See what happens when a classically trained musician closes the lid on the piano keys and opens the door to her own culinary adventure, right here in Columbia. Jina Yoo is the owner and head chef of her namesake restaurant, Jina Yoo’s Asian Bistro, as well as her newest culinary venture, Le Bao, which you’ll find nestled between The Root Cellar and Rose Music Hall in the burgeoning North Village Arts District.
I started music at a very early age. I have decades of extremely technical classical training. But music was never my true passion. After college, I taught myself how to cook, started holding cooking classes in my kitchen, then got into catering. Finally, I opened my restaurant in 2008 and have been cooking ever since. My biggest strength is in creation. In music, I know how the notes will sound before I play them. For me, it’s the same with food. I know the ingredients and understand what will work together and what won’t. I’m always composing.
Probably something that’s not on the menu. If someone comes in and doesn’t know what they want, I ask them, “Tell me what you like.” Then I make them something that I know they will love. It doesn’t have to be on the menu. In fact, about a third of my menu is original dishes…something I made up that you won’t find any version of in any other restaurant. For instance, I have the JJ Roll, which was inspired by a Jimmy John’s sandwich, of all things. It’s topped with jalapeno potato chip crumbles.
PICTURED DISH: Mr. Miyagi Roll
Columbia is always changing and growing. So it’s a great place to try something new. I thought about having Jina Yoo’s everywhere. But I realized that Jina Yoo’s without Jina Yoo would not be Jina Yoo’s. So that’s why I decided to open Le Bao. It is going to be a counter-service-style restaurant and something totally new for me and Columbia.
A bao is a Chinese steamed bun with filling. I am putting American comfort food into an Asian steamed bun. In the bao we will have things like Philly cheese steak, pulled pork, chicken pot pie, and a breakfast bao with Black Forest ham, cheese and egg. We’ll also have some sweet ones like apple pie, s’mores or bananas Foster. We’ll have ramen, too. But no sushi. If you want my sushi, you have to come to Jina Yoo’s. But we will have a full bar!
It’s a melting pot. I feel like people from Kansas City and people from St. Louis are very different, and Columbia is in the middle. There is also a lot of transition. With the universities, you have a lot of people from the West Coast and the East Coast, so Columbia becomes like a melting pot…but just a smaller version.