If it’s anyone who understands how to balance the dueling demands of convenience and quality — a shared concern of both parents and chefs — it’s Judy Han. The Executive Chef of Mendocino Farms develops the ever-growing L.A. restaurant group’s menu of seasonal sandwiches and other multiculti, California-inflected lunch specialties. Mother to a nine year-old daughter and five year-old son, the Chicago native, Northwestern grad, and self-described “law school dropout” traded one potentially stressful, rewarding career for another. Her current position and schedule are intense, but she makes it all work, and Chef Judy is also super fun to talk to.
Why is working in the fast casual restaurant world a good fit for you?
At the time [when I started], we only had 300 South Grand, and we were only open for four hours. [Owner] Mario [Del Pero] was doing breakfast catering, so I started my days 4:00 a.m. I did production and started the kitchen, and I stayed until after we closed our doors at 3:00, so from 3 to 5:00 I did more production for the next day. I did all the cooking at the store. With that said, I got all my weekends off, and all my holidays off, because we were on Bunker Hill and there’s no business during the holidays. I could take Christmas off, and have extended weekdays. Things like that are worth the trade off.
Although now I work evenings and weekends as well, because we’ve grown into a seven-day, lunch and dinner concept. It wasn’t what it was when I first started. It’s a different thing now. The role has changed.
How did you get started?
Suzanne’s [Goin’s Lucques] was my first restaurant. I had actually met her through a chef friend of mine, who had met her in Aspen. At the time she wasn’t taking any interns, because it’s an investment to take on an intern, but somehow he convinced her to take me on. I was on the line at Lucques for about a year and a half. I dabbled a bit at other restaurants to see what style fit my style. I spent some time at Sona, which was really great. Then I landed at Literati II, and did that for another year and a half.
What do your kids eat?
They like sandwiches. My son eats the steak BLT [from Mendocino Farms]. My restaurant friends, their kids are all open minded to food. Not to say my daughter doesn’t want peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on Hawaiian bread every day of her life, but I don’t let her! This morning I gave her some Greek yogurt with honey that we sourced.
I threw a birthday party for the kids, and I had fruit and pastry and cheeses, and stuff my kids like. Even chocolate croissants! They ONLY wanted cheese pizza, that was the only thing that was empty. It was fascinating! American kid food is pizza, grilled cheese. On a personal level, my kids’ favorite thing is rice and seaweed, and noodles.
It seems like kids’ palates are probably changing.
I went to go eat Korean food with my son, and he wanted salt. I was like, do you understand how much salt is there already? You’d never ask for salt in a Korean restaurant, because you have kimchi to give it that salt boost that you want. But you want a clean palate to taste the other ingredients.
So what’s your cooking routine?
I get home too late to cook. I actually have a Saturday and Sunday cooking prepping thing, so I cook for the week; easy to microwave things, and braising. I try to mix it up. Sometimes I’ll do Asian, sometimes I’ll do Latin, American, Italian. I try to keep it multicultural on a weekly basis. Delivery programs are hard for me, because I have to go to the market. I go to Silver Lake and Hollywood farmers’ markets on the weekend. If I want to do Korean I’ll go to an Asian market. We usually go to the Woori Market.
I rarely cook a whole baked chicken. Instead I’ll braise it, or I’ll do baked chicken legs. I don’t do it very often but I’ll do karaage, Japanese-style fried chicken that my kids love, but if I do that, it’s gone, and then I have to think of something else! The trick is to always have leftovers, and make your kids be comfortable eating leftovers. And then I always have emergency food, like peanut butter and jelly.
Where do you like to eat out with your family?
We have to eat out on the weekends. I get palate fatigue. I actually don’t eat my food at home! A lot of cooks, they don’t like to eat what they’re making. I like to support the local businesses as much as we can. We usually get cravings for Asian food, and we venture into uncharted territory. We always find something on the menu, like at Pa-Ord Thai. I love their Number One soup. I don’t have a Korean favorite. Some places are good for some things. It’s easy to make simple rice and a couple dishes at home.
I think Asian restaurants generally are good for kids, like Pine & Crane is really nice. But we’ll make trips to San Gabriel Valley and go to 101 Noodle, or do dim sum over the weekend. What every family in Silver Lake and Echo Park does!