On Tuesday, Korean BBQ king and fierce Los Angeleno patriot Roy Choi unveiled a sneak peek of his new show Street Food, which will air on CNN's digital platforms beginning October 13th. Choi sat down alongside Anthony Bourdain, who was promoting the highly anticipated fourth season of his own show Parts Unknown, at Choi's restaurant Pot in the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles. They talked about goals, fears, and joys of creating media for a worldwide audience.
In discussing his show, Choi made it clear that he intends to cover more than just food. Food will often take a backseat to showcasing the socio-cultural fabric of LA. "Street Food became something very abstract for us," Choi said. "Not just the food you eat but also the streets, street knowledge, street culture, the food for your soul. I didn't feel like I had to put in a cooking aspect to each show. Like in the Dilated episode [LA hip-hop group Dilated Peoples] — there's no food! But it just feels so right for the episode."
Much has been made of Choi being a Bourdain "protege" of sorts but their relationship seems to be more as coevals than teacher-student. "I would never presume to tell Roy to do anything," Bourdain demurred, when asked about what advice he gave Choi. And indeed, their reputations for being culinary enfant terribles may be the only thing their respective shows have in common. Bourdain remains the droll, master storyteller (Regarding an upcoming episode where he goes to Western Massachusetts: "It's a heroin episode.") but Choi was far more introspective, almost shy, in speaking about his show and his deep love for the city on which it focuses. "It's my love letter to LA. I didn't know what the show was going to be, but I knew I'd been building toward it my whole life."
"It's my love letter to LA. I didn't know what the show was going to be, but I knew I'd been building toward it my whole life." — Roy Choi
While Bourdain has spent his television career traveling to every fathomable corner of the globe (the upcoming season of his show will feature a fascinating-sounding Iran episode, which Bourdain says "will be a provocative, deeply confusing show."), Choi has stayed put, celebrating and reveling in the city he's called home since emigrating from South Korea as a 2-year-old. "I'm living it, I'm here, a lot of guests are people I actually hang out with," Choi said. "We're able to talk about things and be together in a way that really shows who we are. Instead of me just coming in and not knowing anything... I was able to show and get to a personal side of all my guests."
Choi's guests for this eight-episode season will include Bourdain, Jon Favreau, LA hip-hop collective Dilated Peoples, and Beastie Boys' Mike D. Think the Beastie Boys are pure New York City and not LA? That might be true, but the Beasties' love affair with LA is long and well-documented. Choi says they're "The Beatles of our generation."
Choi hopes to show audiences a different side of LA than what they might expect. "We're constantly changing," he said. "We're a deep culture; a people and a city that run on our own clock, our own rhythm. A lot of what we do here influences culture, food, music, and art from around the world. People talk about ‘Hollywood' but underneath the marquee of the stereotype, there's actually creative culture."
"I'm used to having five minutes, and having to step up, and produce." — Roy Choi
All eight "Street Food" episodes will be released simultaneously, Netflix-style, though you should be able to get through all of them and additional bonus footage ("B-sides," Choi calls them) in under an hour. That's right — each episode of "Street Food" clocks in at a svelte five minutes. Choi is cut from a different cloth than any host CNN has ever employed, and they presumably need to see if audiences connect with Choi's love of lowriders, skate culture, and underground hip-hop before committing to more. Does Choi want more? Of course he does. But he's grateful for the chance. "I look at it like the taco, in a way. I have five minutes. When I started Kogi, I had one taco." He continued: "As an immigrant, I'm used to shit like this, I guess is what I'm trying to say. I'm used to not having an hour. I'm used to having five minutes, and having to step up, and produce ... I've got five minutes a lot of people don't have; let's make it the best we can."
So what exactly should viewers expect from Choi's show? Anything and everything, some of which will relate to food but most of which will tackle the simple task of encapsulating the entirety of the Los Angeles experience. And if that involves taking Mike D for vegan food or getting a makeover from YouTube phenom Michelle Phan, so much the better. Choi says that Phan just taught him how to take selfies on a cellphone (this was documented in a Men's Journal article that Choi just destroyed on his Twitter feed). I slid my phone across the table and asked him to show me what he learned. He smiled, put on his camouflage ballcap, flipped it backwards, and graciously obliged.
All eight episodes of Roy Choi's Street Food will be available on cnn.com beginning October 13th. Season four of Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown premieres September 28th.
—Lucas Kwan Peterson