Roy Choi ushered in a food truck “new wave” in Los Angeles, making street fare edgier, tastier. Five years ago, he and a partner launched Kogi – Korean for meat — with a small fleet of trucks offering up a Korean-Mexican fusion that inspired food entrepreneurs in cities across America where the trend caught fire. His signature creation? The short rib taco: warm tortillas, Korean barbecue beef, cilantro-onion-and lime, topped with a spicy-soy slaw.
He was transformed into a culinary rock star — a FOOD & WINE best new chef. He shares his journey in a memoir called, L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food. He talks with Morning Edition’s Renee Montagne on using recipes to tell his story, starting with kimchi – the pungent Korean side dish, made of fermented veggies, often cabbage.
Renee Montagne: You write, “Everything I am comes from kimchi.”
Roy Choi: Yeah. It’s the first recipe in the book. It is everything I am. You have to constantly take care of it. It’s like a sour-dough starter: You’re always evolving it and refreshing it and morphing it into something. So, you’ll make kimchi and then, as it’s running low, you’ll move over and ferment more, take a little bit of that and it’ll just continue on. So it’s this long string that goes throughout your life. A lot of people think kimchi is just one thing. It’s not. kimchi is a term that refers to the process of fermenting vegetables, most people think of it as the cabbage kimchi, but kimchi refers to many different things – cucumbers to chives to garlics, lettuces, anything.
Montagne: I count myself among those. I always think kimchi the cabbage is hot; it’s got a pretty strong flavor.
Choi: There’s non-spicy kimchi too. There’s a lot. And it all depends on the region as well.
Montagne: When you were a little kid, and very little, you were a toddler when you’re family came to Los Angeles from South Korea and your mother would make kimchi and sell it out of the family car. You described it as the Avon lady, but instead of make-up it was kimchi calling. Why did she do that? What got her going with that?
Choi: I think many different reasons. First of all, food was a part of our culture growing up as Koreans. In America we separate things. Things have very rigid borders but in Korean life it’s food everywhere all the time. It doesn’t matter what time it is, where you are, and so that’s just a natural thing. The other part is being an immigrant, especially during the ’70s, we didn’t have any jobs. There were no jobs for us. So just surviving, just figuring things out, straight hustle. Every penny counted. And it was just a natural thing, she didn’t even think about it. It was just that maternal gangsta spirit. Just go out there, make it all and go sell it.
Montagne: So your mother, actually in a way, she had this gangsta spirit.
Choi: She never took “no” for an answer. Still won’t take “no” for an answer. Our trunks would be filled with food. It was a little bit of a social scar for me as a kid. Your mom’s carrying around trunk loads of stinky food and you’re the one who has to carry it around.
Montagne: Well, it must be said, kimchi is smelly.
Choi: It’s supposed to be smelly. It’s fermenting. It’s changing its microbes and its molecular structure right in front of you.
Montagne: Well, it does come out in the book, because so much of it is about your childhood, that in your home when you would open the refrigerator, you would see what?
Choi: When you open my refrigerator there would be whole fish, squids and octopus, intestines. It would almost look like a chemistry experiment gone bad. If you open it, it would all be overflowing. There would be so many stains that our whole refrigerator was covered with newspaper and aluminum foil. It was a constantly used refrigerator. It was like a turn stall in a subway station and I loved it. I really loved it.
Montagne: There’s an expression that you speak of about the experience of growing up with this food. Sometimes as a child, food would just be put in your mouth by all the adults around you. At other times food would come right off the griddle. Son mash?
Choi: Yeah, son mash. It means, flavor in the fingertips. That’s my best translation of it.
Montagne: Almost like life was a conveyor belt: dish after dish coming at you.
Choi: It never stopped. It was for you but it wasn’t only for you. It was definitely the conveyor belt: food constantly being around. There’s that moment in cooking where the food is so perfect. Chefs know what I’m talking about. When you capture that moment and instead of patting yourself on the back, the culture that I grew up around was like, “Here, try this, try that” and then stuffing it in your mouth because you wanted other people to capture that butterfly as well.
Montagne: You got into drugs, you got in alcohol, and you had a gambling addiction, many things that would’ve disappointed your parents even as they were disappointing you.
Choi: Yeah, I’ve always been a little bit rebellious and addictive as a kid, but I was a good kid. But I was left alone a lot. So I had time to create my own independence and my own resilience and also my own middle finger toward life. But I was still a kid. Even though I had this brewing in me, I think I wrote, ‘just like kimchi, my life was fermenting as well’. I started smoking weed when I was 13. It was just one step: weed unlocked my addictions and my compulsiveness toward things. That led into drinking. My parents drank a lot so as I started to approach drinking, it wasn’t a social thing for me. I went straight into it. I couldn’t stop. I was one of those drinkers you didn’t want to be around. There were different vices. I went through all these different vices and then I hit gambling. Gambling was the worst of them all.
Montagne: But before you got yourself, you might say, clean from gambling, it did give you one thing: you had so much money to spend and you were a high-roller, you started going to fine restaurants.
Choi: It was the beginning of my chef career. The worst thing that happened in my life actually was the gateway to what I was supposed to do in life.
Montagne: Then eventually things changed. You found your art. You made your name. You’ve made a huge name originally with the humble food truck. What brought you to Kogi? A mash up between Korean and Mexican.
Choi: The way Kogi happened was I lost my job and I was reaching empty on the funds and it was getting serious. I was scared. I didn’t know what was going to happen next. Then my friend called me, Mark, and he had this idea: let’s put Korean barbecue in a taco and sell it outside the clubs. That’s what he told me. That’s all he told me. He had that idea. I chalked it off to ridiculousness. The next morning I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Called him and I was like, ‘let’s do this.’ He was so carefree, he was like, ‘okay, I’ll pick you up right now.’ We went to the market and we started shopping, started cooking, there was no thought process. It was almost like I was possessed. I went to his kitchen and started making the taco. I didn’t have a plan of what this taco was supposed to be. I wasn’t trying to make it be anything. I was just cooking. It became everything. It became low-riding. It became growing up here in L.A, all my addictions, the immigration, being a chef. All those came into this one taco and we made it and we ate it and we all just fell back. We looked at each other in complete bewilderment. We went out to the streets and we just had to sell it like my mom when she made the Kimchi. You just had to get out there.
Montagne: So you had this extraordinary taco that was, you called, ‘a taco Los Angeles on a plate,’ and it was your life and it was all there. And then you combined the traditional food truck and a new thing, Twitter, and people start following you. They watch for it. It became a huge sensation.
Choi: The food was good. The taco was delicious. But it was really Twitter that made people take notice. We weren’t trying to make a chase or scavenger hunt, but I guess through our natural exploration of the city we created this buzz and this feel that you had to find us.
Montagne: It was a big event. It was a big social event for quite a long time.
Choi: It still is.
Montagne: In the back of your book, in a section called Essentials, you have a description of how to wash rice. This is the advice you’re giving that means a lot to you.
Choi: Yes. I’ll read it and then I’ll talk on it. ‘The most important step in cooking rice is how you wash it. Our western mentality gets us in the habit of washing fruits and vegetables because they are dirty. Washing rice comes from a totally different place. Wash your rice to cleanse, not to clean. Run cold water through the rice and massage the grains, transferring all your energy to the rice as the rice transfers its own energy to you. Try to feel every single grain as you swirl the water. Drain the water and do it again. Get deeper with it. Turn off your phone. F’ the world for a minute. Drain the water and do it again and again and again. Minimum three times or up to at least five times or even more if you’re feeling kinky about it. Fill the vessel back up with water till it rises an inch above the surface of the rice and cook. I hope that you explore the beauties and spirituality of rice. Really, it’s therapy for every day of your life.’
Montagne: So it’s not just cleaning it.
Choi: It’s not. The cooking technicality behind it, people say, “Oh you’re washing off the starch.” That’s definitely true so it’s not so sticky but it’s more than that. Talk to any Asian person from Southeast Asia all the way up through Northern China. That rice is how you live. It’s everything you are. And it’s also a little bit of that mystical philosophy: watching the water clear up as well. When you first put water in rice it’s cloudy. But then as you wash it the water becomes clear. It’s like cleansing your soul and watching your soul cleanse in front of you just for that moment. That small little moment every day.