The truth Roy Choi speaks during a recent 90-minute lunch at The Breslin in New York City is refreshing. It’s slightly exhausting, actually. Roy likes to talk, so our recorder was charged and had 15 GBs to spare. Choi's honesty is also surprising and, for anybody who really knows the Los Angeles chef and social critic, not surprising at all. Rarely does an interview subject pull so few punches — the ones traveling up, down and sideways — while showing such humility. But here’s Choi doing just that, tackling subjects big and small — factory farms, awkward interactions with critic Jonathan Gold, how he’s mad at himself for yelling at a Starbucks barista that morning (he vowed to return the next morning to deliver a hug).
For many Korean-Americans and Southern Californians alike, Choi is a hero. His empire of taco trucks, called Kogi, were innovators in their use of social media. Who would have thought Twitter could bring 150 hungry people to a supermarket parking lot? Choi invented that shit. Ever eaten a Korean short rib taco, an appealing mashup of Asian and Mexican culinary common sense? Choi invented that shit.
But the 43-year old chef, 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 taste making. In his recently released memoir (with recipes) L.A. Son, he talks in detail about struggle. With all that peroxide and Depeche Mode, he grew up an outsider in Orange County — and later battled drug and gambling addictions. But his salvation, eventually, was cooking, which set him straight and eventually led him to a level of fame that gets you invited to things like the MAD Symposium in Copenhagen, where he presented a TED-style speech that set the conference on fire. Watch it here.
“With so many paved roads, farmers markets, great weather, restaurants and so much tree to smoke, we should be happy as clams,” he jokes in the 25-minute talk. “But in many parts of our city, this is how we supply our neighborhoods.” Choi goes on to click through slide after slide of photos of liquor stores and fast food joints, illustrating how food deserts — places where fresh, healthy food is unaffordable or inaccessible — are proliferating in Los Angeles. “There are people who can’t even eat a horse carrot.”
MAD is a gathering of elite chefs, journalists and tastemakers. So it took some real stones to step onto that stage and tell Redzepi and Chang and the famous Italian butcher with the pig to basically get their heads out of their Riedel champagne flutes. Hunger is a real issue and people need to get their priorities in check, was the message. “Tony put it well, it’s like going to Comic Con and telling them that Superman is dead,” says Choi, referring to Son’s spiritual advisor Anthony Bourdain, who acquired the book for his Ecco imprint Bourdain Books. And the more you listen to Choi talk, the more it makes sense that Bourdain bought the book. It comes down to speaking the truth, which both are quite skilled at.
I respect everyone there. They are my family and I’m a part of this community. So the thing that made it tough is looking in the eye of your family members and saying, “yo, we need to stop.” It’s tough going to the inner circle and telling them that this shit is wack.
Thinking about those without
As I eat at The Breslin, all I can think about is all the people who cannot eat at The Breslin. I don’t know why this has become a major part in my life. I don’t wish that it wasn’t part of my life, but why can’t I just wake up, smoke weed, watch Lord of the Rings and not worry about this shit. But it’s something I wake up to in Los Angeles.
Who reached out to him after the MAD speech
It’s like a braise, you can’t just eat it right away. But if you want me to name names. Sherry Yard, a wonderful pastry chef in Los Angeles, has reached out. In Copenhagen, Vinny [Dotolo], Michael Voltaggio, Rene Redzepi, David Chang, Daniel Patterson. They were all like, “whatever you need.”
They are absolutely gorgeous. They are tall and slender and in shape and ride bikes everywhere!
Fast food executives
If we had chefs, real chefs, in decision-making roles at fast food companies, we would not have these crimes against humanity. There would be a voice of reason. A voice that says throwing dying cows into a meat grinder is not OK.
Can Danny Meyer fix fast food?
He can do it, but his burger is still a little expensive. A Whopper costs $.99. Much love to Danny Meyer, but it’s $20 to eat there. What I’m asking is, how can we get it to $.99 or $2.99?
New York and Portland chef Andy Ricker
He’s got something going on. He’s got some weird cosmos thing going on. He’s more than a chef. He transfers that energy to the food. He’s a cool dude and an amazing chef.
Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold
Jonathan and I have a wonderfully complicated relationship. He’s been nothing but supportive on everything I have done — and I believe that we have a mutual respect and friendship amongst each other. But when we get together, we have a difficult time talking to each other. And I’m not sure if that has to do with the critic-cook relationship, or something else. I love the guy to death, but we stumble over words.
The corner of Wilshire and Normandie in Los Angeles
This is as powerful of a street corner at Bleecker and Bowery. It’s an intersection that is O.G. And we’re doing a hotel right there.
How different cultures prize food around the world
In Korea, eating delicious food is not dictated by economic or class levels. It’s not even a question about having access to good food. You just have it. I’m not going to front like I’ve been around the world. I went to Thailand once and it fucking blew my mind. Those people have no fucking jobs. No fucking money. But the food is like an avalanche.
The Caesar salad he’s eating during the interview
This is delicious!
Forcella’s Park Avenue location
This was one of those lessons to not judge a book by its cover. You walk in and it felt kind of doochey for a pizzeria, all the red velvet and chandeliers. But the pizza was so fucking good. I was dreaming about it all night. The marinara sauce was off the charts.
The vibe of L.A. Son
The book to me was always like Dark Side of the Moon, where it is just one long play. We didn’t even want to have an intro. We just wanted the reader to open the cover and dive into the deep end. As soon as you start, it’s a continuous journey. All of the recipes came from the stories. It wasn’t intended to be a chef book, with intricate recipes that you are not going to make at home.
Anthony Bourdain’s role in writing L.A. Son
Tony gave us the moral boost. He would read a couple chapters and send me a short email: “Fucking great man.” He wasn’t doing line edits. He was giving us confidence and support. This was not a traditional book.
On collaborating with his L.A. Son co-authors Tien Nguyen and Natasha Phan
These are the cornerstones of the book. We’re always going to rep L.A. We’re always going to speak as the children of immigrants. We’re going to make the book affordable. And we’re always going to be one voice. It’s about being a collective trio. It’s my life, but a collective trio writing the book.
I think this story has a happy ending, but it’s not a Norman Rockwell ending. It’s a Bruce Lee kung fu movie happy ending. After you fought every motherfucker, you ride out into the sunset with a little blood on your hands.
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