Riding Shotgun With Food Truck King Roy Choi

The chef from the L.A. streets rolls up to Hollywood and Madison Avenue

It’s midmorning at the Venice Beach Pier in Los Angeles, and we are desperately in search of Roy Choi.

A photographer, his crew and I have arrived at the designated meeting place, on time, but Choi—one of the hottest figures in the food world right now, well on his way to becoming a megabrand that started, improbably, with a beat-up taco truck on the streets of this mother of a city—is nowhere in sight among the flock of homeless people, fishermen and surfers making their way on another ridiculously picturesque Southern California day.

We were supposed to meet right here, weren’t we? At the top of the hour? It’s now 20 past. Are we in the wrong place? Oh, Jesus.

We’ve arranged for a ride-along with the hipster god of the L.A. food scene that will have us spending the day skipping across town and popping by his various ventures—including the Kogi BBQ truck that virtually started the food-truck craze and made him a sensation (on this day, the truck, one of four in Choi’s fleet, is parked outside the National Public Radio studios in Culver City). We are getting anxious about keeping on schedule.

“Could he be down at the end?” someone wonders. So, we hightail it out toward the yawning Pacific, and sure enough, there, at the very tip of the pier, he appears, decked out in his signature Stussy T-shirt and knitted cap, sitting and gazing at that awesome blue vista as if deep in meditation (maybe he is?). A homeless man lies on the bench beside him. We start snapping pictures, exchanging penitent hellos.

We may be twitchy, but Choi is not.

“It was a test—you failed!” he jokes, greeting us with an easy smile that at once resets the mood.

In more ways than one, Roy Choi is a hard man to pin down. He’s a classically trained chef with a Culinary Institute of America pedigree who early on worked under Eric Ripert at New York’s Le Bernardin, one of the top restaurants in the world, and who would go on to run kitchens for corporate giants like Hilton Hotels and The Cheesecake Factory, but who would find fame (and salvation) six years ago when he started, with partner Mark Manguera, selling $3 tacos out of a truck on L.A. street corners and, with the aid of Twitter, became massive. Like most people of accomplishment, Choi is a curious mashup of contradictions. And like most people, he can tell his own story better than anybody else, which he does to superb effect in his book, L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food, published last fall under chef Anthony Bourdain’s imprint at HarperCollins’ Ecco Press and co-written by L.A. Weekly senior food writer Tien Nguyen and Natasha Phan, who heads business development and communications for Choi’s restaurants.

 The book is itself a heady concoction: part balls-out biography, part racy cookbook (for one of his recipes, he advises: “Get topless women in hairnets to pack the sauce into small pouches in a house with blacked-out windows like in New Jack City”), part anthropological guide (a chapter dubbed “Cultural Shit” features handy tips like “taste with fingers” and “eat slow; drop the deuce fast”) and part inspirational tract (call it “The Zen of Roy”). In the book, the fascinating journey of the 44-year-old is documented in page-turning detail—from son of Korean immigrants who were, among other things, restaurant owners and jewelry dealers in L.A. and Orange County to smart-ass street hood to down-and-out addict to Wall Street wannabe to Gastronomy 101 to the whirring kitchens of Beverly Hills to messiah of the food truck craze and, now, A-list chef, Hollywood player, advertising pitchman and emergent consumer brand. In its pages, and even more so in person, one finds in Choi a personality who is at once high-end and low-end, flawed and at the top of his game, relentless and chill, coarse and refined—and absolutely, unapologetically authentic.

Suddenly we are riding shotgun with the man whose handle on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram is RidingShotgunLA. We’re packed in his Honda Element, rolling along Washington Boulevard across the wind-scorched streets of Venice Beach where his food is served up at the restaurants A-Frame and Sunny Spot and the nightspot Alibi Room. Choi is talking about his image, and being misunderstood.

Roy Choi: Yeah, I’m straight hip-hop, I’m straight street, I’m tatted. I represent all-Latino kitchens. You know, I sling tacos on the street … but I’m also a businessman, and I’m also a person who cares deeply about everything around me. I’m a family man, you know. [He is married, and they have a daughter.] I’m a punctual guy who shows up and honors his responsibilities and his loyalties. It’s just, this is who I am. Why do you—“you” rhetorically—equate the street with something that’s rough around the edges, with something that is gangsta or abrasive and loud? I always try to challenge people who say, “Oh, you’re street,” with, “Well, you know what? The streets are also mothers, right? That’s the streets. Tamales, pupusas, tacos, all the ladies in the house working, working at the factories, you know, living in the homes, teaching, taking their kids to school. That’s the streets, man.” … In a lazy way, we always refer to the streets as this one thing, and I’m here to shatter that. That’s what I feel I’m put on this planet for. I’m finding ways to show people the beauties of the street. The taco truck was one step in that. Before Kogi, everyone was calling taco trucks roach coaches. Everybody was pointing at food trucks and saying, “That is dirty—how could you eat off that?” “You’re going to get sick off that.” “How could they feed their kids that?” “Don’t go near that.” After Kogi and the revolution, now there are gourmet food trucks that park at your son’s and daughter’s birthday party.

Adweek: The funny thing is, when people talk about the streets, I mean, Rodeo Drive is a street, too. And Sunset Boulevard.

Choi: And Kogi parks on all of them, you know?

We swing by Kogi, at NPR. Choi bounds up to the service window and the crew inside greets him like he’s their dad (in fact, his nickname is “Papi”). Patrons queuing up for lunch treat him like some kind of rock ’n’ roll god. He poses for pictures before taking charge of ordering up some grub for our group, a little bit of everything—short rib sliders, spicy pork tacos, kimchi quesadilla. To try to describe Kogi via the written word is an exercise in pointlessness; there is nothing else quite like this symphonic blending of flavors, textures, aromas, and it must be experienced to be appreciated—and for the cult of Roy Choi to be fully understood. We insist on paying, but he refuses our money. “Please,” he says, “let me feed you—unless you can’t, you know, for ethical reasons.” (We slip the cash in the tip jar instead.) While some, including the New York Post and assorted food blogs, have proclaimed the food truck trend dead due, in part, to the growing challenge in many cities of securing permits, Choi maintains that “the movement is strong.” (In fact, national chains from Taco Bell to Applebee’s have jumped on the wave by commissioning their own trucks.) Says Choi: “Maybe they’re dead in New York because y’all fuckin’ have too many fuckin’ rules over there.”

Bourdain: In a world filled with snark and irony where people are afraid to be sincere about things, Roy is the real deal. … The street thing is not an attitude; it’s that his loyalties lie in that direction, and it’s part of his personality. He is a very gentle soul—a hell of a lot closer to the Dalai Lama than [Hell’s Angels founder] Sonny Barger. There’s something mesmerizing about him. We did an event at the Pantages Theatre in L.A., and the love in that room was palpable. It felt like a revival meeting.

On the subject of the streets, another one Choi is getting to know well is Madison Avenue—especially since inking with Creative Artists Agency, whose roster of food talent also includes Gordon Ramsay, Curtis Stone, Tyler Florence and Joe Bastianich. In March, he did a cool demo for Google Glass, shot by commercial and music video director Jason Goldwatch, in which he used the device and the app Allthecooks to assemble a St. Patrick’s Day burrito. Also this spring, he and other chefs, including Michael Voltaggio, the Season 6 champion of Bravo’s Top Chef, were enlisted for Mondelez’s Oreo “Snack Hack” promotion, in which America’s favorite cookie was appropriated for everything from a cocktail to chicken tenders. In another brand collaboration, Choi curated a list of recipes for Hormel’s Spam, of all things, including a kimchi dish and quesadilla featuring the iconic canned-meat product.

Choi: I’m a consumer just like anyone else. I love cookies and am a big fan of Oreo, which is why I did the campaign. I grew up on Spam, so that’s why I was part of that campaign. They were just these small campaigns to help spread the word of, like, my love for these products. And with Google Glass, it was actually everything I wanted it to be because I worked with a director I really respected. He came to me with the concept and the idea, and then Google gave him pretty much the freedom to create—you know, to hit the touch points but to allow me to just be myself and speak to the audience.

Next, we’re off to Sunny Spot in Venice Beach, a Caribbean joint whose menu Choi commandeered in 2011. While we wait for the photo crew to set up, we dive into still more flavor-socked dishes: chicken with spicy jerk sauce and grilled pineapple, roasted lamb with chili vinaigrette and pickled mango. We are also tossing back something delightfully limb-numbing called a Sunny Rum Punch, made from not only Jamaican rum but demerara, lime-pineapple juice and Angostura bitters. Choi muses on the elite culinary circle he’s become a part of.

Adweek: You have a history with some pretty big names in the food world: Bourdain, Ripert, Emeril Lagasse, Nobu Matsuhisa. You have gotten to know David Chang and Jamie Oliver and Alain Ducasse. Do you feel like you have become part of that club?

Choi: I don’t know if I’m part of the club, but I’m definitely allowed in the party—and I definitely don’t gotta pay to get into the party. But I don’t know if I’m necessarily part of the club. Food & Wine and Bon Appétit have been great from day one, but the James Beard Awards, Michelin, San Pellegrino, all those things, they don’t really acknowledge what I do. … I hate clubs anyway [laughs].

A major acknowledgement did come his way in 2010 (the same year he opened his first sit-down eatery, Chego, in L.A.’s Chinatown) when Food & Wine magazine named Choi one of its Best New Chefs and put him on its cover—impressive real estate for a self-described taco slinger. Since then, he’s been the subject of dozens of profiles, and last year The Hollywood Reporter (which, like Adweek, is owned by affiliates of Guggenheim Partners) called him one of the 20 Most Influential Chefs in Hollywood. But four years ago, Choi was an unconventional pick, as Dana Cowin, the editor in chief, recalls.

Cowin: I remember the conversations we had. People loved his food; he was doing something really different and new. But up to that point, most of the people we selected for Best New Chefs had brick-and-mortar restaurants and were operating at the higher end, like Thomas Keller of French Laundry, for example. The decision to make Roy Best New Chef was pretty dramatic, and we were really excited about that. We felt like there was a change happening in the land, and Roy was right at the head of the change.

Inevitably, Choi is becoming something of a media star, appearing on programs like Top Chef, The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Bourdain’s CNN series Parts Unknown. Most recently, Hollywood has come calling, with Choi’s story in part inspiring the movie Chef, which premiered at this year's SXSW and won the Heineken-sponsored Narrative Award at the Tribeca Film Festival. It was written and directed by Jon Favreau, who also stars as the down-on-his-luck, Choi-esque dude who finds redemption in a food truck. (Choi was a consultant on the film.) Choi now counts Favreau and celebs like Snoop Dogg as friends. (Speaking about the kind of ads he could see himself in, Choi imagines selling the Cadillac Escalade with Snoop.)

Favreau: Roy represents an accurate depiction of what America is now. He is the incarnation of multiculturalism. He has a foot in every world, he’s authentic to L.A., and he understands it, not just through the perspective of his own culture, but the Mexican culture. He’s existed in a lot of different social strata. But most importantly, he has a gentleness and a passion that are very infectious. He’s had dark days but emerged victorious without becoming bitter. I think at the core he’s a storyteller; that’s why I relate to him and have grown so fond of him. He tells a story with food, he’s an author, he helped with the film, and his career is a story—he sees each endeavor as another chapter.

Adweek: How much of that world have you been sucked up into, the whole Hollywood thing?

Choi: To say I am getting “sucked up by Hollywood,” it makes no sense to me because I fit in anywhere, man. You know, I am who I am, whether I’m in Hollywood or I’m in Koreatown. I don’t know; I just morph into the situation. … I got nothing to gain or nothing to lose by trying to be a part of someone else’s world. I bring my own world to Hollywood … so it’s more like, will Hollywood get sucked up by me?

After negotiating the criminal afternoon rush-hour traffic that is a curse on this city, we arrive in bustling Koreatown. This is Choi’s turf, and far removed from the L.A. most see. (“The gritty heart of what used to be known as Wilshire Center is the anti-Beverly Hills, an unfashionable stretch of Wilshire Boulevard now better known as Koreatown … one block away from where Robert Kennedy was assassinated in the ’60s at the Ambassador Hotel,” as the Orange County Register describes it.) But like so many other parts of L.A., and so many parts of so many other American cities, “K-Town,” as Choi calls it, is changing fast. At the center of that gentrification is the recent transformation of an old Radisson into the sleek The Line Hotel, operated by The Sydell Group (in which Ron Burkle’s Yucaipa is an investor), which runs New York’s NoMad. Here, Choi has already opened Pot (which the Los Angeles Times selected as one of this year’s best restaurants), as well as the Pot Lobby Bar and the patisserie CaFe. Another restaurant, the fruits-and-veggies-focused Commissary, is set to open shop in the coming weeks.

The Line Hotel and all the excitement and press that have greeted it are a long, long way from Choi’s darkest days, as detailed in L.A. Son, a time during which Choi would stumble upon a life preserver and entrée to a whole new life by way of the unlikeliest of characters. Staring at the television one “half-dead, half-drunk” morning, Choi writes, he became entranced by Emeril Lagasse. “His eyes were looking straight at me like fucking Mona Lisa’s. He was talking to me. And he was shoving oregano and basil under my nose. For one long second, I felt the herbs tickling my nose; I smelled the stew bubbling in the pot. It was exhilarating. Captivating. And bam, just like that, I knew. This was my destiny.” The two would end up appearing together on Top Chef and become friends.

Lagasse: I was completely blown away by the intensity of that story and how he told the story. He’s pushing the envelope, trying to make a difference in what he believes in and his culture, and is a friggin’ remarkable story. His food is real, and real solid, with a lot of spiritual and cultural influences. He’s really pounding the pavement and trying to do things right.

Doing things right includes Choi’s well-documented evangelism about the relationship between poor people and poor diet, and the uncomfortable fact that chefs and restaurateurs can be a pretty elite bunch, serving the privileged as regular working people are left with the scraps. (A speech on the subject at last year’s MAD food symposium in Copenhagen got a lot of ink and was called “gutsy” by the food blog Eater.) One of Choi’s passion projects is 3 Worlds Cafe in South Central, which was started by high school students looking for healthier food choices in the largely minority part of town.

He may have been the inspiration Choi was primed for, but is the superbrand that is Emeril Inc.—with his name and face affixed to a dozen restaurants as well as cookware, baking pans, cookbooks, cutlery, pasta, spices, sauces, even small appliances—something Choi could ever become? Is that a model he even seeks to emulate?

Bourdain: He’s as big as he wants to be … but he’s not going to be greedy, that’s for sure. You’re not going to see him on QVC peddling cheap cookware, this kind of megamerchandising brand that we have grown so accustomed to. … He’ll be as big and as famous and as powerful a figure as he wants to be, but he will never do anything that will cause him to look in the mirror the next day and feel sad about it.

Choi: I’ve been approached with every offer under the sun. But then it gets to the point of, like, OK, let’s take it to Las Vegas, let’s take it to New York. And what happens is … the next round of discussions never went the right way. Maybe the stars just weren’t aligned. But I am still motivated to make it happen. Yes, there’s a business part of it, but more than business, if you see anything I’m doing right now, it’s about spreading the love. I want college kids in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Athens, Ga., and Knoxville, Tenn., and at NYU and in Seattle and Washington, D.C., to experience a Kogi taco. I just know that they’re going to fucking love it, you know?

A few of Choi’s associates are now milling around the lobby of the hotel, waiting for our crew to finally skedaddle so they can continue putting finishing touches on the top-secret Commissary—sorry, no press allowed. It’s now the dinner hour, and the man at the center of this whirl, even after what has turned out to be a very long day, is still going nonstop, still smiling and still laying out for us, even as he’s whisked away, all his big dreams for K-Town and beyond.

Pictured above: Choi’s evolving palate
Clockwise, from top: Sunny Spot’s Dry Harbour cocktail, skirt steak sandwich and what a jerk wings with roasted beet salad; P
ot’s spicy crab dish Redondo Beach; and Kogi’s short rib sliders and pork Blackjack Quesadilla.