Restaurant entrepreneur Jina Yoo grew up in South Korea studying music. Today, she's made a name for herself in the Columbia food scene as the owner of Jina Yoo's Asian Bistro and Le Bao Asian Eatery.
Yoo grew up knowing nothing but music until she raised her two kids, and she wanted to make a name for herself. She uses her musical background to create harmony in all her food creations. In her conversation with Vox, Yoo describes the first restaurant item she tried and her journey to becoming a restaurateur.
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Chloe Khaw, 1:26: So before you started your cooking career, you have an extensive background in piano and the organ. How did that come to be?
Jina Yoo, 1:36: It was my mom's passion actually being a pianist. And so, I mean if you stop any Koreans and or Asians, no matter, ask him about 'hey have you had a lession violin or any musical.' And there'll probably eight out of 10 will tell you. Probably yes. So most of them like not making it, but I did as my career. I started piano when I was six and then on and on and on till I went to college with it. And then I really want didn't what I started realizing I didn't want to play piano anymore, but it was kind of too late because I'd never done anything else. And then I really didn't know what I wanted. But, one thing that I want it was wanting to come to America, and I have a kind of sort of like American dream. And that was I went to college in ‘88 to 1992, and then I came to the United States ‘93 to ‘95 to study organ is church music and pipe organ major in Indiana University Bloomington. And so when I was there, and I still feel like this is not something that I wanted to do, I just kept thinking about it. And then I got married and then my my ex husband actually also went to school there. So I got married and raised the two kids and then started thinking, Okay, I want to have my own career other than playing piano.
JY, 3:15: My mom actually, when I told her, I'm, you know, I'm not doing music anymore. She was very, very, very disappointed. And it's just think about all the money they spent. I used to fly somewhere to get a lesson every week. So that was a pretty big deal that I dropped the bomb on her. And she didn't speak to me a couple of months. Because she was so mad and disappointed and then so I think a one year after I opened the restaurant. I invited her and my whole family, my mom and dad, my grandma few aunts and came and I had a really reception for them. And my, my chef actually cooked and I was part of it, and the show him know how well I'm doing. And then she was happy that I was doing well. But at the same time, she was still sorry that I'm not playing piano. But I told her without that music education, I don't think this is even possible.
CK, 4:18: Does your musical training tie into your cooking style or creative process now?
JY, 4:23: Absolutely, my without that music education. I don't think this is even possible. So it's a kind of similar to, like, create is creating harmony. I'm creating harmony with the music, and I'm creating harmony with food ingredients.
So it's totally two different object but it's kind of similar. I'm such a visual person, and all the taste peppers and pepper shakers, and those are like almost a shape to me. So I'm almost doing a puzzle with it and a binding right peace for certain ingredients that makes you making sense or not.
CK, 5:08: So like you said your musical training ties into your cooking career, but also you have inspiration from your hometown. Can you talk a little bit more about that.
JY, 5:21: It's more like my grandma, shes still alive, but she's 95. She's living in kickin and she's doing great. But, I think my mom had a beauty salon for a really long time and then when I was growing up, she was working all the time. And so basically, she's my. I'm the firstborn of firstborn. So my grandma was most likely my mom like she raised me and I spend most of time at my grandma's house rather than my home. And she, she always, I don't know like it whenever I like we fail once in a while, right and then, and then she always telling me, you're like Roly Poly doll, your push, you fail, you just get up and do it again all over again. You know those kind of thing and then she always tell me to be a river not pond, like you're not sitting one spot and holding that water the whole time you're river and you're moving along. And then there is a goal, which is ocean. And then sometimes your path is so tight, and sometimes you're so relaxed because your path is so wide. And but you're moving along fast or slow. Doesn't matter. You're going somewhere.
CK, 6:52: So, do you still ever played from time?
JY, 6:55: Yeah, when I'm really really stressed out. First thing I do is a drop the phone os the most stressful thing, you can actually have but it's very useful but actually very stressful. And I drop the phone and go to go to my room and play so actually I did a recital. Three years ago with the Odyssey chamber. And, yeah, it was awesome but I did really few solo, so it was fun. It was crazy thoug, last, I remember last time I played piano actually had a recital sort of is about 20 years before, so that was pretty challening, because I havent touched the piano for a really ling time since I started a business that I, I didn't touch the piano like a really ling time nad then having a recital was pretty stressful, but I did it, So used to remember I know so everybody's like, oh is it like riding a bicycle. No it's not well one thing I don't know how to ride a bicycle. First of all, and second of all, I it's not like that at all, because how I used to be so good and then now like, it's my muscle memort is not really that great and it's a part of getting old too.
CK,8:16 : So you were saying before you first came to the U.S. through a study abroad program. Is that the first time you were exposed to American cuisine?
JY,8:27: The first thing that I expose I loved was. It's so funny that as I'm saying it right now, but I actually looking for what when I came back to the United States to study abroad and Indiana. I was looking for it because I was missing so much just you know what it is, a tuna melt. So it was a Little Caesars a tuna melt, oh my god I love this so much I literally ate it like every day. And then I remember it was Myers grocery store, I go there and then got Thousand Island dressing and cauliflower, I never seen cauliflower before. And I love this so those are the two. I mean I ate that one as a breakfast every day.
So, those are things that few things that I all will almost always have it, and I remember there is a mozzarella cheese tuna melt. I mean it just a mayo and onion in a red onion. I remember that onion in the pocket is a warm and and it's cheesy. I mean there's you can go wrong with that. I created myself now I don't go to Little Caesars anymore yeah, I don't think they have it. I literally looking for it if it was so funny, so they don't have it now.They now they are more like a pizza place, so they used to have. Pizza Hut has a bread stick with a dipping sauce and I was like, what is it a student. Student Union, so they have a cafeteria. And I remember a Burger King there, I didn't really like the Burger King, but I love the tuna melts.
CK, 10:31: So what would you say now, what would be your favorite Americans food?
JY, 10:38: What is exactly American food anyway? You know, it's all melted and mixing is so I don't know. I don't there isn't really. Oh. Oh my god. I love fried chicken. Fried chicken is my favorite. I think I told one of the reporters and said that if I didn’t open Le Bao, I probably open a fried chicken place here. Swear.
CK, 11:08: It's like very popular.
JY, 11:11: No, I love it. I love fried chicken. Yeah.
CK, 11:13: So I heard you have pretty personal relationships with your customers, how important is that to your business?
JY, 11:23: I don't have a close family in town. And so I think that that was very important for me that having a closer relationship with somebody and so my customers. I mean not it's not all of them like closer my regular customers, and then when they go through some difficult times health wise or something like that and I make their chicken soup and you know, special soup and those are really it means so much to me. It's not about you know, I want to make more money because it there they were thinking that I'm doing a good job. It just this almost taking care of your own family.
CK, 12:19: You've talked before about a principle called Oma case. What is that?
JY, 12:27: So basically I am doing OMA CASE every day so OMA CASE is something that I. So chef Chef's Table. So I'm clicking whatever, and then I just, it's a more bitesize, and then so there's there's seven or eight people, or it doesn't really matter it's like a certain number of people sitting on the table, it's a Chef's Table, and a whatever chef's choice, they're making and then there's their beating there, they don't have a choice. They're just eating whatever the chef is making.
CK, 13:01: So like the menu is entirely up to you.
JY, 13:05: Exactly, yeah. So I have a lot of customers who doesn't know what's in the main menu because I always increase something for them. So, and then I mostly for instance I have a customer comes in, and with the parties. So there's one time. Okay. It was a huge table about 20 or 24 or something like that.
JY, 13:30: One little boy I think he was like seven or eight or something and then he was like literally turn around like tables and and he was really mad because there's nothing he could is a part of like a you know, a birthday party. There isn't isn't anything that he wanted to eat, and he was really mad. And so I went over there and omakase is not something that was made mostly like a very luxury and kind of expensive and you know, like because chefs were cooking expensive stuff for you. This is from Madagascar shrimp, like you know, like a little bite and blah blah blah. But to omakase is catered to one person right and this person specific reason. And and so I went there and ask him like why he's mad, and then what makes him happy. And he said well there isn't no mozzarella sticks and and I go actually we do have mozzarella cheese because you know we're a restaurant. That was like probably very that our spices are like very different than any other Asian restaurant, so not only we have a soy sauce and Sriracha and all that and then now we have about basil and thyme and rosemary fresh rosemary and things like this. So I have a pepper jack cheese and we have a cream heavy cream, and we have butter and butter is like pretty much everywhere and Worcestershire sauce and you know all that like wine vinegar and you know all this kind of stuff. And so I cut mozzarella cheese, batter, batter, fresh batter, and then deep fry it made it. And he goes no ketchup is no you don't have ketchup. And I go okay, I don't have ketchup, but let me see. So I went over there to my kitchen and I couldn't find any. No normally we have tomato cans but we couldn't find it so I had a fresh tomato. Yeah, I made it. It was warm. I couldn't make it like really cold enough but you know I made him with a cornstarch. I mean it's basically tomato paste and tomato flavor with a sugar and vinegar. And the cornstarch that's what it is. So I made it and parents are like, amazed. I mean, that was like so definitely I didn't do it for money. You know that's a $4.95 kids. Right? But that's my fun fun part.
And then we have a separate gluten free menu. Now as a gluten free is so common, you know, I when you go to a grocery store you can find anywhere and whole section of gluten free. Mostly when I started about 12 years ago back then, you know, gluten free is very rare. And so people didn't even know what gluten free means. And they come in, and I and and so Oh, we have a sap, do you have a salad? And you're just like, yeah, we have, do you have a salad dressing as gluten free? Yes, we do. And then they will? Oh, that's fine. Like, no, you're not fine. You know, you have so many options that you can go with. And why would you fine with it when you're going out for a restaurant and you're eating? There's so it's so supposedly fun. And if you want to make a salad and why don't you stay home and eat? And so but they're part of the group and they don't want to be a pain in the ass so they're saying, Oh, it's fine. I'll take the salad. It's like, no, let me let me hear you like, let me let me talk to you. So that I can create something they buy you look looking for. Now we have I, or increase of number of gluten free people coming to a restaurant is, I don't know, maybe 30 to 40% more than Yeah, it's crazy. And they all know that we have a gluten free menu.
CK, 17:13: Yeah, I feel like just like vegan or gluten free like does kind of translate.
JY, 17:19:Yeah, Asians. Asian food is gluten free heaven really is. Yeah. Because we have so many different sauces and you can create something with it. I mean, the mostly the challenging allergy to me is soy. If you're soy and vegan, that's hard. That's really hard in the Asian restaurant, but because you can't have a fish sauce, you can’t have soy sauce. You know, there's basically you lift out with a salt and sesame oil and then plus, you're allergic to garlic that's a pretty big trouble too.
CK, 17:58: Yeah. So like if you're not in the kitchen, or like, you know, talking to your customers like, what's your favorite pastime?
JY, 18:08: I workout it's, it's something that I need that every day. I tried to do at least as three times a week. But this sometimes it's not possible because I'm physically very very tired, and and kind of super old too. And but I workout with my trainer and I really enjoy it.
CK, 18:30: Is it something to like to relieve stress?
JY, 18:32: Absolutely. Yeah. I think all the time. I analyze all the time. I tell people what to do all the time. Those are things that I don't like to do, but I'm do the job and it with my personality. I just do it just naturally do it all the time. And that's the one thing that I don't do. That's like so my trainer will tell you tell me what to do and what time I'm supposed to meet him and you know, like and then he'd make it. So he's the he's the one who's thinking part. He's the one analyzing all my stuff. And so I love it.
CK, 19:04: Yeah, it's like the one time you don't have to do those jobs.
JY, 19:07: Yeah, yeah. And I love I love I still love cooking is kind of funny that I'm cooking all the time, but I'm cooking for my kids all the time. So my daughter is in St. Louis now like she she got a job, and so I don't see her as much. But I bring my kids and her friends and like, you know, sometimes my co workers bring them make some food and Korean food.
CK, 19:36: What's like your to go food to like make at home?
JY, 19:40: I love kimchi, which is all Korean food. It's a big it makes me feel like it's a home you know? So I do that all the time.
CK, 19:53: Do you have like, those like Korean like menu like in your restaurant.
JY, 19:58: No, I don't.
CK, 19:59: Do you ever think about offering it?
JY, 20:03: Korean menu Korean food is very hard to make to make it right. You can make it okay, but in order to make it right it takes so much, so that's why I'm not doing. And it was just so much detail. Yeah I just knowing what to do in order to make a really good food if I have to skip this step and you know not doing right. I just can't do it my personality just cannot allow it. I was such a perfectionist that something's not all the things like probably just food I guess.
CK, 20:38: It's just like I feel like Columbia like I know they're quite a number of Koreans living here but there's not really a lot of food like yeah, food scene going on.
JY, 20:52: I mean, Korean food. They're too small city, actually too small city to have to have a really good Korean restaurant. Even in St. Louis. I don't think there is enough people so I don't have like a so my restaurant. I don't know why we don't have many our Korean people are coming because we're not exactly serving bibimbap. We have a bibimbap but we have like it's kind of funny sorry, like, having a problem with the bibimbap. But I almost thought about changing the net menu. So my theory on bibimbap is this. So bibimbap is mixed rice, like anything mixed rice is it's, you know, in Korea, there's so many different families and generations and regions and there's so many different recipes. There isn't any one type of bibimbap. Okay. My concept on food is very different. Anybody else bibimbap. Okay, broccoli. Bibimbap is like so. Okay. Is so good, like mixed with it. So protein, vegetable and carp. So great things are everything right? So now supposedly it's a white rice. And now we're putting in a kinlaw I do that. And I use a broccoli. Broccoli is a great vegetable, and bell peppers and any colored vegetables are really good crunchy. I love it. It doesn't really have to be the thing that we know we traditionally put it in, in Korea, and then I use that concept and then make it my own way. And then there's a some people having a problem with it. Well then it is what it is. And it's my restaurant. So I call it whatever I want, right?
CK, 22:10: Yeah, I mean this is your restaurant. Yeah. So do you think your tastes is like, you prefer it to be more like, what other people say not traditional. How would you explain your tastes your personal taste?
JY, 23:09: Yes, no, it's definitely not traditional. I am. I think I'm creating my own way. I'm not. I'm gonna call myself as I'm a moderniser. I'm, oh, I'm different.
CK, 23:25: Just different.
JY, 23:28: Yeah, so normally I have any Asian comes comes in restaurant and then ask for a bibimbap, but I always want to warn them first. Because I don't want them to have like a different expectations. And then don't think there is the same same thing. It was just kind of a little different version. I don't want to make a mad like expecting that. Oh, this is not traditional. But I love Korean food. Yeah, I always thought I make it all the time. And then I tried to change it. So a little bit some some way that like getting closer to American taste.
CK, 24:08: Okay. I know you also do a lot of traveling. Do you have a favorite city?
JY, 24:16: New York is my favorite city. I like food. I don't like pretentious food.
CK, 24:25: What is pretentious food to you?
JY, 24:28: Pretentious is just because it's truffle. Okay, lets say truffle. Yeah, truffle putting it if there's a certain things in put truffle in it and it tastes delicious. That's great. If there's not unnecessarily put it in and just because it's a fancy name. I’ve been to Vegas, Miami, Chicago. Chicago is a great city to actually. And, and then I love Seattle, I'd love to Seattle, not so much in Miami. So Las Vegas there are very commercialized. So it's a tourist city, so I didn't really have a really good experience with it. But I go to New York City because there's thousands of new restaurants, and and not only when I go to a research trip and I don't just go one place. I mean, one type like, I don't just go to like sushi restaurant and you know, and normally go about 17 to 18 places in a day.
CK, 25:35: In a day in a day, yeah. Do try all food?
JY, 25:38: Yes, I go to order 5 food. So one I ask either server or manager and I sometimes I reveal myself. I own the restaurant I do that but sometimes I just kind of go with it. And if the person who is serving as knowledge enough, then I asked him, What is your favorite? What is a people's favorite? And then what is people a guess at this kind of same thing? And what's the most innovative things they create? They make their and then what is who you are.
CK, 26:13: Talking about communities you also give lectures to MU students in both business and hospitality programs and journalism. What kind of insight do you think you can offer young professionals?
JY, 26:31: I think generation I think overall lately. People want to have something unexpected, you know, you have to work for it. It's going extra miles for anything, and not because there's a purpose to it. But it's more like there isn't any goal. It's my job to to. So what says the for instance, you're coming to my restaurant right? And once you come you are my customer, and my job is making you satisfied leaving the restaurant. Either you're full or really happy either way.