A Sweet Story of Success
Determined to cook up her own destiny, Judiaann Woo '94 is pounding the streets and restaurants of New York City in hopes of working her way to the top of the food chain. After leaving Oregon in 1996, Woo has found her passion in pastries and is on the path to becoming a culinary celebrity - not something she dreamed of as an English literature major at Pacific.
Born in South Korea, Woo came to the United States with her family at age three and first lived in Colorado Springs. "Like many immigrant families," said Woo, "my parents were looking for a better life for their children." When Woo was in second grade, her family, which includes her older sister and brother, moved to Oregon.
When applying to college from Tigard High School, Woo followed several of her friends to the University of Oregon (UO), but with a close friend at Pacific, many of her weekends were spent on the Forest Grove campus. Woo was drawn to Pacific's small classes and the personal attention from professors and transferred at the beginning of her sophomore year. "At Pacific, for better or for worse, you stand out. People remember you. You have personal relationships with people and you can't just hide or blend in."
Woo immersed herself in the Pacific community, taking as many courses as possible in a wide range of subjects. Responsible for covering much of her tuition costs, she filled her spare time with jobs. "I always had about three jobs," she said. Working at a restaurant during lunch, as a night auditor for a motel, a coffee barista, doing medical transcription, or retail during the holidays, Woo said, "It was worth it. ... I believe education is the one thing you can go into debt for. You are paying for a very personal education - the opportunity to interact with and learn from faculty and classmates."
It was at Pacific, in the classes of English Professor Doyle Walls and Distinguished University English Professor George Evans, that Woo said she fell in love with words and writing, eventually majoring in English literature and creative writing. "I looked at the English language a whole different way," said Woo. "The sounds of words; playing around with how words looked; the economy of words."
Her love for words was what drove Woo to consider a career in advertising. Her first job in New York City was in merchandising at the corporate offices of Ann Taylor Inc., a natural fit after working as manager of a Portland Ann Taylor store. After a year at the company, she transferred to the marketing department. But it was too easy. "I felt I got into the career by accident," she said. "I wanted to choose my career." She began searching and exploring, thinking about what she loved and testing the fields. For instance, after six months working for GreeneStreet Films developing scripts, she decided watching movies was more appealing than working with them.
Then she pondered food. "As soon as I said it out loud, it made sense. It was so obvious." Never having set foot in a professional kitchen, Woo once again turned to education. The next thing she knew she was applying to New York's famous French Culinary Institute (FCI).
The six-month intensive program proved a perfect fit. "I felt when I got there that all the people were like me. ... There were a lot of career changers." As with Pacific, she soaked in the FCI experience, going on every field trip and meeting as many people as possible. Her focus, she decided, would be pastry arts. "I like that it is specialized and exact. ... I like the science aspect of it and it has a certain artistic side," she said.
The goal was not to be a pastry chef, but Woo sought the foundation. After graduation, she worked as a pastry chef with some of the city's top chefs, including David Bouley and Jean-Georges Vongerichten before helping open the famous Tao restaurant. "It was such a scene," said Woo. "Sex and the City" filmed there and 1,000 people were served a night, including celebrities such as Tom Cruise. The work was satisfying, said Woo, but exhausting. She worked for 42 consecutive days when the restaurant opened and then worked six days a week, up to 16 hours a day with Mondays off. "My free time was from 8 to 11 a.m. It was really hard on my life. (At work) I didn't have a phone, computer, or window. I love to see people eat the food I make, but this didn't happen."
After Sept. 11, 2001 and seeing the Twin Towers fall, Woo decided she needed a change. Restaurants began laying people off, and she took the opportunity to reevaluate her career. "I didn't want to work in a kitchen anymore. I missed talking to people and interacting."
Wanting to return to writing, she did a four-month internship at Food Arts magazine, "the food industry's bible," and found she enjoyed combining her skills. Today she's a contributing editor and writes regularly for the publication.
She was then hired as a consultant and helped open New York City's Polka Dot Cake Studio and enjoyed the more regular schedule.
A call from her alma mater FCI then changed her career path again. FCI, a key sponsor of the U.S. Pastry Alliance, was interested in a new executive director and wanted Woo to take on the project. "It was something different and I have a hard time saying no to new things." Woo accepted the position and then dissolved the existing organization to create a more dynamic resource, online magazine, and event based Web site. PastryScoop.com was launched in 2002 and today the site serves 28,000 members. The online magazine and baking resource also is used for general baking information and events, and racks up to 42,000 visits per month.
Woo's role as executive director/editor-in-chief is to keep the Web site interesting, up and running, and fiscally self-sufficient. With only an assistant editor, she relies on interns, and FCI staff and student volunteers for additional help. The mission of the site is to support and celebrate pastry chefs and increase awareness and appreciation for the pastry arts.
"We host conferences, events, and an annual awards ceremony. We also report on dessert trends, profile leaders in the industry, and work to create a sense of community for pastry chefs," said Woo.
Another benefit of the Web site has been to showcase Woo as a dessert authority, which has led to work in television. Her first experience was working on the Lifetime program "Katie Brown Entertains," where she was the creative director for the food segments. "I'd develop recipes and show (Katie Brown) how to do the recipes. Obviously she has talent, but not enough time. It got me interested in food for TV." Woo said she also liked the entertaining aspect of the program, something she has a flair for.
Woo was also chosen as a contestant on four episodes of The Learning Channel's (TLC) "Host with the Most." Taped last fall, the show features four people competing for the Host with the Most title. The show is based on the BBC's program "Come Dine with Me" and each episode focuses on a contestant hosting a dinner in his or her home. "It was tough," said Woo. "You're inviting people into your house and making them feel comfortable. ... You're evaluated by your peers on the food, presentation, the warmth of hostess, and the entertainment."
Woo, who hosted the last of the four dinners, said each evening the homes got bigger. "After the first night I thought, 'Oh boy!' ... We have a one-bedroom apartment and we don't have a dining room table. They moved furniture, rented tables and chairs, and put the couch on the roof." All was going well until Woo had a "meringue disaster." "It was completely mortifying. I had nightmares about it afterwards." It ended fine, though, said Woo, but to see who won, tune into TLC this fall.
The experience was enough to get Woo hooked. "It's fun. Once you get the taste of being on camera, you get addicted."
Her second television appearance came shortly afterwards. Last summer Woo submitted a DVD entry into the Häagen-Dazs and Food Network contest to name a new ice cream flavor. Her sticky toffee pudding ice cream won and will begin showing up in store freezers and Häagen-Dazs stores across the country this month. "It's a fun thing and a total fluke," she said. Food Network filmed her in San Francisco and New York City in preparation for a special this summer. For Woo, she said, it was all about exposure. "If anything, my tape got the attention of the people at Food Network. Since then it's gotten people to think of me differently."
This fall, television viewers will get another chance to see Woo. She'll appear as a judge on Oxygen's "Making it Big" reality show, where three contestants compete for their dream job.
Years later and miles from Forest Grove, Woo said she is still using the skills she learned at Pacific. "I learned to look at things with a critical eye, no matter what the subject. ... You have to know how to write, it doesn't matter the topic." The importance of technique is also a lesson she said she draws on from her time at Pacific and the FCI. "Once you have the technique, you can apply it to different things. ... You have to have the foundation - the ability to think, strategize, and deconstruct." When Woo was working in restaurants this was critical. "In professional kitchens, the recipes don't have steps. They are just a list of ingredients. You have to know how to put them together, in what order, and at what temperatures. Think and apply."
Her liberal arts foundation has motivated her to take risks and try new things, something she said she isn't sure she would have done without her college experience. "I feel liberal arts should be the base for everything else you learn. It gives you the depth and perception and you also feel you can do other things. ... A good college experience gives you a real can do attitude."
The path to New York City, and particularly the food industry, wasn't planned at an early age for Woo. She said she never considered working in the food industry until after she had moved to New York City and was searching for another career. Most people, she said, don't consider it a skilled profession. "I used to watch The Frugal Gourmet and Julia Child, but I wanted to go to school and get a real job." Her parents didn't understand her desire to study cooking at first. Although very supportive, "they said, 'We came here so you wouldn't have to work in a kitchen.'"
At home, though, she had watched and helped her mother prepare Korean meals and gained an appreciation for ingredients. "I remember making dumplings. We would sit on the floor on a tarp and would sit for hours and talk while making them." Her mother's cooking often involved the whole family. "I remember the assembly line process of making homemade sausage, tofu, jams, pickles, kimchee, and trays and trays of little dumplings."
As her mother integrated American dishes into her menus, she would add a Korean flair. "I thought beef stroganoff and stuffed cabbage were Korean dishes for years because my mom made them," said Woo with a laugh.
But her mother never took to making dessert, something that is not a large part of the Korean culture. "Making dessert was one thing she let my sister and I do," said Woo. "We had cherry trees, plum trees, apple trees, and berries. We picked them and cooked with them. That was our one thing because she didn't know how to do it."
Woo said the appreciation of food and ingredients came from her culture and her family, but also from her parents' experiences in America. "As a family we were foraging way before foraging was cool. A trip to the coast alone brought home an assortment of fresh fish, clams, Dungeness crabs, mussels, kelp, fiddlehead ferns, and wild mushrooms." Woo said she would come home from school and find the front yard and driveway covered in kelp, which was then dried and mailed to Korea. Her grandmother would pick dandelions from the yard. "They really appreciated ingredients," said Woo. "We'd ask, 'Why are we picking and eating weeds?'"
Today, she still enjoys eating and making desserts. "I eat dessert everyday. It doesn't matter how much things cost. It has to do with the flavor. Dessert is essential to your being and happiness."
Woo has also found happiness in her life in New York City with her husband filmmaker Christopher Dillon '95. Although she said she misses her family in Oregon, she thrives on the city's energy. "I feel like I belong in New York," she said. "There is a certain energy here that you don't see elsewhere."
Where these culinary and media experiences will lead to is still unclear, but for Woo, every step is carefully calculated. "The last few years, really my goal has been to establish myself as a food and dessert authority, all to add credibility to my name." In addition to being called upon to judge cooking competitions, she speaks regularly on flavor trends and recently completed a consulting job with Wrigley's candy company on interesting flavor combinations. "All of this is to establish myself as an authority and to help brand myself for the future."
Ask her where she wants to be in five years, and Woo is quick to answer. "The goal always is to have my own show. ... TV comes very naturally to me. I just need someone to give me the opportunity," she said. "I think I have a unique philosophy about living and eating that I want to share. I would love to have my own show so I can have the opportunity to reach a larger audience, to write cookbooks, and to be more of a food personality."