Riding Shotgun With Food Truck King Roy Choi

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

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.

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