Roy Choi is Revolutionizing Street FoodMeet the L.A. chef who reinvented street food on his mission to deliver high-quality fare to underserved communities.
It’s an oft-told story of his, but it’s still a good one. Roy Choi in his early 20s—on a couch at the tail end of a years-long gambling addiction—stares at the TV with Emeril Lagasse’s cooking show on. All of a sudden, the TV chef steps out of the screen and speaks to him directly, and Choi decides—then and there— to spend the rest of his life cooking for people. “I had an out-of-body experience with him … that was my wake-up call—literally,” he says. “Luckily I heard it.” If you’ve ever lined up to taste Choi’s delicious blend of Mexican and Korean cuisine, you know that you are, in fact, the lucky one. Choi’s “Kogi” food trucks started a global revolution in connecting chefs with communities.
THE RED BULLETIN: Why did you start your Kogi truck in 2009?
ROY CHOI: For 10 years I’d separated my work life and my private life. What Kogi did was bring it all together. So I could be myself and have a connection to the people eating the food. All of those things came together and it was really special. The early days of Kogi were just … I can only imagine it as a young punk band playing small arenas. We shared something those first six months of Kogi, between the streets, the people and ourselves. All of that changed me completely.
In what way?
Kogi opened me up to freedom. I could live on the streets, cooking tacos for forever, because I had the relationship with the people on the streets, the food was delicious and I had my team with me. All this stuff that we build up in life, all detached and shed away. Everything from then on has been like, “I will do what I want to do and I’ll do it for the reasons
I want to do it.” And I’ll do it for my gut and what the universe is telling me to do. I don’t need to be rich, I don’t need to be a businessman, I don’t need to win awards. Whatever happens will happen. As long as I stay true to this very lucky thing that came across in my life.
I want to do it.”
So what guided the decision to open up LocoL, a healthy, inexpensive fast- food joint, in low-income neighborhoods?
If we as chefs have the power to lure investors that want to invest in our restaurant, we should make that a twofold investment. We build the sexy restaurant that everyone wants, that wins the awards. But in order to build that restaurant you also have to invest in a restaurant that feeds the neighborhood.
Sounds smart—why haven’t more chefs done it? There are economics behind things but it takes people wanting to do it. Maybe people don’t even know that they want to do it.