Q&A with Judiaann Woo '94

What do you usually cook for dinner?
"To be honest, my schedule these days doesn't allow me to cook dinner as often as I'd like to. If I cook during the week, it will likely be something that comes together very quickly. Keeping a well stocked kitchen is essential but I always hit the market on the way home to buy whatever looks fresh that day. Whatever looks good is what I make and I usually don't spend more than 20 minutes in front of the stove on a work night. Starting with quality ingredients makes a world of difference in flavor. Multitasking is also key. We have a joke in the house that I can have dinner ready before my husband finishes setting the table. Something I really enjoy is hosting dinner parties. I love every aspect of planning a special dinner - from determining the menu, shopping for ingredients, deciding how the food will be plated and served, setting the table, arranging the flowers, etc. I've picked up some great tricks from my restaurant days that help me to create a sense of specialness without anything seeming too fussy or precious."

How often do you eat out?
"New York City is a food lover's paradise. There's such an abundance of restaurants to suit your every whim and fancy. You can easily spend $2 or $200 on a meal. It's not to say that you can't find a bad meal in this city because you certainly can, but there are just so many options available. On the average, I probably eat out three times a week, cook dinner twice, and order in the other two nights. It seems like every day, there's a new restaurant to try or something new to check out. Even if I love a restaurant, it might take me a year before I cycle back for a repeat visit. New York City is also great for takeout. Just about every restaurant delivers right to your door and it's faster and sometimes cheaper than cooking dinner yourself. Out of town visitors are always amazed by my vast takeout menu collection."

What is your favorite food?
"Other than 'What's my favorite dessert?' this is the second most asked question that I get. My standard reply is 'French fries and ice cream.' Not together but on their own.
You'll never see me turn down a hot fry and good ice cream is just the most perfect food in the world. I suppose it's the fat that I love so much. Fat equals flavor. That's what they always tell you in culinary school. French fries are hot and savory. Ice cream is cold and sweet. As you can see, I believe in a balanced diet. Nobody could ever accuse me of being a food snob though. I love a good hamburger and fries with a vanilla milkshake or root beer on the side. I guess if I had to eat one thing every single day for the rest of my life, I think it would have to be California rolls. I never tire of them. I also get super nostalgic for authentic homestyle Korean food when I'm in New York. There are tons of great Korean restaurants here but I don't think any of them hold a candle to my family's cooking. On a broader note, I have a real affection for classic French bistro foods such steak au poivre, gratin Dauphinois, and apple tart tatins. Anyone who spends any time with me will tell you about my obsession with Southern specialties like pulled pork, fried chicken, collard green, grits, sweet potato pie, and sweet tea."

Favorite dessert?
"Ahhh... the million dollar question. When I'm ordering in a restaurant, it's usually the more unusual desserts that always catch my eye. Afterall, I've had my fill of creme brulee and molten chocolate cake so I'd rather have something a little unexpected but well executed. My more traditional side is mad for French pastries like canneles, almond croissants, eclairs, crepes - and I adore old-fashioned American desserts like homemade berry pies, moist layer cakes, and a fresh donuts. I would walk 10 miles for a good donut."

Favorite restaurant in New York City?
"I had a pretty amazing 15 course dinner at Jean Georges earlier this year, which I won't soon forget. The pastry chef there, Johnny Iuzzini, is a friend of mine. He won the 'Outstanding Pastry Chef' award at this year's James Beard Foundation Awards (the Oscar's of the food world named after the godfather of American cuisine and another Oregonian). But my favorite restaurant is Blue Hill. In fact, Dan Barber, another friend, won 'Best Chef: New York City' at the same awards ceremony. His food is unbelievably good and very unpretentious. Dan likes to say that he prefers to 'under promise and over deliver' and that's exactly what he does."

Favorite Portland restaurants?
"I always make a special point of stopping by Thien Hong in Northwest Portland whenever I'm in town. Their Pepper Salted Squid is addictive and unlike any other version I've had before or since. I've ordered the dish on menus all over the place, but it never tastes as good as the version in Portland. I also have to give credit to Papa Haydn's for being an influencing factor in my love for desserts. It's where I first discovered terms like gateaux and torte. From the time that I could drive, I used to go there all the time with my friends, my sister, and whoever was my boyfriend at the time. In fact, I had them make my wedding cake which was a delicious cassata cake (minus the candied fruit) which is a traditional Italian dessert served at weddings."

Favorite meal to cook?
"My favorite holiday is Thanksgiving and my favorite meal to cook is Thanksgiving dinner. I've been cooking pretty much the same menu for the last 10 years, so I have the timing and prep down to a science. My menu is very traditional for sentimental reasons. I make butternut squash soup, herb roasted turkey with giblet gravy, mashed potatoes, cornbread stuffing with chestnuts, whipped sweet potatoes, sauteed green beans, fresh cranberry sauce, buttermilk biscuits, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and apple crumb pie. The meal itself isn't technically challenging and much of it can be done in advance so there's no stress or worrying about lumpy gravy or anything like that. I'll add more side dishes and desserts depending on how many people are coming over but for the most part, people seem to want what's familiar on Thanksgiving. This last winter my sister and her kids came out for the holiday and it was the first time I got to cook my Thanksgiving meal for any member of my family, which was fun. A month later, I cooked an identical dinner for my husband who missed Thanksgiving because he was working in India at the time. Somehow the year didn't feel complete for him without that turkey dinner."

Favorite cookbook?
"I read cookbooks like some people read romance novels. My favorites tend to include stories and little anecdotes about the history of the dish or the person credited with the recipe. One of my all-time favorite cookbooks is Molly O'Neil's New York Cookbook: From Pelham Bay to Park Avenue, Firehouses to Four-Star Restaurants, Neighborhood Gourmets and Great Chefs. It predates my move to the Big Apple, but it's where I first learned about bialys, beef patties, latkes, and Zabar's. This cookbook made me hungry to live in a city with such a sense of history in food. To me, O'Neil's cookbook represents everything that I love about New York City - a melting pot of extremes where there's a place for everyone and everything."

Favorite food memory?
"Without knowing any better or worse, my parents did an excellent job of raising me to be a champion gourmand. From an early age, they exposed me to all sorts of different ingredients and taught me the value and joy of trying new things. 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. Often times cooking became a family project. I remember the assembly line process of making homemade sausage, tofu, jams, pickles, kimchee, and trays and trays of little dumplings. One of the first things I learned to master was zucchini bread."

Best meal you have ever eaten?
"I've had some pretty fabulous meals in my life but I'm always in search of the better meal. I feel that my best meal is yet to come."

Favorite food quote?
I have many food quotes that I love but here are two of my favorites:

"The only time to eat diet food is while waiting for your steak to cook." - Julia Childs
 "Never eat more than you can lift." - Miss Piggy

Cook or chef you most admire?
"Julia Childs was just the best thing that ever happened to food and cooking in this country. Not only did she teach millions how to cook, she also taught them to love food and not to be intimidated in the kitchen. In the process, she raised the public's consciousness for good food and made the world a tastier place for everyone. I admire the way that she lived her life, her grace, her charm, her humor, her respect for technique, and her klutziness. She made you feel that if she could do it anyone could. That's exactly how I feel about cooking as well."

What foods are you most embarrassed to admit that you like to eat?
"I'm not embarrassed to admit to eating anything. Food is very personal and I think people should eat what they love and not feel bad about it. Everything is fine in moderation. Nothing takes me back to my youth more than cheap pizza, a big bag of Doritos, and stop at Burgerville. Some of the most delicious foods in the world are often the cheapest. I love street food when it's done well and I think everything tastes better when you eat it outside. I suppose my most usually eating habit is my disregard for categorizing certain foods as taboo for breakfast. I see nothing wrong with having cake for breakfast. A muffin is just cake without the frosting. I also think ice cream tastes better first thing in the morning, but that's just me."

What is your most used cooking utensil or tool?
"I have a favorite wooden spoon that's actually a bamboo rice paddle. It has the perfect angle for getting into the corners and over the years it's developed a lovely patina. Someday my grandchildren will be fighting for grandma's wooden rice paddle. Or at least I'd like to think so. I also love really large frying pans. The large cooking surface makes for fast cooking. And how I ever lived without a Kitchen Aid mixer is beyond me. If you like to bake, it's definitely worth the investment."

What do you remember most about eating on campus as a Pacific student?
"I remember really liking the do-it-yourself Belgian waffles. I think I ate them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That was until they changed the batter recipe and it was never quite the same after that. I also remember buying cases of Fruitopia at the end of the year with all my unredeemed lunch credits."




Judiaann Woo with Jacques Torres of Jacques Torres Chocolate and Jacques Torres Chocolate Haven at PastryScoop.com's 2006 Golden Scoop Awards.