Q&A: Chef Roy Choi on culture, craft, and the courage to push past average
Chef Roy Choi has been perfecting the art of the mashup his whole life.
Born in South Korea and raised all over Southern California (moving 12 times during his childhood), Roy experienced all that Los Angeles’s neighborhoods had to offer. That blending of cuisine, culture, and place fueled his signature creation–the Korean BBQ taco–the cult-status street-food mashup that launched a thousand imitations and made Roy’s name synonymous with the food-truck movement.
That little taco of legend came to life when his friend Mark Manguera had the idea for a Mexican street taco filled with Korean BBQ; he gave Roy a call and they started experimenting in their free time. Since they didn’t have enough money for a restaurant space, they served their creation out of an old taco truck and tweeted out their location. Soon there were crazy, snaking lines of hundreds at their regular stops. The Korean taco craze was in full effect.
Combining the Korean flavors Roy was raised with and the dishes he found in his L.A. neighborhoods now seems both genius and inevitable. But nothing about Roy’s success has been inevitable; he’s worked hard, battled addictions, been broke and felt lost, but he’s followed his interests and chased down his dreams to build a life doing work that’s meaningful to him.
There was plenty of searching along the way–all through his teens and twenties, Roy tried things out. He and his family moved around LA as their fortunes changed and then to the OC, where he felt like an outcast; he bounced from gifted classes to military school; he went to college and finished his degree in philosophy; he taught English in Korea; he gave law school a shot. But none of that held his attention for long.
Then, in his mid-twenties, down and out at his parents’ house, a late-night viewing of Emeril Lagasse’s cooking show seemed to be saying directly to him: You can cook, too. You should cook. So he took heed of the modern-day vision and started taking night classes; from there, he transferred to the Culinary Institute of America, then racked up experiences cooking on the line and running kitchens—notably helming the one at the Beverly Hilton—before bootstrapping the Kogi truck.
Now he’s got a fleet of Kogi BBQ trucks, several brick-and-mortar spots in L.A. that run the gamut from smoothie stand to sweet hotel restaurant in a greenhouse, and a revolutionary fast-food concept in the works with a few other famous chefs. We caught up with Roy as he was getting ready to roll out his new restaurant, Loco’l, to ask a few questions about his circuitous path to chefdom.
What does your average day look like?
I don’t go for average. But I wake from dreams and try to figure out this physical life just like all of us do.
What three foods hold the most meaning for you?
Kimchi, rice, tacos.
If you were showing someone how to cook, what’s the first thing you’d get them to master?
Setting up their cooking area and mise en place, washing their hands, being humble.
You moved a lot growing up and your parents’ fortunes changed in a big way in the midst of it all–what carried you through those big changes?
My culture, food, and curiosity to explore. I wasn’t afraid. I faced each challenge like that was just what it is at this moment.
When did you realize that you wanted to cook, and then how did you take the first step?
I grew up around food and in a restaurant so it never dawned on me that this was a thing to do, it just was. Then I found it as a profession in my mid-twenties after years of bad decisions and depression. The first step was going to the bookstore and learning about this craft. Then applying in kitchens and just getting to work.
What were you doing when you were age…
11: Latchkey kid, roaming streets, video games, eating candy, studying at night.
18: Graduating high school; left town to figure things out. Went to college later.
23 Gambling and partying in K-town.
29: Got married and started a new life as a sous chef in a resort town.
36: Living in Sacramento as a corporate chef for Embassy Suites hotels, a part of the Hilton company, and about to transition to the biggest job of my life at the flagship property, The Beverly Hilton, as chef de cuisine.
You’ve had huge success, but did you ever feel uncertainty or self-doubt along the way? How do you push through it?
Always unsure, but that feeling is the strength to achieve as well. They are cousins. The doubt and the courage. My trick is to say, “fuck all y’all” and just do it.
What’s your advice to students who want to work in food or open their own restaurants?
Remember it’s a life-long craft. There are many more ways to make money, and more of it. Cooking is not a craft to get into for money. The money may come or it may not. But you must get into it for the craft and the culture. It’s a whole world filled with like-minded souls, if you find us.