How on earth does a classically trained pianist from South Korea become a world class chef in Columbia, Missouri? Jina Yoo’s story is as interesting as her food. As a child, Jina showed incredible talent as a musician. From the age of six, her career path was laid out for her, and it had nothing to do with cooking—she wasn’t even allowed in the kitchen for fear she would cut or burn her fingers and reduce her practice time. At the age of six Jina practiced three hours a day and that expanded to eleven hours a day as a teen. Jina was extremely talented and hard-working, but she was never passionate about music. She graduated with a major in pipe organ and was accepted into graduate school at Indiana University. At a recital where she made several errors, she had an epiphany that her future was not in music. She told her professor she was leaving music. Her professor wished her luck and didn’t seem overly upset, which surprised Jina.
Fast forward a few years to a young homemaker and mother in Columbia, Missouri. Jina didn’t have a green card. She cooked as a volunteer for the local Korean church, serving up to 150 people at a time and loving it. Her friends and family urged her to open a restaurant. After eight years of dreaming, Jina consulted Virginia Wilson at the Small Business & Technology Development Center. (SBTDC) in Columbia and wrote her first business plan. She took out an SBA guaranteed 504 loan for $312,500 and along with $100,000 of her own money, opened Jina Yoo’s Asian Bistro in July 2007. She gained an immediate following and she now employs 13 full and part time workers in her restaurant, and is still seeking advice from Virginia and the SBTDC.
Jina’s path hasn’t been without obstacles. When she started the restaurant, her English was so poor that her employees couldn’t understand her. She left her husband in 2009 and only had $300 in her business account; she had no personal bank account. She spent half of that on a few essentials at Walmart—a shower curtain liner and shower rod, a towel, shampoo, sheets (no blanket), and a cheap pillow. She once caught her chef outside smoking pot with her high school employees and fired them on the spot half an hour into the evening service. Another time her chef walked out with all of her employees and she ran the restaurant—cooking and serving—for the entire weekend. He expected her to beg him to come back but she never gave him that satisfaction. The economic downturn has hurt her business as it has most restaurants—hers is an upscale restaurant and people have less disposable income for eating out. The catering side of her restaurant helped keep it afloat during these difficult times, along with her faithful patrons.
Jina runs her business according to a few simple rules. First, she pays her food and liquor vendors. She purchases her ingredients then creates her dishes so she can buy more. Second, she pays her employees “on time”. The prevailing wage in Columbia isn’t that high, and she knows it’s not a lot of money, but her employees are counting on that money to pay their bills. A couple of times she despaired that the checks might bounce. Once she even borrowed money from her cousin in Las Vegas to make payroll. Third, she never owes sales tax. Her counselor, Ms. Wilson, made sure that she understood from the beginning “that never was her money,” so she remits it right away. Fourth, she pays her SBA guaranteed loan on time—she couldn’t have opened her restaurant without the loan and is deeply appreciative. Finally, she works hard—14 to 16 hours most days. Her labor costs stay lower because she can jump in and do any job in the restaurant, lending a hand wherever needed. She keeps extra shoes and a chef’s jacket in her office. She does not open for lunch on Saturday and Sunday, but she opens back up in the evening. She likes to go peruse the cookbooks and magazines at Barnes and Noble for inspiration on weekends; it’s her way of relaxing and refreshing herself.
Jina epitomizes the American dream. She demonstrates that hard work, dedication, and perseverance can still yield remarkable results even during tough economic times. She credits much of her success to her grandmother who told her to love what she does and success will follow. Her grandmother also told her not to be stagnant like a pond but to flow like a river. Sometimes she’d be stretched thin, but eventually she’d meet up with the ever-changing ocean. (That same wise grandmother faked an illness a while back to get Jina to take a break and come visit her in Korea.)
Jina is highly competitive, at least in part because of her musical training. She has always thrived instead of merely surviving, and refuses to accept failure. She’s a creative perfectionist, energetic, and easily bored—she cooks off-menu items on Sundays and caters to diet restrictions with advance notice (she needs time to purchase special ingredients). She teaches her chefs to impress themselves instead of trying to impress her—she feels that makes them more creative and better chefs. She loves her restaurant, her employees, and her customers. Her customers have been her moral support as she’s operated her restaurant so far away from her family and her native country. Jina cares for her employees and tries to hire and retain employees who love what they do. While she was never trained as a chef herself, Jina has encouraged two of her workers to attend chef training. Jina considers her office manager indispensable at keeping things on track, since she freely admits she’s a creator, not an organizer. She’s just as happy to leave that side of the job to someone better suited to it. Jina is very self-aware of her strengths and weaknesses and very open about the difficulties she has encountered.
She is active in the Rotary Club—she joined at the suggestion of a customer. She donates to the annual auction the highly coveted “Dinner Party at Jina’s” for six as well as hosting fundraisers at the restaurant with part of the proceeds going to charity.
So, how exactly does a classically trained musician become a successful chef and restaurant owner? She sees the two as closely aligned. Jina views cooking as being similar to creating a song or symphony. The main ingredient is the melody or theme. The other ingredients are harmonious additions to the main ingredient—they should never overpower the theme, but should make it even more beautiful by supporting the main themed ingredient. It seems to be working. She was recently one of 22 businesses featured in the Missouri SBTDC/MO PTAC (Procurement Technical Assistance Centers) Client Showcase. Jina is also invited to participate in the first Master Chef Korea competition on Korean television. She heard there were over 5,000 applicants for the show and she’s one of 100 finalists. Jina is looking into opening a restaurant in Kansas City, Missouri within the next year, too. While she’s nervous and excited about both endeavors, she also has a lot of confidence. Whenever she travels she tries new restaurants and she’s never tasted anything similar to what she serves at her restaurant—more of a Korean fusion than traditional Korean food. She likes to pull in flavors from other cuisines such as rosemary and cumin to augment the traditional Korean ingredients.
If you’re in Columbia, Missouri visit Jina Yoo’s Asian Bistro at 2200 Forum Boulevard, Suite 109, Columbia, MO, 65203. You’ll see Shrimp Bad Hair Day, Burning Lips Endamame, Gorilla in the Kitchen, and Wanna Share, along with more traditionally titled dishes on the menu. You can also call 573-446-5462 or visit the web site at http://www.jinayoos.com/ for more information. (Be prepared to salivate at the delicious and beautiful food displayed—Jina can’t escape being an artist even though the medium has changed!)