Roy Choi’s Master Plan
The Korean Mexican Kogi taco launched the food-truck movement and made chef Roy Choi a celebrity. Now he wants to bring together rich and poor, fast food and healthy fare, young Americans and their immigrant parents. It’s all, he says, about “slinging love.”
A little over a year ago in West Los Angeles, Roy Choi, celebrity chef, inventor of the Kogi taco, and the “Godfather of the Food-Truck Movement,” sat down with a team of agents from the Creative Artists Agency. The meeting had been called to create the “Roy Choi brand.” To help facilitate the conversation, Choi had plastered the walls of a conference room with large sheets of paper upon which he wrote out every thought in his head in big, scrawling letters.
Voice of the voiceless
Protector of loneliness
Hero for Asians, Latinos, blacks
Make compassion cool
Inspiration to my fans plus responsibility,
geeky, shy, hip, young, old, kids, middle-aged
“I’m like all races combined in one man
like the ’99 summer jam.” — Nas
Choi, a deeply tanned 44-year-old who looks permanently, pleasantly stoned, talked about his plans for the future. At times, the conversation, which lasted four hours, veered into the absurd, with Choi asking the agents if they could think of a way that he could reach people on “an MLK or Gandhi or Oprah level,” but for the most part, Choi stayed focused on one goal. He wanted Kogi, the Korean taco brand that has turned him into one of the most well-known chefs in the country, and 3 Worlds Cafe, a health-food restaurant he helped open in the heart of South Central, to kick off a “revolution” in the ways Americans think about poverty, race, and food access. “Food deserts” — communities where healthy food is difficult or impossible to find — “that can’t happen anymore,” Choi told the agents. In the past, Choi has rejected television offers because he thought they would compromise his street cred. On this day, he entertained every hypothetical, including an imagined collaboration with Chipotle and a sponsorship with Target. He even seemed to consider a role in The Great American Food Truck Race, a show that he had earlier described to me as “the fakest, stupidest show on TV.” The reason for his conversion seemed simple: Choi needed money, and lots of it, if he wanted to keep building affordable, high-quality restaurants in inner cities, and TV was a good way to get paid.
The agents listened politely as Choi ranted about nutritional inequity, the dearth of food options in Watts, and all the reasons his fleet of famous taco trucks drives down to Crenshaw and Inglewood and Compton. When the agents finally gave their presentation, Choi sat at the table rolling joints. From early on, it was clear that they only really had one idea: a food-truck version of Pimp My Ride.
After the meeting, Choi went out to the courtyard to smoke a cigarette. I asked him how he thought it had gone. “There’s absolutely no way I would have done a ‘Pimp My Food Truck’ show six months ago,” he said.
I first met Roy Choi in the parking lot of a gutted hotel. He stood on a piece of plywood in the still-goopy driveway of the Wilshire, a 12-story white concrete box destined to look odd and severe when the current obsession with mid-century modern architecture wanes. The Wilshire, one of three hotels to bear the name of Los Angeles’s renowned thoroughfare, was originally built in 1965 to serve a nascent business corridor in Mid-City. The corridor never quite made it; over the next couple of decades, Korean immigrants, including Choi’s parents, moved into the empty side streets and filled in the strip malls surrounding the hotel with restaurants, bathhouses, and billiard rooms. By the time the Wilshire was purchased in 2011 by a group of developers that included billionaire financier Ron Burkle, the hotel had become an unappealing relic. Los Angeles’s famed old hotels exude a baroque, culture-clash charm you can only find here — insane chandeliers, nonfunctional columns bedecked with marine-blue Spanish tile, and cracked, red vinyl booths that evoke the city’s glamorous, skeevy past. The Wilshire had none of that.
But the new money flowing into the neighborhood wasn’t all too concerned with where Mae West ate snails or where Warren Beatty worked as a busboy. Koreatown needed its own signature building — something hip and upscale for the thousands of tourists who travel from Korea to Los Angeles every year. So the Wilshire was gutted and renamed the Line. The project also needed a famous face, someone who could bring credibility and a sense of authenticity to what, in truth, was a venture by a group of white guys. Choi was hired to create and manage the Line’s three restaurants — Café, Commissary, and Pot — and to build the hotel’s brand in his own image.
“This hotel is going to be my version of a fucked-up Korean American coming-of-age novel,” Choi told me. “I’m going to take all my insecurities about growing up as a Korean kid — all my feelings of worthlessness, the pressure from the community and never feeling like I measured up to their standards — and put it all into this place.”
What would a hotel forged by Roy Choi’s identity crisis look like? It starts with populism. Korean American culture, Choi believes, is built around clear divisions in wealth and status. For the middle-class immigrants who came to Los Angeles in the ’60s and ’70s, the dream was not to build Koreatown into a vibrant, livable neighborhood, but to move as quickly as possible to the white suburbs, away from the immigrant mob. A boutique hotel in the heart of Koreatown would typically be filled with private security to keep out neighborhood riffraff. But Choi sees himself as part of that riffraff, and he wanted to create a space that would be as welcoming to local kids as to high-end guests. For him, the trendy juxtaposition of high and low culture is not just a culinary aesthetic: It’s a pathway to social change. During a recent talk at a chefs’ symposium in Copenhagen, for example, Choi challenged his colleagues to expand their work to less-privileged neighborhoods. “What if every high-caliber chef told our investors that for every fancy restaurant we build it would be a requirement to build one in the ’hood as well?” he asked.
In the fall of 2013, when all things were still possible, the promise of such openness was front-and-center at the Line. Despite the hotel’s $80 million renovation, Choi wanted the prices in its restaurants to fall within the neighborhood’s typical, affordable range. He planned on putting a neon sign in the window of the hotel’s coffee shop, which, when lit, would signal passers-by that they could buy any drink inside for a dollar. The hotel’s signature restaurant would only serve hot pot, because he wanted his legions of “white fans” to get over their hang-ups about double dipping. That, Choi believed, would translate into “more harmony.”
Choi also planned to highlight the parts of Korean culture he admired. “I want to capture what I felt the first time I walked into the Lotte Mart in Seoul,” Choi told me. Envisioning Lotte, a colorful, orderly, and immense hypermarket that has its own roller coaster, Choi smiled. “That place flipped the ideas I had of Western dominance, because there in Korea, they had built this huge, crazy fucking thing,” he said. “I want the guests to feel both sides — I want them to be proud of Korean culture, but I want them to feel how fucked it can be when you grow up here in the States.” Here Choi paused and stared down at the tops of his black sneakers. He said, “You know what I mean, right?”
Well, yes. Choi’s angst is a common one in Koreatown. Few second-generation Korean Americans around his age know much about the lives of their parents, especially if they came from the North. The way Choi described his own mother and father, in L.A. Son, his 2013 memoir and cookbook, and to me — by the schools they attended and their cultural status — echoed, almost perfectly, how my parents, who come from similar stock, talked about their lives in Korea. (The refrain in my home: “Your father went to Kyonggi, and his father taught at Seoul National University. Your mother’s father was a gambler.”) I do not mean to say that this sort of language shared between the children of immigrants — especially those who struggle to speak the native tongue of their parents — has any monolithic significance, or that it is universal among Korean Americans. I only want to point out that it is, indeed, common, and when one reaches the age of wondering about a mostly opaque heritage, the food of the homeland can stand in for all those missed conversations.
The Line is, in part, Choi’s attempt to fill in the gaps, a project that he has taken on with equal parts anger and earnestness. Of all the bizarre plans he had for his hotel, perhaps the most touching was his room-service idea. He wanted to re-create Seoul’s jajangmyeon deliverymen, who drive to your home on motor scooters fitted with stainless-steel boxes roughly the size of a microwave. Once they reach your door, the deliverymen unwrap the food for you, oftentimes wordlessly, and leave. After a set period of time, they come back to retrieve the silverware and bowls. “Think about that,” Choi said. “All the class shit that’s going on there, how they won’t even make eye contact with you. But also, think of the love they put into the whole service.” To help bring that feeling to the Line, but with a Koreatown twist, Choi planned to replace the scooters with carts fitted to skateboards. The food would be wrapped up in colorful Korean silks instead of the sheets of shrink-wrap preferred in Korea, but the delivery would be performed with the same wordlessness, lack of eye contact, and return to pick up the dishes. “It’s a ceremony, man,” he said. “But it’s one that makes you understand, like, the entire exclusionary culture there. Then you can understand how that same exclusionary shit came over here.”
The Line was to be Choi’s “own thing,” his “mark on Koreatown,” but it was also part of a “master plan” to bring in the money for his inchoate revolution. There’s a hint of delusion and, perhaps, an overly indulged id, in everything Roy Choi does, from his belief that his restaurants in a multimillion-dollar hotel could have reasonable prices to his insistence on talking about “the streets.” Choi’s “brand,” as his agents might say, lies in that compulsive, messy rebelliousness. Kogi’s trucks are covered in graffiti stickers. Even his cooking, which mostly involves piling on more and more seemingly arbitrary ingredients — whether sliced shallots, radishes, barbecued pork, or sour cream — into a bowl, is chaotic.
Choi is also not the only youngish Asian chef who listens to hip-hop and bills himself as a maverick. David Chang, founder of Momofuku, Eddie Huang, owner of Baohaus, and Danny Bowien, co-founder of Mission Chinese Food, have all positioned themselves similarly, building up huge followings online before crossing over to books, TV, and the like. Their rise coincided with the Great Asian YouTube movement, in which young men like Kevin “KevJumba” Wu and Ryan Higa — self-made stars who mostly talk about themselves into a webcam — attracted tens of millions of followers, revealing a previously unexploited yearning for cultural icons who, in some way, reflected the lives of Asian American youth.
Choi, who was born into an upper-class family in Seoul in 1970, is another credible mirror. His parents immigrated to the U.S. when he was 2 and bounced around Southern California for a decade, opening restaurants and other failed businesses before landing in the jewelry trade. Thanks to his mother’s discerning eye, the social apparatus of the Korean church, and the influence that elite Koreans often retain in the diaspora, the Chois earned a fortune.
By the time Choi reached middle school, the family had made it, moving into an enormous house in Orange County that had once been owned by the Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan. The community was affluent and predominantly white; Choi suffered the sorts of casual (and sometimes overt) racism that befalls many minority kids who grow up in such places. He was teased, ostracized, and developed a violent temper that would follow him throughout his youth.
By his teens, Choi had gravitated to Garden Grove, a nearby enclave of Vietnamese and Korean immigrants. He hung around the periphery of gang life, developing a variety of addictions: to alcohol, drugs, gambling. He lost a solid couple of years in the Bicycle Club and Commerce casinos in South Los Angeles. Choi glosses over that period in L.A. Son, but not because he feels embarrassed by it. Instead, one gets the sense that he almost sees waywardness as the inevitable counterbalance to his current success, that he believes the man could not have been possible without a myth, one steeped heavily in hip-hop’s well-worn narratives. Started from the bottom, and all that.
Again, all this is standard stuff. The Commerce and Bicycle casinos are filled with similarly angry, self-destructive young Asian men. Koreans drink more liquor than any other nationality on Earth, and Choi’s resentments toward the hierarchies and constraints of Korean culture are so familiar, they almost read rote. Every Korean man I know who’s under 40 listens exclusively to rap and identifies, at least in part, with black and Mexican American culture. Roy Choi, then, is not unique — he is the ggangpae, the street kid, in all our families. The portrayal of him in the press as an anomaly, as someone who doesn’t fit the usual Asian American narrative, actually says less about Choi than it does about how narrow and sclerotic that narrative can be.
Then, the upswing. One night, ravaged by the drinking and gambling, recuperating on his parents’ couch, Choi was flipping through the channels and came across Emeril Lagasse’s cooking show. He felt as if Emeril had burst through the television to deliver a message directly to him: Cook. Choi regularly talks about cooking and food in almost mystical terms that borrow heavily from Korean mythology and shamanism. It’s a strange cultural mix — a Korean American kid who once fetishized hip-hop now mostly talks about food like a half-baked Korean grandmother. Shortly after his Emeril moment, Choi enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America, perhaps the most prestigious cooking school in the country. He excelled there, then held a string of upscale hotel jobs, including at the Beverly Hilton, before ending up at Rock Sugar, a massive pan-Asian restaurant in West Los Angeles, where he worked until his pal Mark Manguera called him with his idea for a new taco.
Six years ago, Manguera, a then-30-year-old restaurant entrepreneur and a friend of Choi’s, was eating late-night Mexican food with his Korean American sister-in-law when it dawned on him that someone should make a taco with Korean barbecue on it. Manguera called up Choi, who had already been experimenting with Korean fusion recipes. The two tinkered a bit in Choi’s home kitchen before settling on a recipe that melded the flavors of Korean barbecue and sesame oil with the salsa and lime of Mexican cuisine. They didn’t have enough money for a storefront, so they decided to sell the thing out of an old taco truck.
They fashioned a route through South Los Angeles and Koreatown, giving away tacos outside the 24-hour Hodori eatery on Olympic Boulevard, as well as on Crenshaw. Within a few months, lines of 300 to 500 customers were waiting at every stop. Imitators popped up almost immediately, each one trying to recapture Choi’s mix of gourmet training and street smarts. In 2009, less than a year after the business began, Jonathan Gold reviewed the truck in the LA Weekly. “Kogi’s taco is a new paradigm of a restaurant,” he wrote. “An art-directed take on Korean street food previously unimaginable in both California and Seoul: cheap, unbelievably delicious and unmistakably from Los Angeles, food that makes you feel plugged into the rhythms of the city just by eating it.”
That notion that the Kogi taco was somehow an evocation of Los Angeles’s vast cultural landscape is not hyperbolic. Koreatown is a bit of a misnomer. In truth, if we’re sticking to ethnic assignations, the neighborhood should be called Korea-Mexico-town, or something that might give a nod to the thousands of Mexicans who live in the area. The strip malls along Sixth Street or down near Western and Olympic have brightly lit, thoroughly Yelped jajangmyeon noodle and barbecue spots, sure, but they also have taco stands and botánicas, and if you walk into one of those Korean restaurants or if you head to a Korean florist, chances are you’ll find a Mexican guy who speaks Korean and a Korean guy who speaks Spanish.
Choi’s creation was a genuine merging of Mexican and Korean cuisines. The taco is simple enough — marinated Korean short rib, sesame chili oil, lettuce, and salsa — so simple, in fact, that it seems impossible such a thing could be “invented” at all. Koreans and Mexicans have lived together in the Wilshire corridor for 50 years. Is it possible that nobody who was eating kalbi at, say, Sarabol on Eighth Street, and dutifully wrapping the meat up in the traditional lettuce and rice paper, ever wondered what would happen if they used a tortilla instead?
The question, really, isn’t whether someone in the history of Los Angeles ever dropped a forkful of kalbi into a tortilla (I’m pretty sure I did this myself about ten years ago at a Thanksgiving dinner at my aunt’s house in Koreatown), but rather, why two communities who lived and worked together and who actually have weirdly similar cuisines — both spicy, both obsessed with stews, both concerned with ways to wrap meat — never came up with what now seems like an obvious symbiosis.
A simple idea caught on quickly. One truck became five. Choi opened up a storefront and then a restaurant and then another. The Roy Choi empire now includes the Line, Kogi’s five trucks, a bar in Marina del Rey called the Alibi Room, a rice-bowl counter in Chinatown called Chego, a Caribbean brunch restaurant called Sunny Spot, a converted pancake house serving New American cuisine called A-Frame, and 3 Worlds Cafe. Choi’s face shows up regularly in national food blogs and on cooking shows; Food and Wine named him a Best New Chef of 2010. His new CNN digital series, Street Food, debuted this fall. His rising profile seems, as he’d hoped, to be helping him raise capital: In August, he announced that he and the Michelin-starred chef Daniel Patterson are developing a cheap, healthy fast-food chain to be called Loco’l, with franchises starting next year in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Detroit. “If we build Loco’l with heart and morality, but the access is widespread at $1, $2, $3 — that’s a revolution right there,” he told me.
Throughout his rise, Choi has stuck with his stoner-inflected, one-love sensibility. “Kogi is more than just a taco, right? I’m slinging love out here.”
Nearly every night, Choi takes a tour of his restaurants to check up on the kitchens. One evening, he drove me from the Line to Chego to the Alibi Room to A-Frame to Sunny Spot and then back to the Commissary, where Kogi parks its trucks, a route that spans more than 30 miles through Los Angeles traffic. He takes these trips in an absurdly modest car — a burnt-orange Honda Element with one working door, which means that if you’re riding shotgun with Roy Choi, he will open the passenger door for you and then politely ask you to open the driver’s door from the inside.
At Chego, Choi turned heads. A young customer — nearly all of Choi’s customers are young — hoisted a bowl and mouthed the words, “This is so good.” In the kitchen, Choi opened up a few trays, sampled some meats and talked to a line cook about basketball. A few instructions were given about how to properly slice the vegetables and then we were back in the Element.
“I’ve signed some bad deals in my life,” Choi said. “Money is like water to me. I scoop it up, and I look at it in my hands, but I don’t really see that it’s all leaking out between my fingers.” We pulled up next to a flatbed truck with a Rolls-Royce Phantom on the back. “But what would change? I guess I could trade in the Element for that.”
There was a party going on at A-Frame. A drunk couple walked up to Choi and said they could not believe the fried chicken. When he’s complimented by strangers — and it seems to happen a few times a day — Choi turns into a bashful teenager. He has a hard time looking the other person in the eye, he mutters his appreciations, and he grimaces a lot. This is in stark contrast to how Choi acts in the kitchen, where he speaks a mix of Spanish and English and directs his employees in a firm yet compassionate manner. At the Alibi Room, we met an elderly Mexican woman who was busy chopping up taco meat. Choi leaned in and hugged her. “This is the secret to my success,” he said. “She has that secret sauce. I love this.”
In his kitchens, Choi’s talk of the streets and “his people” and the weirdness of his new celebrity seems something beyond a P.R. gimmick. He even walks differently, a bit more upright. The stoner affect dissipates, too. What’s revealed is a warm, thoughtful craftsman who seems more interested in how a side of pork is braised or how a steamer of rice has been stirred than how it fits into some greater, marketable narrative.
“There are times when I want to just go to the kitchen and work and forget all of it,” he said, “but that’s not my reality now. I feel like I have to be this new … figure.”
In October, I went back to the Line Hotel to see how Choi’s monument to Koreatown turned out. Parts of his vision had come to pass — hip-hop from the ’90s played in the lobby. The coffee shop, modeled after the Korean chain Paris Baguette (pronounced: Pah-ree Beh-get), indeed had a red
OPEN sign in the window that lit up during lag hours. Pot, Choi’s signature restaurant, was filled with red-faced, drunk, mostly white guests who gleefully dunked pieces of meat into steaming bowls.
The only thing missing from this vision of a new Koreatown was the Koreans. The food at Pot was fusion in the blandest sense of the word — the fun parts of a culture repackaged and presented to an audience that has no interest in exploring much further than a Food Network program. This has caused some grumblings within the Korean community. Choi told me about one older Korean man who had pulled him aside at Pot and accused him of shaming his culture. But Choi believes the traditionalists are missing the point.
“Young Koreans bring their parents here as a bridge between old and new,” he said, “to say, ‘Look, Mom. This is me! This is my perspective on life, my personality, and it’s something I could never explain to you.’” But, he added, the parents aren’t necessarily having it. “Some of them have been trying to stop me because they think it’s like that Nic Cage movie, and if we don’t preserve the traditional Korean food, the Declaration of Independence will disintegrate forever.”
It’s a tough sell. With Kogi, Choi fused two communities that had been living and working next to each other, creating a parking-lot culture that brought in thousands of Angelenos from every conceivable neighborhood. That had a transformative effect not only on the city but, through the rise of the gourmet food truck, on the whole country. There’s nothing about the food at Pot that even hints at such possibility. Perhaps that’s too much to expect of the celebrity-chef industry, which banks on brands that can be easily explained and used to help sell, say, a new hotel backed by Ron Burkle. The Line does not, in the end, represent the new Koreatown any better or more provocatively than the dozens of posh barbecue restaurants that have sprung up in the neighborhood. The prices at Pot are twice as high, too. It seems like the only people lounging around the pool are talent agents and German tourists.
Yet, there’s an argument to be made that Choi has constructed a credible symbol of his generation of Korean Americans, who grew up on a steep but narrow path to assimilation. For the majority of that group — myself included — a night out at a norebang (a Korean karaoke room) or at a grimy sulungtang (oxtail soup) spot always has an air of sheepish nostalgia to it — you can feel the difference between yourself and the older people there. You can sense both their silent judgment and their awareness that the culture they left in the ’60s, ’70s, or ’80s, no longer exists: not in Korea and certainly not in Los Angeles.
Pot might not have ultimately bridged the two Korean Americas, but Choi was right to point out the divide. And therein lies his odd genius: His own insecurities, whether cultural, financial, or deeply personal, are always on display — they do not so much poke through the fabric of his public persona as create its shape and texture. His hope is that he can communicate that through his food, inspiring those who eat it to reflect, in the same way he does, about themselves. Beneath the sincere bluster that may animate all of Choi’s projects, there’s a graveness — the conflict between who he has become and where he came from is all too real. He does not bring up his dissolute youth — the drinking, the gambling, the drugs — to play the part of the rebel, but rather to present himself honestly: as a flawed, unfinished project who believes, perhaps naively, that a mission founded in identity and staying true to one’s roots can create real change. “The streets,” then, is his shorthand for all that.
The last time I spoke to Choi, I asked him how he’d been handling his recent fame. “I think I’m finding my courage within it,” he said. “I’m just a stoner kid from L.A. I used to be the kid at the back of the classroom, and now everyone’s turning around to look at me.
“That part is still weird — not in a bad way in that I’m angry about it — it’s just weird that I have to be aware that others may notice me. We all need private moments. But I realize there’s a power behind this, and it’s not going away.”