“Look at these dents,” Roy Choi says, waving his hand toward a Kogi taco truck that’s pulled up alongside a stretch of Olympic Boulevard in West Los Angeles that’s unremarkably populated with huge, graphite office buildings and a Bed, Bath & Beyond. The truck looks like it’s been through a war–its sides are plastered with grease stains and fading surf stickers, and its fender has mashed up against few too many curbs.
“These things are like dune buggies,” Choi says, affectionately.
The Kogi truck, of course, is what put Choi on the map as one of America’s most original chefs, both in terms of cuisine and personality. A Korean native who grew up rebelling against the peroxide-blonde surf culture of Orange County; a Culinary Institute of America-trained former street thug who goes by “Papi,” Choi is a challenger of traditions, including–or especially–his own.
Kogi’s specialty, in case you haven’t had the pleasure: heavenly marinated Korean barbecue slung onto tacos and tossed with the kind of decadent, mouth-watering sauces you’d expect at Le Bernadin (where Choi got his big break when he was a young hotshot at the CIA). Today the whole idea sounds par for the course; food trucks are as much a part of our culture as Starbucks. But back in 2008 when Choi and his team were rolling through the streets of Los Angeles like a ghost train, sending out Twitter alerts to a slowly growing number of disciples, he was an anomaly. The only other food trucks on the street were Mexican taco and catering trucks that served day laborers and club kids desperate for a bite of anything at 2 a.m. The revolution–his revolution–was just getting started.
Today, Kogi is but one piece of Choi’s sprawling empire. There are restaurants (Chego, A-Frame), a cookbook slash memoir, L.A. Son; a hotel, The Line, that Choi designed and filled with his restaurants; and a new CNN.com series called Street Food, in which Choi channels his mentor-pal Anthony Bourdain and slurps ramen with guests like Michelle Phan and Jon Favreau.
Choi seems to have reached that first-name-only celebrity chef level in which it seems only natural for him to be seated next to Emeril, Jacques, Alain, and the rest of the elite foodie gang on Top Chef. Yet as we sit on the curb and dig into a couple of Blackjack Quesadillas from the truck (oozing concoctions of spicy pork, onions, cilantro, salsa verde, and sesame seeds), Choi, who’s dressed in a trademark black Stüssy T-shirt and low-slung jeans, is still clearly the restless, tortured soul who at 24, “had begged, borrowed, stolen, and lost everything,” as he writes in L.A. Son. When I use the word “established” to describe where he is in his career, he shakes his head and frowns with displeasure.
“We’ve never been established. We’re still not established. We’re Kogi, straight up,” he says. “We’re the same people we were four years ago. Still serving that Blackjack, doing things from the hip. Working every day. You know, trying to give the best food for the least price. Really not turning a profit.”
“We turn a different kind of profit. We turn a very spiritual and human profit.”
For the rest of our lunch break, Choi talks about the challenges of being an artist who suddenly has to map out financial goals and answer to number-crunching investors. He also takes me through his post-Kogi story–the evolution of a food-truck guy to culinary mogul. He may be uneasy about that designation, but looking around at all the office workers bent over their greasy paper cartons, scooping up chunks of beef with their bare fingers, totally lost in their lunchtime reverie, there’s no question that this guy is a king.
Kogi didn’t take off overnight. After Choi’s friend and Kogi partner (eight people run the company) Mark Manguera came up with the idea of mashing up Korean BBQ and Mexican tacos, the Kogi truck began heaving through the streets of L.A. It was slow going at first, more a curiosity than anything else. But then one night in December of 2008, the truck pulled up outside the UCLA dorms during finals.
“We were out on the streets,” Choi says. “Alice (Shin) was in Brooklyn doing her thing. She’s a member of Kogi. She did our blogs. She was running our Twitter at the time. She still is. The rest of us were out here. We only had one smartphone at the time, so we were sharing that. And we were just driving from spot to spot. We didn’t know anyone was listening to us out there; we were just posting stuff on Twitter. We were going to K-Town, Hollywood. We were going to the clubs, going to the colleges. Slowly, little by little, things started to build.
“Then in December, it all just burst after UCLA. We went up to the dorms, and all the kids came out. That’s when Twitter was just becoming popular. It was at night. They were studying. We went to the co-op housing where they were all studying, it was finals. Everyone was around. Word got out, I think there were fliers all over campus about this mysterious taco truck that served Korean barbecue for $2 and it’s coming here. There were a thousand kids out there. It kind of created this kind of urban myth and groundswell. Then we started going out to Rosemead and Venice. That was the turning point.”
As Kogi became a phenomenon, Choi started branching out into restaurants. He opened a pop-up taco shop in Alibi Room, a hipster bar in Culver City, and his own restaurant, Chego, a communal, elbow-to-elbow space in an old strip mall whose specialty is rice bowls served Choi-style (toppings like Spam, butter-fried kimchi, and baby bok choi). But Choi says that his next restaurant, A-Frame, is the project that most defined him as a restauranteur and artist at that point.
“A-Frame was a real, pivotal moment because that’s where I really got to channel a lot of emotions. Chego was the start of it, for sure. I was really starting to, I don’t know, write mini short stories with these restaurants. A-Frame became an expression of creating a place where everyone would feel comfortable, even if you were made to feel uncomfortable in restaurants before. It’s a place where I explored my own insecurities as far as being mistreated in restaurants or being given the worst table. Or going with my family and, you know, you’ll never know this unless you’ve been on the receiving end of it, but there were times where we’d go to a restaurant with like six family members who are all from Korea and get treated like we were aliens because we weren’t speaking English at the table. So A-Frame was a big part of being able to express things through an actual business.
“It’s in an old IHOP. I’m very in touch with the building and the architecture and the neighborhood. I walked in the building and it was crazy. It was just like, the building was talking to me. And instead of being scared or upside down about what I should do, I knew exactly what to do. It was like, seats are going to go there. It’s going to be communal, they’re gonna eat beer-fried chicken. They’re gonna eat with their hands. And it all started coming together. My business partner, Dave Reiss, let me do the creative stuff and he worried about getting it done. He’d be like, ‘Tell me, Roy, what do you need? You need an oven here? Sure, here you go. You want tables there? Good. What do you want it to look like?
“That was really great for me to have a business partner on that scale, on that level, where I didn’t have to worry about any of the minutiae. I just had to show up and provide a concept and an idea and cook. So A-Frame is a big part of me. Kogi is a band. I’d say A-Frame was my first solo album. It was a chance for me to express a lot and explore a lot that didn’t have to do with Kogi.”
By 2012, Choi was a mini corporation. He was a creative consultant on another restaurant, Sunny Spot, in Venice; a book was in the works; and he was still doing time on the Kogi trucks, where even today he checks in on service, tastes the food, and makes sure the unfussy, street vibe is intact. But as his portfolio grew, he started to feel like it was getting away from him, or at least that his brilliance in the kitchen didn’t totally translate to running a business.
“I was a salary man for so many years. I never had to worry about the ins and outs of business or entrepreneurship or funding. I just had to show up and do my job. And then all of a sudden I was having to be responsible for my own business. That happened through A-Frame, Kogi, Chego. I was still really raw and protected because I had partners who were handling that.
“I don’t think I really–I still haven’t built a full framework for my own business. It’s all splintered off into–I’ve set up different companies, but they’ve been very creative. Like the book became a company but it’s not really a company. I opened a consulting company, but it’s not like I have an umbrella or a flagship yet. So I’m still kind of all over the place, which is fun, but for a lot of people reading this, they’ll think I’m squandering a lot away. There are so many opportunities being missed. I’m not as rich as I should be or could be. But I don’t know. I’m happy. And to me, it’s give and take sometimes. And I’m trying to figure out the other side of the give and take.
“All I know is that this is how I’m doing it. It’s not as big as it could be, but I’m really happy. And my creative energy is really strong and pure. So maybe I could have figured things out a little better and had things more organized, had a COO, gone to board meetings and all those things. But I don’t know if I would be so happy. And it might not work, either.”
When CNN approached Choi about a digital series, he jumped. Not just because he admires another CNN chef-host, Anthony Bourdain, but because the digital platform meant “you can say whatever the fuck you want to say, there’s no format other than what you want to do.” Choi also had the freedom to define what the show would be about. Characteristically, he took the challenge to heart and came up with something uniquely counterintuitive.
“I thought, there are so many cooking shows out there. What if we just took the words ‘Street Food’ and made it a little more abstract? What if it related more to street knowledge, street politics, the streets themselves, the food? What if it wasn’t just the cooking? What if it was the food that fueled the culture and the art? All of these things are intertwined, just like life is intertwined. So what if we were eating and cooking, but I’m eating and cooking with Jon Favreau who’s talking about editing and about L.A., so it’s not just about showing you how I cook, it’s about how food is a part of it all.
“I really wanted it to feel like Los Angeles. Not just one part of L.A. So that’s why there’s a Hollywood director, that’s why we had to figure out who those 8 or 10 guests were gonna be. Because it could have been weighted toward all hip-hop. It could have been weighted toward all art. Or all chefs. But I wanted it to not discriminate or stereotype the city. I wanted it to flow within the city.
“Most importantly, I don’t know if you notice through Kogi, but we don’t think our audience is not smart enough to get it. Because we’re a street truck, we believe that people can read between the lines, you know what I’m saying? So I wanted this show to be a little bit of that. Where I knew the audience would get it. They would get that it’s called Street Food, It’s on CNN. But is it a cooking show? Who gives a fuck because it’s great. That was kind of our goal.”