Los Angeles chef and restaurateur Roy Choi says that the release of his first-ever cookbook L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food was a bit nerve-wracking. More of a memoir than recipe book, L.A. Son tells the story of how Choi grew up in and around Los Angeles. He confronts head-on some pretty unpleasant memories, such as stealing from his parents to fuel his gambling addiction. But Choi also shares the tale of his ascent through the food world, astounding success with the Korean-Mexican fusion that is the Kogi truck, and how his life, family, and city shaped it all. As Eater's Paula Forbes wrote in yesterday's book preview, "The book is just aching with love for L.A."
In the following interview, Choi discusses why he didn't pull any punches with this book, his work with the South Central LA community coffee shop 3 Worlds Cafe, and his thoughts on how chefs can change the world for the better. Choi also talks a little bit about working with director Jon Favreau on his upcoming Chef film. Here's the interview:
When you announced the book, you said you didn't want it to be a Kogi book or even a cookbook, and really it is more like a memoir punctuated with relevant recipes. Why did you decide to do it that way and how did that come together?
We weren't ready to write the Kogi story yet. The Kogi book is all our voices. I'm just one perspective of Kogi. But this book is my life. Everyone was asking me a lot whether it's through media but also just out there on the streets, "How did you come up with this [Kogi] flavor?" Just really appreciative, really sincere. I couldn't answer that all the way. I couldn't put it into a soundbite, and what I realized is maybe I need to look at my life. Maybe through my life I can find out why this flavor was so powerful for people. And that became the book.
As far as the recipes go, with Tien [Nguyen] and Tasha [Phan], the co-writers, I approached it like an album. I wanted it to all flow like a long-play album that, as you read it through, the recipes would fit into the story that you just read. Then they would interconnect with each other.
Another big thing, before we started writing the book, we wrote a mission statement or a mantra of what we want this book to be. One was we wanted it to be an album. The other was I wanted it to be affordable. That's why it's under $30. And the most important thing was I wanted it to be fluid with your life. I wanted to put recipes in there that you could actually cook and cook often. I didn't want it to be a book that showed how great of a chef I was. I have a lot of friends who aren't in the food world, and I wanted it to be a book that they could just pick up, and say, "Oh shit, all I've got to do is grab Pillsbury dough and throw it in? I could do that." I wanted a book like that.
Yeah, I keep thinking about the instant ramen recipe that looks amazing but totally accessible.
That's a great example. The steps in which to make the ramen kind of subconsciously, even if you don't cook often, teach you how to cook. How to be gentle with things, how to poach an egg. How to create a slurry or a binder. It teaches you to do all the things that I learned as a chef, but it brings it with such approachability and casualness that you do it without knowing you're actually learning about cooking. I love that recipe.
Roy Choi's instant ramen recipe. [Photo: Paula Forbes/Eater.com]
You've had a lot of profiles and media pieces written about you, but so much of this book seems really personal. Is there anything you debated taking out?
Well, I hope when people read it they feel like I put everything on the line. The only thing I kept private was my personal family life currently. But everything that got me here, I tried to confront every single skeleton in my closet and put it all out there. Some of the stuff that's there, I'm confronting it for the first time as well, so it's pretty raw and powerful, I think. I was writing about my personal life, but I was always thinking in the back of my mind also writing in a larger scope of what other immigrant kids go through. Other minority kids. Even though it was my personal situation, I felt like they could relate to a lot of things that I went through. So I always thought about that as I was writing.
But yeah there were no punches pulled. Everything was there. Every time I wrote something, kind of naturally it would get to a PG-13 state sometimes and then we would push ourselves to say, "This has got to be NC-17 or Rated R." Every time we would write a rough draft of a chapter, Natasha and Tien were instrumental. They would push me. When we decided to write this book, I said nothing is off-limits. And so every time I turned in something, they would push me and say, "We need more here" or "Why are you tiptoeing around this? Get me to the core. Get me to the point where you stole from your parents. Get me to the point where you went into their pockets and stole from their closet and their purse."
And, that shit, a lot of people don't want to talk about. But I felt it was important to talk about because it helped me to make peace with it. The thing about skeletons and things that you do in your life, they become like hangnails to your life. The guilt and the shame and the things people say to you. You believing it sometimes. And actions that you did as a kid, saying that those define who you are now. You carry those things with you in life sometimes. It was time for me to let go of those things and this book was the process of that.
I've got a lot more I want to do. There are so many people I want to feed. But I had to confront this part of my life, let go of it, say that even though I did some fucked up shit, I'm doing some great shit right now. This is what got me here and it's okay that I did this fucked up shit because that allows me to have empathy and understanding for people that are going through it right now. Everyone's life seems perfect, you know, in magazines and TV shows. Especially in the food world, we only paint the beautiful side sometimes. But there are a lot of people still going through shit. I have friends that are still hung up and held up on stuff, you know? So nothing was off-limits.
Speaking of the great stuff you're doing now, how is 3 Worlds Cafe going?
We're trying our best, you know? It's going well as far as what it is. There definitely needs to be more business and more traffic, but it's a start. But it's providing jobs. It's a place where the kids can come after school and do their homework. It's a place where residents can have a cup of coffee. My whole thing right now is continuing to push it, evolve it. I want to get better. I want to get great products in there. We just got great coffee in there from Zona Rosa, a local roaster. [Pastry chef] Sherry Yard approached me, so I think it would be awesome for her to somehow get pastries in there or conduct classes or whatever. But my thing is continuing to use my influence to get my chef friends, my purveyors, products, in there and continue to make them affordable. It's just starting right now. It's not that busy, but it's going good.
Roy Choi at 3 Worlds Cafe. [Photo: Facebook]
You said in an interview that you wanted to follow through on your MAD talk with the chefs there who expressed interest in what you're doing. Are you guys still talking about that?
Yeah. Things take time. I threw the ball into the mix. I basically told everyone what's up. Let's get our head out of our asses and let's do something. The reason I told them that was not to agitate people or create divisions or anything. I really believe in chefs. We cook the best fucking food in the world. We are the gatekeepers of the human race as far as food goes. And so I figured if anything is going to change, it's up to us because we cook the best food. We're the ones with the keys. So if we're going to open the borders on flavors and cooking, it's gotta start with us. We can't rely on companies and factories and processing plants and farmers and all these people to do it. We're the chefs. We cook great food.
So it wasn't really like a bashing challenge. Hopefully it was an awakening. We've been given this gift in life, we are the Jedis of how to cook food. We should share this. We should have others enjoy our flavors and experience what we're doing. In a way, it will challenge us as well to continue to influence the whole spectrum of how people eat. Because chefs only influence a small amount of it. Straight up, Oreos, sodas, chips, salsa dips, egg white omelets, yogurts, breads, ketchups, mustards, barbecue sauce, frozen pizzas, hot pockets, ice cream, all these things that you eat in your normal life. I think if chefs got more involved in that then it could be better. Because we're the ones that know flavor.
What do you envision in terms of it being better?
For me it's about getting into every sector and having an influence in every sector. We have an influence in artisan and restaurant-driven cuisine, right? That is the stuff that you guys at Eater write about and bring to light. It's the best food in the world. It's delicious. But it's $25 to eat sometimes. It's $35, $40. I'm talking about the stuff that's 50 cents, 75 cents or a $1.50. Every day stuff.
You're not talking about getting rid of every day stuff, though, but being part of it?
No, I'm talking about being part of it. What if we as chefs had more influence across the spectrum? The biggest thing I'm looking at is the model of fast food. All these chefs you write about on Eater, what if we all had little fast food joints as well? Imagine the philosophies and the approaches and the integrity and the decision-making that would be involved if we controlled those outlets as well. Because it would be the same processes that we do as chefs. They may be on grander scales or there may be some compromises here and there that you have to make as a business, but the philosophy behind everything would be pure because chefs are not liars. I think we end up in this field because we're truly honest about the integrity of food.
If René [Redzepi], David [Chang], Alex [Atala], Daniel Patterson, David Kinch, Daniel Humm, Alain Ducasse, Daniel Boulud, Eric Ripert, if these chefs all had fast food joints then think of what that fast food would be. It would be something amazing. A lot of people who are operating [in fast food], we make them out to be villains, but maybe they don't know. That's why I'm saying chefs can change things because we are the ones that do know when something's not right. We do know when you compromised the integrity of everything for the bottom line. And so having that voice in the mix, that voice of reason and clarity and honesty is important. It seems that voice is missing.
And then also the candy and the snack foods, I've never been one to get on a soap box and preach about utopian realities. We're going to eat this shit anyways. I eat it. I just had a Hershey's Kiss right now. We're going to eat it, but what if we as chefs had influence on it? Then think of all the pastry chefs and think of jelly candies as mignardises after a great French meal. Imagine the flavors that you get in patisseries. Imagine if we had influence across the board in liquor store and gas station candies. It's a long ways away, but I just painted that world for myself. So that's where I see it. I think the first logical step is fast food.
Are you talking to any fast food companies?
No I'm not in actual discussions, but I'm open to talk to anybody. If they want to hit me up, let's go. I'm not concerned about what the chef world thinks of me right now. I'm concerned about feeding my friends out there. And so if my life ends up becoming a kiosk, but it shifts the paradigm of how people eat, then I'm cool with that, man. I don't need to be a chef. I already lived through my whites. But that's what it's about. I'm not in any discussions yet, but I would love to be. I'm trying to get with [Chipotle's] Steve Ells, to see what he's all about. I've never met him. I can see it from the outside looking in, but I'd love to get with him. I got with Jamie Oliver to try to work on stuff.
Oh you did?
Yeah, I did a show for him called Dream School. That's the first step in just doing stuff with Jamie. I'm urgent, but I'm in no rush because I know that this is not an overnight solution. I want to get with people who really believe in it. I want it to be something that goes across all levels.
I've got to say this right because I don't want it to come off as preachy. It's hard to say this stuff, especially to a food audience, people who follow Eater. There's going to be comments saying I'm a piece of shit, I'm a fucking bull-shitter, all that, I already know. It's hard to say this to a food audience because it's hard to fathom that people don't eat well. But if you take yourself out of the food bubble and open your eyes and your heart, you will see that a lot of people don't eat well. And they are forced into corners by corporate America and by bottom-line decisions on how to feed low-income families and working class families. It is not that easy sometimes to walk into a restaurant and drop $85 on a meal. But it's hard for anyone who is able to do that to think, "Why can't you just drop $65? It's only once a week."
Roy Choi at MAD Symposium. [Screenshot: Vimeo]
Like people who ask why don't you buy kale at a farmers' market instead of a candy bar.
Yeah, why not, it's only $1.50 or $3 a pound, why not? It's hard to fathom that you can't. I'm trying to bring that to light.
I want to go back to what you said at the beginning about writing the book to discover the answer to how you came up with the Kogi flavor. Did you get an answer?
Yeah, as I wrote the book, I realized who I was, you know? This was a very fortunate opportunity for me. You don't get an opportunity like this all the time to actually go through your life and unfold it and dissect it all the way through. You just have to live life. You don't have the time to go through and figure it out. So through this process, I figured out who I was and why I cook this way. I tried to confront the food that I grew up with sometimes that I tried to deny. I started to realize that these flavors were a part of me. And they all make up the food that I cook now.
I realized why I can cook for different environments. Because of everything I've gone through growing up. Why can I cook for a Hollywood event without blinking an eye? Because I cooked at the Beverly Hilton and because I moved to Villa Park. Why can I cook for kids on Hollywood Boulevard at night? Because I went through it. Why can I cook for tourists that come and visit LA and are so excited to see the Kogi truck? Because I cooked at country clubs and Embassy Suites hotels. Why did tacos come so naturally? Because I was a low-rider, I was around it and I grew up around it. I thought was just being a teenager and fucking around [but it] was actually developing my palate as well.
Finally, one last question, kind of apropos of nothing, but I'm curious about your experience with the Chef movie. How was that?
Oh yeah, the Chef movie was awesome. I made a friend for life. Jon [Favreau] and I clicked from day one. The way it happened was they did their research, their agents called me, they showed me the project. I thought it was just going to be a consulting gig, in and out: here's how you hold a knife, here's some menu items, whisk it this way.
As soon as I met Jon, I knew that this was more than just a consulting project. I knew that I was meeting another collaborator. I knew that I was a part of something bigger. But I'd never done a movie before. I'd never been in this world before. I'd never been around Scarlett Johansson before. I'd never been around cinematographers for 35 days of shooting. But it felt so natural. I felt like I had a voice in it and Jon allowed my voice to be heard. That was awesome. He trusted me. And I had his back 100 [percent], man. My whole focus was to make it as authentic as possible to our food world experience.
I call it like I was the Don Zimmer to his Joe Torre. I was in his ear scouting every day, telling him, "Move this way" or "We would never say that in the kitchen" or "He should wear his apron that way." Trying to make it so that when it gets onscreen, every cook in the world would look at it and there wouldn't be a question as to whether that was fake or contrived. We really want it to feel real. But he trusted me for that and that's a big deal, man. No matter who I am in my chef's world, that's Jon Favreau man. Fucking Iron Man and Swingers and Elf. Just to all of a sudden give me the keys to his car, that was a lot of trust on his part and I appreciate that. It's going to be a great movie.