pick up young Jina from school and take her to every street food vendor and farmers market they could find. The two would then attempt to re-create the dishes they’d eaten. This inspired Yoo to open her first restaurant ten years ago. Today, Yoo makes only one meal at home on a regular basis: ramen noodles. She doesn’t have a stove in her small apartment, and she uses her cabinets to store her shoes. Her apartment is stacked to the ceiling with items for her new restaurant, Le Bao, a fast-casual eatery. Justin Heintz, the manager of Jina Yoo’s, says he believes Le Bao is a reflection of Yoo’s drive to keep trying something innovative.
“The new concept isn’t exactly something that would fit here at Jina Yoo’s, but she’s a creative person,” Heintz says. “She doesn’t stand still, whether it’s physically or mentally. She wants to keep moving forward and trying new things.” Featuring a menu built around bao — Chinese-style steamed buns — and street food-inspired cuisine, Le Bao will be located at 10th Street and Park Avenue and is set to open in mid-May.
What led you to open another restaurant that serves a different kind of menu?
When I first started my restaurant, I thought I wanted to do a little more upscale. But, believe it or not, I am not super classy. And I love anything that’s street food. But, just because it’s street food and that they can’t charge as much, they put a bunch of cheap stuff in it. And I started thinking, “Why don’t we put in really good stuff?”
Did you consider making Le Bao another location of Jina Yoo’s?
Yes. But Jina Yoo’s is very, very complicated. We pay attention to very, very, very small details, and that’s why we’re so good because it’s not just the recipe. If you want the recipe, then you can Google anything. So it’s about technique. It’s about the way we serve, and timing, and all those sorts of things factor in there. So it’s really hard to duplicate. But Le Bao is something that I create, and then you make a standard recipe that you can make over and over. The challenge of Le Bao is I have to get out of that made-to-order thought. We’re labeling ourselves as fast-casual, so we have to be a fast-casual restaurant.
You have a background in music. How did you go from that to opening an Asian restaurant?
With food and music, I found that they’re very similar in a way. I was trained to be a musician, but I never learned to love music. I was almost trained to be a machine more than anything else. I never really thought about what my life would be without (music). Beethoven and Bach, the two amazing composers that I love in history, they have all the notes that they compose with (and make different compositions). Same thing with a McDonald’s. They have beef, they have potatoes, they have carrots and all that, and what they can come up and what I can come up with is totally, totally different.
One repeated theme in reviews of the restaurant is your personal service. What inspired you to focus on that?
Desperation. I swear to God, desperation. You have a half-million dollar restaurant and 13 employees depending on you, and you have $300 in your business checking account, yet you don’t have any collateral or your personal checking account. So that’s where I was. I would make it work, whatever it takes. And I was very good at it. I still am good at it. People come to Jina Yoo’s for food, too, but they also come because of me.