Jina Yoo's Asian Bistro owner chosen for South Korean 'MasterChef'

Monday, February 27, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:27 p.m. CST, Monday, February 27, 2012
Chef Jina Yoo slices tofu as she prepares a noodle dish Friday at her restaurant, Jina Yoo's Asian Bistro. Yoo will leave next week to be a contestant on the Korean version of the cooking reality show "MasterChef."

COLUMBIA — Jina Yoo is queen of her kitchen kingdom. In her 6-inch heels, flowing coral dress, Hollywood makeup and coiffed hair, the only thing distinguishing her from someone stepping onto the red carpet is the apron tied around her waist.

She sits, poised and elegant, as her self-named restaurant gets ready for the busy lunch hour. In slightly more than a week, Yoo will leave the restaurant activities in the hands of her co-workers as she departs for South Korea to compete as one of 100 finalists in the "MasterChef" cooking competition.

The televised show, which gained popularity in Britain and the U.S., portrays amateur chefs competing in a series of challenges to showcase their knowledge and passion in the culinary field. The Korean offshoot — produced by Korean food style channel O’live — will have a similar format to its American counterpart.

Yoo’s friend, Jake Hong, who works at O’live in South Korea, recommended she apply for the show. When Yoo hesitated, Hong went ahead and applied for her anyway.

“He told me they were going to call me, and told me what he wrote in the application,” Yoo said. “I don’t really watch TV, so I had no idea what I was getting into.”

Not only did Yoo beat out 4,990 other qualified applicants, but she did so without ever taking a culinary class.

Yoo grew up in Daegu, South Korea, where she vigorously studied music with the guidance of her mother. She knew cooking was her passion at an early age, when her mother would sell Tupperware at parties and use food to demonstrate its effectiveness.

“It was me who kept an eye on the food; my mom had no interest in it,” Yoo said. “But I would make a mess, and that would make her so mad.”

Yoo received her first recognition for her culinary prowess in high school, when she won a cooking competition among 50 other students. Her winning dish was a Korean-style sushi called gimbab. She was surprised when the judges asked if her mother owned a restaurant.

“So far from it — my mom is a beautician,” Yoo said. “We party and get together a lot as a family, but we cook buffets, not gourmet.”

Yet music remained on the forefront of Yoo’s artistic endeavors. She studied the pipe organ in graduate school at Indiana University in 1993. She slowly realized cooking was more than a hobby — it could be a career. She broke off from music, got married, moved to Columbia and opened Jina Yoo’s Asian Bistro in July 2007.

Yoo’s family, although saddened by her move away from music, still supports her cooking business. Plus, as Yoo points out, food is a form of art, as well.

“Ingredients and color and texture make art, as do melodies and harmonies in music,” Yoo said.

Soon, Yoo’s artwork will be on display for all to see, when she departs Saturday for the initial competition and taping of the show in South Korea. She will spend 12 days there, where the cast will be whittled down to those who will compete on the televised program.

Yoo is confident. She has no strategy going into "MasterChef," besides simply making it work. It’s the way she’s handled her restaurant thus far and the way she lives her life. She might boast, but she thinks she can easily prove her talent with her recipes.

“When I think something tastes good, it’s good,” Yoo said. “I don’t need everyone’s damn opinion on it.”

Her business manager, Susan McQuilkin, who handles the business aspect of the bistro, seconds Yoo's frank opinion. Although nervous to have Yoo leaving the bistro for a week and a half, McQuilkin knows she’ll do well.

“She’s such a quick learner and succeeds at everything she does,” McQuilkin said. “At first I said no, but then I realized she’s too magnetic, charismatic and gorgeous not to.”

At the competition, Yoo will have one hour to make a pre-submitted recipe. On the menu is a three-way bruschetta. One piece will feature edamame hummus with a grilled filet, the second will have vodka-infused tomato marmalade with deep-fried oysters and the third will be topped with ahi tuna eggs Benedict.

The winner of the show will receive 300 million South Korean won, equivalent to more than $250,000, and the chance to publish his or her own cookbook.

“I have nothing to lose,” Yoo said.

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