Interview: Roy Choi
The Kogi Truck boss rules the Korean BBQ taco scene
When we phoned Kogi boss Roy Choi he was driving up the Pacific Coast Highway from Venice Beach to Malibu, Medium Pimpin’ in a 2005 Honda Element. It’s a beautiful stretch of asphalt, and Choi—owner-operator of a fleet of Los Angeles Korean barbecue taco trucks and two stand-alone restaurants—is in high spirits. “I live 10 lifetimes in one day,” he says, just before learning that his latest venture, Culver City shared-plates spot A-Frame, is short-listed for a James Beard Award.
Choi, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America and worked at Le Bernardin before landing in hotel kitchens back in LA, wasn’t always at the intersection of culinary tastemaking. (Yes, Korean tacos may have been copied over and over, landing on the menus everywhere from Baja Fresh to the bootleg Tex-Mex counter on your corner, but they are still a pretty damn original foodstuff—to the chef’s credit.) “Right now people are bananas over Asian cuisine, but in the early-to-late '90s, we were not cool!”
With his sights set on expansion—Tokyo, Bangkok, maybe New York City—Choi finds himself at a crossroads. “It was like we were throwing a party for two and a half years,” he says while pumping gas and confessing a need to clean up his act. “We were innocent kids having fun and sit here now, unbroken, and stronger as a family. But we’re still like a small liquor store.” Choi took us back to some of his most-memorable moments as a chef and field trip coordinator.
First time spotting a big-time critic?
I’ve only seen one restaurant critic in my life—S. Irene Virbila from the LA Times at my new restaurant A-Frame. She wrote a great review but gave us a fucked-up score. I just don’t get it. I respect her writing and I respect her career, but I think the model of grading is an archaic system. It’s like my grandpa trying to understand the band Odd Future. But this is not spilled milk. I’m not crying. One-and-a-half stars is more than I had in my life. I didn’t have shit before.
First time kicking somebody out of your restaurant?
When I started the truck it was a very personal project. It was sort of like the Soup Nazi. There was a line that I wasn’t going to cross and food came out the way it was going to come out. There were no substitutions. This one time there was this group of people who wanted all these substitutions and were being bitchy and giving me the stink-eye. So I went outside, took the food out of their hands, closed the door and took off in the truck.
Ever get drunk at your restaurant?
I don’t drink that much, but I get stoned a lot. Once I made some kush cakes for the crew with about a half pound of kush. I didn’t know what the impact would be, but we were stoned for three days (laughing). It was just a comedy, operating the truck and counting change like that.
Ever get jealous of another chef?
Ever since Kogi started, I haven’t had that jealousy. I can’t complain about anything. But when I was coming up, I was jealous of my friend Nate Appleman. He opened A16 at a time when I was still emerging as a chef and he was doing it. Aside from what happened in New York, that motherfucker was doing it. He had this beautiful restaurant with kickass food coming out of this wood-fired oven and a great Southern Italian wine list. It was just so innovative and fresh. And packed. And I was jealous.
Bloodiest kitchen injury?
I took off almost half of my thumb using a Japanese mandoline slicer. I was cooking to impress a girl and showing off. She had to take me to the emergency room. Bottom line: I didn’t get laid.
When was the first time you read about yourself in print or on a website?
The first article from [LA Weekly writer] Jonathan Gold. That was a big deal for all of us as a team because we respect him so much, and for him to have “got” what we were doing at that time and place was just as big.
Ever dated a staff member or customer?
I’ve never personally, but I’ve had sous-chefs who used to bang the stewardesses staying in the hotel we were working at. We had six sets of airlines working out of our hotel. I would work breakfast the next morning and see these guys coming off the elevator.
Best celebrity interaction?
I’ve become semi-friends with Elijah Wood. He’s been amazingly cool. He loves food. He’s been to all our restaurants. He just kicks it. But beyond Elijah, we don’t really get the Kardashians or Jessica Alba. But we get the cool, quirky stars. We get the Molly Ringwalds and Fred Savages.
Ever take your staff on a field trip?
I have so many ideas that come out of my mouth and many people take them too literally, when I am just talking shit. It’s idea diarrhea. So a way for us to create some sort of order is this concept of safe zones. We go out once a month. It could be a group of three. It could be a group of all the managers. It could be an entire truck. It changes every month and what we do is go somewhere—we find a great meal, we go on a hike. It could be as micro as going to get the best taco or could be as macro as driving to Santa Barbara and experiencing a lot of things along the way. The purpose of the safe zone is to talk about ideas without any personal feelings. Recently we got some Peruvian food at this place called Mo-chica—wonderful ceviche and braised oxtails. We had a great meal and just threw shit on the wall.
Ever eaten at one of Roy Choi's taco trucks or restaurants? Would you recommend them to a friend? Speak up in comments.