New Year’s inspiration from celebrity chef Judy Joo: How I made it

January 1, 2015
(Courtesy of Judy Joo)

(Courtesy of Judy Joo)

By Judy Joo
For the Korea Times


Blood, sweat, and tears.

Blood—figuratively and literally.

Sweat—dripping from head to toe.

Tears—of joy and pain.

(all of the above, in mass quantities… and frequency, as well.)

First, a little background.  I had a typical tiger mother upbringing that propelled me to the Ivy League and the sciences.  I graduated Columbia University with an engineering degree and then went to work for Morgan Stanley on one of these prestigious and notorious “analyst programs.”  My colleagues and I were culled meticulously and deemed among “the best and the brightest” hand picked out of the top schools in the country.

After two years of intensely ridiculous hours and utter exhaustion, I was promoted to specialize in fixed income derivatives sales.  I flew around the world in business class, stayed at 5 star hotels, ate in the best restaurants, and washed it all down with the rarest of wines (Petrus, again?).

My parents were very happy.  I raked in good money, lived in Manhattan, worked at a reputable firm, and they had all of the bragging rights they desired.

After nearly five years of schlepping bonds, though… I quit, and decided to “downgrade” my life.  I jumped off the fast lane and pursued the culinary arts to ultimately work longer hours, make less money in a much less respected industry.

My parents freaked out.

Why the hell would I do such a thing?  I had an epiphany.  Simply, I did not love what I was doing.

I realized that time is the most valuable commodity.  You can never get it back.  Ever.

And, life is too short not to do what you love.  The markets did not fascinate me.  I didn’t harbor a passion for fixed income securities, calculating duration or convexity.  Reading Barron’s, The Wall Street Journal, and The Economist proved a tiresome chore.  I didn’t truly love what I did…. and, questioned why I was doing it.

At first though, figuring out what I really enjoyed was part of the struggle.  It is easy to discern what you don’t like.  But, finding your passion is a journey of self-discovery.  For me, I always loved reading cooking magazines and books.  Staying abreast of restaurant trends was more interesting than tracking earnings reports.  The science of cooking lured me as well, tugging my academic side and engineering background.

So my parents were far from thrilled.  They could not understand why I would even contemplate such a thing.  Ironically, it was the strong will and boldness that they taught me that gave me the audacity to rebel and so easily retort and defy them.

Their parenting gave me the tools and the confidence to gladly face adversity and take a risk to pursue a dream.

More specifically, I reluctantly and cringingly, thank my “tiger mother” upbringing.

I did not have to read Amy Chua’s tome, as I lived it to some degree.  Most Asian kids do, some even more severely…. it’s a normal upbringing for us.  Blood, sweat, and tears flow profusely and it’s commonplace.

I, however, preface this confession with a disclaimer.  I know that my view is skewed, obviously, as I don’t know any other perspective.  I cannot travel back in time and fast forward to see how I would have turned out, had I been donned with a hippie-dippy family, and permitted to play the electric guitar, get a nose piercing, tattoos, and date boys.

But, like the Karate Kid’s “wax on, wax off” training, there are certain fundamental morals, that I learned…even through the soul-destroying haze of tiger parenting.

(Courtesy of Judy Joo)

(Courtesy of Judy Joo)

1) Discipline is important.  Don’t quit.  Give it your blood, sweat, and tears.

I hated the piano.  And, to this day, I cannot sit in front of one without horrible flashbacks resurfacing.  Ebony and ivory lived far from perfect harmony in my world.

I was subjected to three truly painful lessons a week:  one for competition training (I never did well), one for basic foundations (scales, classics, exercises) and one for “solfege” (ear training, singing, and music dictation), which I particularly detested.  This holy trinity of training was torture set to Mozart.  And, I was forced into it at a controversially early age.  I detested every minute of it, and passionate fighting duly accompanied the mandatory and seemingly perpetual practicing.  I desperately wanted to quit, and put my full force into trying to make that happen… the crying, shouting, begging, and flood of tears produced were impressively epic—worthy of a requiem.  I, however, was not allowed to quit, and had to endure the 88 keys until I left my parent’s lair.

Yes, I hated every minute of my piano training.  But, it taught me discipline, and that only through hard work will you ever see real results; do not to give up.

Update:  Even though I took about 10 years of lessons, I’ve lost any sense of pitch and ability to sight-read or play at all, completely.  It’s totally gone and apparently blocked out, pushed into a part of my brain where bad memories go.

2) Prioritizing your values. Education is mandatory… and make it a good one, while you are at it.

My sister and I never had cool clothes, fancy new toys, or shiny jewelry.  Our parents scraped every cent into our private all-girls education from nursery school to 12th grade, and then, into Ivy League colleges.  Education was everything.

We could wear the same outfit everyday; it didn’t matter to them.  Clothes were utilitarian.  Toys?  Video games?  Boys?  “No time, you must study!”  Only straight A’s were accepted.  College entrance exams were paramount as well.  If I did not get into an “appropriate” school, I would cast shame on our family for generations.  I was also constantly tormented by the endless stories about so-and-so who achieved a perfect SAT score and got into Harvard.  My focus centered on grades, SATs, and academic extra curricular activities.  There was so much pressure to do well and to do it all.

High school did not represent a fun time for me.  Even the summers were a defined as a time to “get ahead” at some higher learning institution for the “gifted.”  It was endless.  I resented it, and especially my parents who instilled this intense pressure on me.  I dreamed of running away to a “nice family” where I could just play all summer, talk on the phone, go out, etc.

Well, does the end justify the means?  It depends on the person, I think.  I was enough of a formidable character to survive this pressure cooker of a household.  And, in the end I went to Columbia, a great school but, a bit of a disappointment to my parents as my sister went to Yale.

But, I loved Columbia, truly enjoyed my time there, and grew in every way.

Update: My schooling taught me how to be a student, an academic, and gifted me an innate quest for knowledge that I apply to all areas of my life.  My focus on education honed strong written and oral communication skills applicable to any industry. Would I have liked to have the opportunity to hang out and gossip with my friends at sleepovers?  Sure… I would.  And I would have even more wholeheartedly traded in some of that just to wear a cool Benetton “B” sweater?  It’s difficult to say if the end result would have been the same in a nicer, more nurturing environment, but nonetheless, I am appreciative of the path that I did take.

3) Self-worth is from within. Build confidence, and shoot for the stars.

I was a complete and total nerd in school and looked the part in a hysterical way.  I had a long, awkward stage during my teen years complete with the bad perm, thick glasses, and braces.

While I may not have made such an impact socially, I was known more for my academic prowess.  So, that got me a “pass” and a decent amount of respect.  I found sure footing through my intelligence and my high GPA.

My grades led to other geeky roles, such as being on student council, president of the debate club, editor of the school paper, etc. Training ground to become a leader.

My parents very well may have been shortsighted, and really just wanted me to go to a good college.  But, in that process of making me study and being one of the brainiest people in the class, they taught me that my self-worth and value was within my intellect.

My self-esteem was not embodied within my physical appearance, athletic ability, popularity, or our family’s wealth.  This value system proves especially important with raising daughters, and is something that I have come to appreciate more, as I have aged.

Our looks and athleticism fade; we cannot win against time. Popularity and money swing in and out of our lives like a metronome. Only our brains grow constantly, appreciating in knowledge and ability.

I am a more confident woman today, because I grew up in this way.  This confidence allows me to take risks and believe that I can do most anything.

Update: I think I missed out on a lot of fun in high school, and I lack some “normal” memories, mainly because I just didn’t get to do that stuff.  It would have been fun to drink, date, smoke pot, and play hooky.  But, life is about sacrifices, as well as experiences… and I had plenty of fun later once I left home for New York City.

Could I have garnered a strong self-esteem, a do-not-quit attitude, and confidence sans tiger mommy?  I am sure I could have and many people do… but, all I know is that “wax on, wax off” somehow worked for me.

So, reluctantly I say thank you tiger mommy and daddy.  Despite it all, because of you and the lessons you taught me, I was prepared to tackle life… give life my blood, sweat, and tears… to “make it.”

But, just for the record, I think one piano lesson a week would have sufficed.


Judy Joo is a celebrated chef and television personality.  She has been seen as an iron chef on both “Iron Chef UK” and on “The Next Iron Chef,” and also serves as the host of Cooking Channel’s new series, Korean Food Made Simple.

Twitter: @JudyJooChef
Instagram: @JudyJooChef
Youtube: JudyJoo



  1. james kim

    January 3, 2015 at 8:51 AM

    nice story…especially coming from a daughter of Tiger Family.

  2. Norahmarie Bischoff

    January 4, 2015 at 2:58 PM

    What a lovely written piece. I’m sure your Mom and Dad are so proud!

  3. Lucy

    January 4, 2015 at 5:09 PM

    Thanks for sharing! She is just like my role model.

  4. Amy Kim

    January 4, 2015 at 5:27 PM

    Judy – great piece! Can totally relate!! :-)

  5. Elsie Koh

    January 4, 2015 at 7:15 PM

    Judy, that’s a very interesting summary of your upbringing. Very eloquently written as well. I have to say I had a completely different upbringing. Or maybe I interpreted it in a different way even though my Korean parents did push academics on me as well.I was sent away for an all girls school and only saw my parents once a month at the age of 13. However, being told not to talk back to my parents made me quiet and shy and not want to take risks. It’s only after many years later, in medical school and residency, when I was forced to become tougher and a lot more outspoken in order to survive. My mom told me not too long ago that I used to be a “nice girl” and just this past Christmas that I need to stop barking orders around as if I were at work. Haha. You, on the other hand, were tough from the start it seems. Good for you and Bravo to where it has taken you! It’s inspiring. Cheers and have a Happy New Year. Elsie.

  6. David Heald

    January 5, 2015 at 5:42 AM

    Glad you decided to go this route! You are an inspiration to many! I love your show ” korean food made simple”! Just wished there were more episodes! I have recorded each one and saved them! My korean mother passed away in March 2014 and I missed all the foods she made for me. Thanks to your show I can cook my favorite foods easily! Thanks Chef Judy! Will there be any other new episode?


    January 5, 2015 at 7:15 PM

    Celebrity chef?? Never heard of her.

  8. kelly

    November 25, 2017 at 3:09 PM

    yes..I like the basic concepts behind Second Life but it seems incredibly outdated and when I played it was intensely non-intuitive / user friendly to an extent that made EVE look like a game for toddlers. thanks from
    togel online