An Interview with Head Chef Joo Won at Galvin at Windows

Written by: Hannah Giles  |  Posted on: June 10th, 2017

korea menuKorean popular culture, including K-pop, K-films and K-dramas, is becoming more and more popular not only in the UK but around the world. The first time I noticed this trend in the UK was when I saw local primary school children doing Psy’s ‘horse-riding’ dance on the playground and heard ‘Gangnam style’ sung and played at children’s birthday parties. Another instance was that when I was looking around secondary schools for my daughter, to my pleasant surprise, one well-known school had a k-pop dance club.


It doesn’t stop at just music and films. Korean food is also growing in popularity. Londoners are always on the look-out for a new cuisine and Korean food is succeeding in providing new flavours. Korean restaurants are opening everywhere in and around London, and some restaurants are opening their second branch, such as Bibigo, Kimchee and Jinjuu.


Now, being a foodie, I am always very keen to explore top London restaurants. It was great to find that one of the top London French restaurants, Galvin at Windows, is headed by Korean chef Joo Won. Galvin at Windows is one of the famous Galvin brothers’ restaurants and the two Galvin brothers, Chris and Jeff, own nine restaurants in the UK and abroad, of which two in London have a Michelin star.


Head Chef Joo Won very kindly agreed to be interviewed for the BKS. I am very grateful to Chef Won for the honest, entertaining, and informative interview, and for being so generous with his time.


Galvin at Windows, as part of a project with the Korean Tourism Organisation, offers a unique Korean fusion tasting menu once a year, taking in Korean ingredients and traditions and marrying them with classical French techniques. I cannot wait to taste the menu when it is available later this year.


1. I heard you studied engineering at a university in Korea.  When did you start thinking about becoming a chef and what was the reason?

I wasn’t very academic when I was at school. Despite my mum’s rather direct advice that I should learn some special skills rather than going to a university to study, I did go to university to study industrial engineering but I didn’t find it interesting at all.


While deciding what to do for the future during my studies after military service, I started attending a cookery/bakery school nearby. For the first time, I felt that I’m really good at something and found it fascinating. I got a certificate in pâtisserie and boulangerie. Then I moved on to study Korean cuisine which I didn’t enjoy as much. At that time one of the managers at a big confectionery company, who knew me, suggested that I go abroad to study western cooking. I wanted to learn French cooking but I couldn’t speak French at all, so I decided to come to the UK and started studying hospitality management in July 2000.


2. What was your first paid job as a chef and where did you get your training as a chef?

I had a friend in Glasgow who was about to open a Korean fusion restaurant and he asked me to help. While I was waiting for the restaurant to open, I started working for an Asian fusion restaurant in a 4-star hotel in Glasgow. I really enjoyed working in the kitchen. That was my first paid job as a chef.  On the chef’s recommendation, I came to London to study French cooking properly at Le Cordon Bleu.


3. How did you get to know Chris Galvin and how did you start working at Galvin at Windows?

While studying traditional French cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu, I started working at the weekends at a restaurant called the Orrery, a Michelin star restaurant at that time. Chris Galvin was the head chef then. Shortly after Chris moved on to open the Wolseley restaurant, and André Garrett took over as a head chef.


Working in the kitchen was incredibly hard. I had very little knowledge and experience, and I was very slow. It was very hard but good training for me to learn to be orderly and tidy. After a year or so, I started seeing the benefits of working in an orderly manner and started working much faster. With the kind help of head chef André, I was able to continue to work at Orrery after finishing studying at Le Cordon Bleu.


Chris Galvin wanted to open his second restaurant, Galvin at Windows, with his brother Jeff. André Garret, who was going to move there to work with Chris, asked me to join him opening Galvin at Windows in 2006. I was one of the opening team members and I am still here.


4. When did you become a head chef at Galvin at Windows?

When André Garret left Galvin at Windows in 2013, I became head chef. I was a sous chef at that time. It was rather a smooth transition as I knew exactly what I needed to do as a head chef. It was hard work but I was enjoying it. Some days I started at 7am in the morning and got home at 1am.


5. What do you find is the hardest thing in the kitchen?

The hardest thing for me as a head chef, as well as so many other areas, is working with other people and managing them – how to encourage and inspire staff to bring out their best, to know and understand their working styles and personalities, and to know what their strengths and weaknesses are. Even the ways to explain the same recipes to each staff are different.


6. You are trained as a French chef. How did your knowledge of Korean food influence your cooking?

When I started working as a chef in the UK, I was challenged by the fact that many Europeans chefs, the French for example, have such a pride in their regional cuisine. That made me start looking into Korean food more, including different regional ingredients, characteristics and culture. I have so much more to learn about Korean food. It is so much more than just knowing the dishes and using Korean sauces. Now all foreigners know Bibimbap, Bulgogi and Kimchi. All my staff love Kimchi and are used to the Kimchi smell in the fridge, and they know all the Korean sauces very well. I try to teach them not only Korean flavours, tastes and ingredients, but also a view of Korean food that encompasses the whole meal and how these individual elements fit into this.


I would like to teach and train other chefs in my kitchen about Korean cuisineso that when they move on, they will use Korean ingredients and techniques in their kitchens. For example, I teach them they can use Doinjang (된장- bean paste) for Bolognese to give depth of flavour and seasoning as a salt substitute, and use Gochujang (고추장 – chilli paste) when we make bouillabaisse to give a different aspect of spiciness and a slightly sweeter flavour. One of the sous chefs who worked under me now works for a restaurant in Fortnum and Mason, where they serve Kimchi risotto, using Kimchi and Gochujang. I learn from my staff too, as they taste different types of Korean food, they come up with ideas and suggest alternative western ingredients, for example, alexander and lovage for Korean pickles. Korean technique used with western ingredients!


7. At Galvin at Windows, which dish demonstrates the greatest Korean influence and what was the reaction of diners when you served that dish?

Doiji Bulgogi (Pork Bulgogi). We make this dish with Iberico pork, marinated with Korean sauce and serve with Ssamjang (쌈장– seasoned Korean paste mixture), pickled wild garlic and cucumber salad. As for desert, we use sesame oil for yoghurt sorbet. Customers absolutely love it.


8. Does your sommelier find it more challenging to recommend wines for dishes with a Korean influence, and what do you recommend?

Yes, it is not easy to match wine with Korean food. A scallop dish we serve here, which is cooked with soy sauce, vinegar, etc. is served with Pinot Gris. Baekseju (백세주) goes really well with dishes with Doinjang. Bokbunjaju (복분자주) goes well with desserts, especially ones with orange in or cheesecake.


With the Iberico pork dish, we recommend Primitivo, an Italian medium to full bodied red wine.


9. Which chef, apart from the Galvin brothers, is your favourite and from which chef do you get the most inspiration?

There are so many wonderful chefs around, so it’s difficult to name one. Just to name a few, I love the food at the Ledbury and the Greenhouse. Their food is simple and elegant. I have a huge respect and get inspiration from the older generation chefs like Chris Galvin, who have a deep understanding of food and their roots. René Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen has his unique style brought about from a serious training and an in depth understanding of ingredients. I still regard myself as a cook, but they are more than cooks.


10. Who cooks at home and what do you cook at home if you do?

 I cook at home. My wife is a pastry chef and she is not a very good cook! I even taught her how to cook Ramyeon (Korean instant noodle). I cook simple food at home, often one pan dishes, a real fusion style. When I cook Korean, it’s normally Doinjang Jjigae (된장찌개), Ddeok Bokki (떡볶이) or Bibimbap (비빔밥).


11. What are your short-term and long-term goals?

My short-term goals are to broaden and deepen my knowledge and skills in cooking and food, especially Korean food. Also, to sharpen my people managing skills – identifying people’s potential.


As for long-term goals, it is to have my own restaurants: a simple and informal Korean barbecue restaurant, a Korean Tapas restaurant, with a butcher alongside.


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