The gourmet food truck craze was hot-wired back in 2008 by a then out-of-work chef from Los Angeles with big appetites. Not just for food, but for more unhealthy fare as well — drugs, booze, gambling.
But Roy Choi transformed the L.A. food world with his fleet of Kogi Korean barbeque taco trucks. He writes about his tumultuous road trip to food celebrity in a new book "LA Son: My Life, My City, My Food."
Choi is not one of those celebrity chefs who dole out recipes that try to put a clever spin on tired old Thanksgiving staples.
“I’m not the greatest Thanksgiving guest in the world, man,” says Choi.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1970, Choi moved to the states with his parents when he was two.
“Even from a young age I always questioned the essence of the holiday itself; the pilgrims feeding the Native Americans,” says Choi. “And it’s time to maybe look at the fallacy of Thanksgiving itself and stop coating it with buttercream frosting and gorging. That would be a Thanksgiving I would throw, you know,” he laughs.
Choi settles down at a picnic table in the atrium of a bustling two-story strip mall in L.A.’s Chinatown, steps away from the entrance of his first brick-and-mortar eatery, a rice bowl restaurant called Chego.
“Yeah, it’s the food I call refrigerator food because it’s the food that a lot of Asian-American kids grew up [on] when you open the refrigerator,” explains Choi.
“All that weird stuff and crazy stuff you have inside your refrigerator, we just kind of mashed it all and put it together and that’s Chego; fermented pickles, garlic paste, fish heads, fish guts, pig intestines.”
Chego evolved from the now-legendary herd of Kogi taco trucks that Choi and a couple friends rolled onto the streets of L.A. about 5 years ago, sparking a gourmet food truck revolution.
Chef Roy Choi
“Our only agenda was to cook Korean barbeque tacos, make it as delicious as possible, sell it for as cheap as possible and park outside the clubs,” says Choi.
The Kogi menu is based on a fusion of simple, ethnically diverse ingredients that Choi grew up eating at home and on the streets. Like super thinly sliced Korean barbeque, jammed into a corn tortilla and topped with Korean and Mexican spices.
“When we put the taco together, I got the flavors and we all ate it, and we just looked at each other and we’re like, 'Whoa! There’s something going on here,'” says Choi. “It was an expression of Los Angeles at the time of 2008. In its identity, its culture, its attitude and its flavor. Everything was just straight L.A.”
As Choi talks, a TV news crew wraps up a shoot outside Chego. There’s a big book signing across town tonight, plenty more interviews and keeping tabs of the business: four Kogi trucks, three restaurants and one more on the way. If there’s pressure, Choi doesn’t show it. It wasn’t always that way.
In his book "L.A. Son," which is more memoir than cookbook, he writes of loving yet sometimes abusive parents. His parents were ambitious and driven. They opened a liquor store, then a Korean restaurant and eventually made a killing in the jewelry business. The Chois earned enough money to move out of L.A. and into an upscale neighborhood in Orange County.
Their rebellious son wasn’t having it. Choi drifted in and out of school, rolled with gangbangers, smoked crack cocaine, drank too much and was eventually crushed by gambling debts.
“I don’t know about restraints. So it doesn’t matter if it was milkshakes, alcohol, gambling, drugs or feeding people. Right now I’m addicted to feeding people.”
Outside Skylight bookstore in L.A.’s Los Feliz neighborhood where Choi is giving a reading, a long line of people sidle up to a big white Kogi truck to munch on Kogi Dogs, Spicy Pork Tacos and Kimchee Quesadillas.
“It’s like two families coming together. It’s a potluck,” says Rose Garcia.
The grad student from Los Angeles says Kogi cuisine reflects the diverse neighborhoods she grew up in, where you might see Latino families serve Korean barbeque at wedding parties and quinceaneras.
“You know, you go to Koreatown and you’re gonna stop at the Ralph’s, but at the same time we’re going to go over to the Korean market to get some of the kimchee to put on our rice,” Garcia says, clutching a signed copy of "L.A. Son."
“It’s very normalized and it transitions very smoothly into our everyday life and to our palates because we breathe it already, so it’s not that shocking.”
Inside the packed bookstore, Choi speaks remarkably little about food. Instead he recounts a lot of the rougher days, the ones that eventually led to his training at the Culinary Institute of America, chef jobs at upscale resorts and hotels and eventually back out onto the street with gourmet food trucks.
The way Choi sees it, Kogi is like the wild child or grandchild of the original army of L.A. food trucks that plied Los Angeles with sandwiches, tacos and dim sum. They were driven by people like his parents, new immigrants from Korea, China, Mexico, El Salvador, Iran and on and on.
His generation just mixed up the menu, changed the signage and helped strip away the stigma of what where once dismissed as “roach coaches.”
“So we’ve taken something that was improperly labeled, and let it breathe and people saw the beauty in it,” he tells the crowd.
“So for me as a bridge to that I’m very proud of that and I’ll always represent it.”
Choi’s latest venture is Pot, a yet-to-be-opened Korean restaurant modeled on the one his parents used to run in Anaheim when he was a kid, and where he got his first taste of the restaurant business.