Daily Blender Exclusive: Chef Roy Choi

 

The food scene in Los Angeles is a bit overwhelming. On a recent visit, I had a huge list of recommended and researched restaurants and didn’t even know where to start. Early into the trip, my traveling companion (a very knowledgeable taco connoisseur), our hosts and I were all trudging through the rain near Abbot Kinney Boulevard and as we were waiting in line at a restaurant, the Taco Connoisseur shouted, “Look! Kogi!”. An unscheduled stop, the pure act of coincidence harmonizing with our grumbling stomachs and the time-crawling fourty-five minute restaurant wait. Digging in to our Kogi findings, the tacos proved to be legendary. The juicy marinated meats and crisp slaw were heaped on toasted corn tortillas and were exactly as impressive as I had hoped. While we were eating, the rain stopped, and the clouds even slid away from the sun. They’re that impressive.

I should have known that my Kogi experience would be special, though. Roy Choi, the well-known owner of  LA’s Kogi BBQ trucks, Chego, A-Frame, and his newest, Sunny Spot – and the author of the soon-to-be published Spaghetti Junction: Riding Shotgun with an LA Chef  (from Ecco Press, thanks to friend, author, and fellow chef Anthony Bourdain) – had been the ideal phone interviewee just a few weeks earlier. With some chefs these days getting press for the wrong reasons, the articulate and humble Choi isn’t one of them. Not to mention his tacos are clearing-the-clouds-away awesome.

Q: With three restaurants, the Kogi BBQ food trucks and an upcoming book, you seem pretty busy lately. Walk me through a typical day.

A: Well, things change a lot day to day, I tend to get involved in a lot of side projects. But I’ll walk you through today.

I’ve been working on a project with Jefferson High School in South Central to develop a fruit store, which they run twice a week. I’m here 9-11:30 morning every Wednesday through Friday. The store gets them to eat fruit in a delicious way, not just a healthy way. If you try to eat healthy first, it just doesn’t work. Around noon, I visit the office, check out payroll, bills, that kind of thing. From 1-2:00 p.m., I visit the prep kitchens at Chego and A-Frame, 3:00 p.m. I try to catch the back-end of the lunch for the trucks. Six to nine at night, I’ll do a kitchen service, and at 10:00 p.m. I’ll hit up the dinner service for one of the trucks. In between, I do interviews like this one, a lot of times in the car, or if it’s by email I’ll pull over and write it.

Q: What about the LA food scene stands out to you in comparison to other food cities like Portland and NY?

A: I think LA is closer to Portland’s food scene than New York. Oh, hear that? [Stops and listens] Bells.  That’s their five minute warning to get to class – high school. Anyway, the LA food scene is growing back to what it’s always been, about the cultural neighborhoods. Behind the scenes, it’s really coming up, like going through puberty. And the scene has always been there. Los Angeles used to be different, it was California cuisine, big Hollywood, lobster kind of stuff, but now it’s coming back to the neighborhoods, which is great.

Q: Tell me about your book that’s coming out.

A: Well, it’s called Spaghetti Junction: Riding Shotgun with an LA Chef. In the beginning, I didn’t really want to write a Kogi book, and definitely not a cookbook either. I don’t like to be forced or doing something just for money. Plus, I  never felt like Kogi just had one collective voice. This book is a more personal exploration, going back. There were so many interviews where they kept asking, how did you find this flavor? And I couldn’t answer, it was deeper. Why was I cooking it now? I didn’t know, and then I realized it was my upbringing. And now I’ve gotten to the point where I’m okay with it, I’m not ashamed. I had a good and bad upbringing, and it gave me the ability to cook this flavor for Los Angeles. As for the title, I was thinking of Spaghetti Westerns in light of the freeways here, and the lines that are represented. I don’t care if people hate it. I want this book to be an open door, like, “Come ride with me, let me show you what I do.  Let me show you why I cook this way. If you don’t like it, I’ll pull over and you can get out.” You can just get in and get out. It’ll be stories about childhood with a food filter, lots of pictures. I want it to be an exploration, a mural of life.

Q: After reading your piece in LA Weekly and your discussion of all those cookbooks, I can’t help but wonder what you’re cooking when you’re at home. What’s the last thing you made?

A: Lots of eggs. I’m gone so much, a lot of times the only time I’m home is in the morning. I make a lot of porridges, rice. The last thing I cooked was kimchi fried rice with a soft poached egg. I make a lot of stews and soups to be the base of dishes throughout the week, and I make a lot of Korean food: marinated meats, vegetables medleys. I cook most like the food we have at Chego.

Q: Any LA restaurants you recommend during my visit?

A: Go to all of them! [laughs]. Well, if you want to chill out in your PJs and get some grub, I’d go with Chego. If you want a friendly, communal, Portland-type experience, go to A-Frame. If you want to party, go to Sunny Spot, and if you want to really taste LA, I’d say hit up one of the trucks.

 

Spaghetti Junction: Riding Shotgun with an LA Chef will be released in 2013.

 

~Kat Vetrano

*Photo Credit: Alice Shin