LA Chef Roy Choi

(Originally published May 20, 2013 on Examiner.com).

Chef Roy Choi’s believes it was his destiny to choose the culinary path he chose, because if he didn’t take this path, he never would have cooked Kogi tacos. Had he gone a more linear and standard route, Choi believes he simply would never have been humble enough to understand the whole range and rainbow of how people eat.

Prior to Kogi, on the culinary path he took Choi cooked in country clubs, airport hotels, mid-level hotels, low budget commuter hotels, resorts, as well as at golf tournaments, in corporate restaurants, and high end hotels. This decision after leaving NYC, moving back to Los Angeles in 1998, and cooking in these wide array of environments all led up to his ability to conceive and cook for Kogi..

Though back then in ‘98 and for many years afterwards after his externship for the CIA and working at Le Bernadin as well as in other NYC kitchens, he regretted this decision, he made the move back to California for a salaried position at a hotel; a culinary path much different than his classmates. He’d see all his friends working at Gramercy tavern or with Jean-Louis Palladin or with Daniel, all these chef driven places, and be really mad with himself. But now he balances those regrets with having hundreds of people who are hungry right in front of him.

So, instead Choi collaborated with other hotel chefs, found other chefs out there with whom he couldstage while working as a chef, traveled, took other opportunities and created a network for his own career to make it happen as well as discover his own style of cooking. This wasn’t the typical linear path of working for three named chefs, and then opening a restaurant for himself. As he learned about cooking this way in hotels, he learned how to manage, something he may have not learned as well how to do had he taken that linear path through restaurants.

He learned too how to handle high volume, and subvert his ego to cook for whatever the environment dictated, whether that was for a wedding, a bar mitzvah, a birthday party or a corporate function. Plus unlike in a famous chef’s NYC restaurant where the entire staff is there to prove themselves and excel, and management was just about making thoroughbreds run faster, Chef Choi didn’t have such prized recruits. Rather he had a staff of division three walk-ons. So another thing, Roy learned about taking the path he took, was how to teach and to inspire people. This has helped him a lot. So rather than just give orders, like a coach, he’s found ways to make people, his staff, better plus perform at a level that they didn’t know they were capable of performing at, with people who didn’t know how good they were.

After being in hotels for ten years, when Chef Choi became the Chef de Cuisine for the Beverley Hilton, he reached the apex of his career trajectory. Even though he hadn’t taken the more linear route through other chefs’ kitchen, he still aspired to be the best chef he could be in this hotel sector. However, after working so hard during his career to get this job, when he actually started, he found the job wasn’t what he had hoped for or expected. There was nothing wrong with the people or system, Choi was just expecting something more nimble where he could have an influence over the direction of the ship. But he quickly found out that rather than being the captain of a yacht, he was rather the captain of a tanker on autopilot where he had no influence, and thus found little inspiration.

He worked here for a year, and was going to tough it out, but out of the blue, for the first time in his career, he got a call from a head hunter. A company was looking for a Southeast Asian influenced chef to open a grand new location, and it sounded really interesting to Roy. So he went to the interview and subsequently accepted the position to try something new, and learn something different, even though this was a step down and a drastic departure from the hotel world where he had always worked. Everything initially went well prior to the location’s opening, but after opening Roy’s described himself as like a “deer in the headlights”, and the position didn’t work out as hoped for or planned.

Out of work, and in a recession with little savings, he went through the motions to get another job though his heart wasn’t really into many of the positions he sought. Plus it seemed, that even with possible positions that presented themselves and moved forward through the interview process, something always happened to derail that process like a computer crashed or some one needed to reschedule, and then by the time the person rescheduled that person was no longer interested. In retrospect, these detours as Roy likes to call them, that prevented him from going back again to cooking in the world of hotels, needed to happen, Choi believes, for Kogi to happen. Kogi needed to happen for Roy, and needed to happen for LA.

After being out of work for two months, his friend Mark Manguera, who had worked with Roy at the Beverly Hilton, called him with the idea to put Korean barbecue in a taco. Roy and Mark shortly thereafter hit the streets in a taco truck, and due to the immediacy of twitter word spread quickly, lines grew and the Kogi taco and Kogi Truck quickly became very successful.

The idea for the Kogi taco was the key that opened the door for Choi and everything else that followed. This key provided Choi a new path to reintegrate his personal and professional lives.

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Whether black, Asian or Latino, many minorities and immigrants in America lead a dual life. They have one life in their own communities where they live and behave a certain way to be accepted and another in the dominant prevailing culture where they work and have to behave differently to succeed. As a quick example, there’s “hood English” and “interview English”. In America, many whites don’t recognize or understand this duality since they live and work in a similar world that is the world of the dominant culture. For Roy, the Asian and Latino communities he grew up in were distinct and separate from the Eurocentric professional world where he learned to cook and cooked. So the food he grew up around in his family’s restaurant during his elementary years, as a prep cook as a teen, in his parent’s home and at weekend family picnics, he never thought of as part of his professional world as a chef.

Ever since starting culinary school at the CIA as a twenty five year old and putting on a chef’s jacket, cooking on the Kogi Truck was the first time in Chef Choi’s professional career that he drew culinary inspiration from the neighborhoods where he grew up. So this was also the first time in Choi’s professional career that he felt he was able to be himself. Kogi crashed his personal and professional worlds together and allowed the voice of LA to be channeled into the food he cooked for the public to consume. Before this, he never thought these two worlds could be connected. He never thought he could bring to work the way he grew up and the food he liked that was the fabric of his personal life. He never thought these personal experiences could be his professional expression. Kogi liberated Choi’s soul.

Choi, born in Korea, moved to Los Angeles when he was two years old. His family lived in Korea Town before it was Korea Town. But Roy didn’t grow up in just one neighborhood, his family moved around quite often. So he lived in many different neighborhood and cities in the Los Angeles and the region including West Hollywood, West Los Angeles, Crenshaw, Norwalk, Anaheim, Fountain Valley, Garden Grove, the City of Orange and Mission Viejo.
Since his family both struggled and prospered at different times, Roy also was exposed to people living across different economic stratum. For example, he went to a really poor elementary school, and later to a very affluent high school. Down the road, and later on the road with Kogi, Choi in retrospect believes being exposed to different types, races and classes of people positioned him well for his later success with Kogi because he got to see how people from different walks of life lived and ate.

For Choi, this wisdom along with the youthful energy of his mid-twenty something crew became Kogi. All the things that make Kogi special are things he did in high school: all the elements that came out on the street in his youth by letting his guard down and sharing. Though if you peel away these attitudes, expressions and flavors of Kogi, and look inside, the bones and structure of Kogi still embody the lessons Chef Choi learned cooking as a professional in hotel kitchens. This, in part, is a why Choi feels he was so accepted by other chefs, and not viewed as a trend or flash in the pan phenomena.

Choi too believes Kogi helped fan the flame of recent years that has seen other ethnic chefs elevate the cuisine (especially the street cuisine) that these chefs grew up with as kids by incorporating the techniques they’ve learned in culinary school or in fine dining kitchens. Up until this time, these chefs weren’t confronting or expressing their true love and cultural beliefs in their food.

Plus to a large degree street food, and the non Euro-centric food brought back and elevated was done by either chefs traveling to other countries, like Chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Miliken who recreated dishes inspired by their travels, or by French trained chefs re-engineering foods brought in from around the globe for fine dining, for example, like a sambal or peanut sauce. But now according to Chef Choi classically trained Malaysian, Peruvian, and other chefs from around the world are putting out updated reinterpreted versions of the foods they grew up with that their moms made for their audiences to eat and experience. For these chefs, this isn’t food from travels. This food is coming from a different place within, and is thus a different interpretation.

After Kogi, Choi next opened Chego. For Choi, Chego was the refrigerator full of food he grew up with in high school that he never showed his friends if they came over. It was part of that separate dual other world. The insides of this refrigerator would look like a science experiment. By opening Chego, he opened these refrigerator doors for everyone to see the contents, and the bowls he made were reinterpretations of Korean street food he ate growing up in his family’s home.

A Frame, which followed Chego, for Choi captures fond memories with his family growing up and having picnics in Redondo Beach. At these meals, they’d have a table full of crabs, plus hammers and bibs, which were wonderful times. So for Choi, A Frame took these Saturday afternoons at Redondo Beach and put them in a bottle and thus brought these experiences back to life. So when guests go to A Frame, they sit at picnic tables with paper on them, and eat with their hands like Roy did as a kid with his family.

Sunny Spot next came to him like a baby dropped off at his door step. Sunny Spot is more about Choi’s travels though Choi has never actually visited Cuba, or Jamaica or any of these Caribbean countries that inspired the menu. Rather Sunny Spot was a calling for Choi. Here were flavors, and what could Choi do with them. After getting this message, he approached the menu like a DJ going through records. So he used the ingredients and the culture plus researched as much as he could about Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti and food from other islands in the region. All the flavors and ingredients became like records which he took and mixed to make his own sound. So Sunny Spot is like a DJ set that really has nothing to do with authenticity.

Though each of these concepts is distinct and occupies different segments of the restaurant world, none of these concepts were part of any master plan or business strategy. Rather all of the projects have been extremely personal and have come from a personal place. Each represents a different part of or memory for Chef Choi that happened to be unique and an expression of who Choi is. For even though Choi is Asian, he feels as though he’s lived a lot of different lives that have connected different cultures. And one of the primary ways that his lives have connected these different cultures has been through the food he’s both ate, made and still makes.

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Chef Roy Choi believes food more than anything else brings people from different cultures together. Choi has been around and always been in awe of artists especially musicians. He’s seen how music can also bring people together. But no matter how popular a musician is, a musician can still alienate other audiences that aren’t into that artist’s sound. So no matter how big the audience, the audience will still be specific. With food though, Choi has found that even people with different and specific patterns can all come together and eat food. Once Choi realized this, he played with it, and now tries to push his cuisine to see how far it can go.

Moreover according to Chef Choi, food has always been the connector. But food in restaurants ten years ago wasn’t as accessible as it is today. Food was concealed “in a box” that only more recently has been opened for every one to see, explore and taste. So Choi has been exploring different ways to expose more and different people to this even more expansive world of food.

As part of this exploration, he decided to work with SPAM® for cultural reasons to confront and discuss how a lot of Asians and Hawaiians including Polynesians and Filipinos grow up. His decision wasn’t a political one, whether SPAM® is right or wrong, since Roy believes there can’t be an ethical conversation about SPAM® if people don’t understand why people eat SPAM®. SPAM® is an American product introduced by America to Asia and Hawaii during and post World II when Hawaii became part of the United States and when the United States helped Asia recover after the war. Hawaii is the largest consumer of SPAM® products in the U.S; consuming more than 7 million cans of SPAM® each year. Furthermore, since WWII SPAM has been built into the Hawaiian culture where the popular snack SPAM Musubi, is comparable to a NY slice of pizza or a hotdog in Chicago. So in many ways SPAM® became a gateway to America for many countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea, Guam and Japan to understand what America was about. SPAM® products are sold today in more than 44 countries, including China, Japan, England, Korea, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the Philippines.

Another completely and seemingly contradictory way Roy has re-examined food and what he himself eats is that Roy for the most part has abstained from eating meat for over a year. He’s not absolute. He’ll eat meat when he taste dishes he’s cooking or if he’s in a situation like at his grandmother’s house, who has been cooking all day, he won’t turn her food down. But, in general, he’s largely vegetarian. Roy changed his diet in order to change his patterns and by doing so he raised new questions, and found new solutions Plus his new diet made him think more about what he was eating even if just for a millisecond. This diet and his blogging about it opened up a new dialogue with people who weren’t part of his life before.

Roy’s blog came about in conjunction with the creation of his new book, “LA Son, My life, My City, My Food,” set to be released November 5th, and that can be pre-ordered on Amazon. Originally entitled Spaghetti Junction, the book’s title changed as the content evolved and became more personal.

As for what’s next for Choi, The Line Hotel at Normandie and Wilshire is well into construction. The Sydell Group doing this renovation conversion is the same group that built and operates the Nomad and Ace Hotels in NYC. Roy turned down the project twice before he was persuaded to change his mind. Roy feels this project is going to be a big deal for Korean Town and for his food. All of his internal development is done. He and his team are just waiting for the shell construction to be completed so his team can get in and start building out their concepts. The brands Choi’s putting in are still under wraps.

Plus he’s taking over food for the entire hotel. So once again, Choi is returning to hotel kitchens, and having been a hotel chef, he’s never been caught up in his own ego, so he’s developed systems that aren’t so self torturing and that allows his team of generals, majors and privates to execute with confidence.

Kogi too is still a huge part of Roy’s plans moving forward. Despite there no longer being lines, Kogi is still doing the same amount of people. Kogi was never about the lines. The neighborhoods where people use to line up now know when the trucks are coming and that they’ll be there for three hours. So nothing has changed from the inside out. The media’s perception may have changed, but the business hasn’t. Kogi is doing even more business.

Choi and his team firmly believe that the food that Kogi cooks is meant to be eaten by as many people as possible. So after almost five years Roy feels, it’s time to be less protective and take Kogi to the next level, that is open up a bit and listen to outside capital. To this end, the next big step for Kogi is the licensing deal at LAX with HMSHost to open up a Kogi in the terminal four food court.

Two things that made this deal work for Roy are first HMSHost made a real commitment to bringing in new chefs by putting all their current employees through the LA Tech culinary program where they learned basic skills like how to make sauces, sauté, braise and roast that as unionized employees they had never learned before. HMSHost’s employees got certifications. Second, Roy got complete access any time all the time. So even though HMSHost’s employees will be running this location, the location for Roy will be, in essence, his fifth truck. From HMSHost he has complete access and ability to run this location as the chef.

With locations like the LAX one, and a desire to expand outside of Los Angeles with both more trucks and brick and mortars, Roy foresees the reality of Kogi finally catching up with Kogi’s identity since those people around the globe, who hitherto have only experienced Kogi via social media through sites like twitter, will finally have even more opportunity to taste Roy’s food.

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