Los Angeles-based chef Roy Choi is careful to talk about his success as a blessing for which he’s grateful, but he can’t hide the excitement in his voice when he talks about Kogi, the fleet of Korean taco trucks that he co-created with friends Mark Manguera and Caroline Shin in 2008. The first Kogi truck has become one of L.A.’s most popular hotspots—Newsweek called it "America’s first viral eatery." And Kogi eventually spawned two restaurants, Chego and The A-Frame.
Choi says people have repeatedly asked him how he came up with such a distinctive flavor. He’s answered with this month’s "L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food" (HarperCollins), a book that’s part memoir, part cookbook. In it, Choi reveals that his fusion of food and cultures comes naturally to him because, as a second-generation Korean-American who grew up among L.A.’s Latinos, bicultural fluency is what he knows best. In this interview, the celebrity chef dishes on the new flavor of America.
Did you know that your book would be a big deal while you were writing it?
Maybe it’s a chef’s instinct, but if I’m cooking something really delicious there’s a moment when [I] know it’s going to be something special. I had that same moment when I was writing the book with [food writers] Tien [Nguyen] and Sasha [Phan]. I would call them up and I would say, ‘Man, we’re onto something here!’ And they would always tell me not to jinx it. But I knew we were locked into a voice, a perspective and an honesty that was pretty rare.
What’s the most meaningful reaction you’ve gotten so far?
The most special moment I’ve had so far was up at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park because all the students came out. Some of them even cut class to be there. That eagerness was awesome to feel because sometimes as adults, especially in the workplace, you get jaded. … It was also awesome to see their lives now, before they graduate, and just imagine where some of them are going to be in 15 years. They might be revolutionaries in this field and they don’t even know it yet.
Why did you focus on fusing foods and cultures? Why not just have a Korean food truck or a Mexican taco truck?
Well, Kogi was an idea that my partners came up with, but the reason it evolved the way it did was because I’m not from Korea. I was born there, but I was raised in L.A. I don’t even speak Korean, but I’m Korean. I grew up around Latinos, but I’m not Latino. The thing about Los Angeles is we can be whoever we want to be. In many ways, we have our own culture but we don’t thump our chest with it. … What it means to be Los Angeles, it means that things just mesh together and they can actually change. That’s the whole ethos of our city.
With L.A. being this place where so many different cultures come together, what do you think that models for the country and for the rest of the world?
Well, the difference is that our city celebrates growth. We don’t look backwards. We don’t have this long lineage of history that we’re trying to protect or we don’t want to see dissipate. We’re a city of immigrants, as well. Not only do you have a city itself that was built off of the Gold Rush and through the Wild West and Hollywood, but you also have a town of immigrants where the whole culture of leaving your home, completely erasing it, and disconnecting from everything that you are and starting all over again. You start over as whole new human being and I think that’s fascinating to think of as a culture. I think of my parents and my immigrants that come through, the young families that work in my restaurant, the lives they had before this and how they just uprooted and left and then started a whole new life. I think that part is something that could help other areas as far as politics go, the fact that we don’t hold onto things. We’re willing to change things if it makes sense at the moment.
Last question. It’s 2 a.m. and someone wants to go get something to eat in L.A., where do they go?
They would go to a taco truck. In Koreatown you’d go to El Taurino and get carne asada tacos and horchata.