Q & A With Roy Choi: Slinging Tacos at Midnight, Calling Out Jamie Oliver + Choi's Vegetable Moment
On a bench outside Handsome Coffee Roasters in downtown Los Angeles' arts district, after the requisite coffee inside and under the (also requisite) California sun, Roy Choi sat down late last week to talk about, well, lots of things. He wanted a cigarette, or a few of them. He wanted to be close to the L.A. River. It had been a long few days, with a post Choi wrote on his blog Riding Shotgun generating a sudden media storm (Eater, The Huffington Post, even the New Yorker) of speculation that he was giving up meat, giving up Kogi, giving up cooking altogether.
A. Scattergood Roy Choi outside Handsome Coffee Roasters
All this left Choi (Kogi, Chego, A-Frame, Sunny Spot, the world), he said, humbled. It also seems to have left him a bit baffled. By the perceived controversy, but also -- and more interestingly -- by the level of emotion and influence he can generate in his hometown. Choi has become, for reasons that still escape him, a pivotal figure in Los Angeles, both in the food world and beyond. Most people date the current food-truck revolution to his Kogi BBQ truck, but it's more than that. He is, to quote Dana Goodyear, our David Chang. He has revitalized the industry, given voice -- and menu -- to a moment, and mobilized both literally and metaphorically the food culture in L.A.
All this has left him having what might be described as an existential crisis. Or maybe it's just a moment of clarity, the thinking man's necessary response to hitting critical mass. Maybe we should all sit down, get a cup of coffee and a cigarette -- or a Sriracha bar -- and think about what's going on more often than we do. Turn the page.
Roy Choi: Let's go back to my post, because it was really just a diary entry. I didn't realize that people cared that much. I've been doing Kogi for three years now and a lot of shit has blown up -- but food has been my voice. And people have been responding to it. I've just been myself. Everything you eat is everything I say and everything I am. So I feel like I've been talking to the public for a long time, even though I haven't been using words. I didn't know that it was going to get picked up, or that people even cared that much. But if you look at the post, I never used the word "vegetarian." And I never said I was quitting cooking. And those seem to have been the two focal points.
SI: Yep. Those were the two general assumptions.
RC: It's amazing how something can be interpreted. So instead of getting mad about it, over the week I started to think about a lot of things. Like what does it even matter -- it's just a personal thing. It just tripped me out how much, if I left, how much that would mean to people. And I thought, what if their assumptions were true: What if I just pulled it, like pulling a drain. What if I just pulled Kogi out of the universe. What if I just walked down another path. I realized that maybe Kogi is a part of L.A. -- it would almost be like the Dodgers not playing anymore.
SI. Your influence has been phenomenal.
RC: I guess we never thought about it collectively, as a city and as a community. And just brainstorming about it, thinking about a new path, it created almost an armageddon mentality. That tripped me out. But I never said I was a vegetarian. I'd been having some kind of Indian revelations.
SI: Indian in what way?
RC: Spiritual. Animals have been talking to me. And any shaman will say that that's not that weird. So they've been telling me to stop. One of my best friends told me: If animals are talking to you, you better fucking listen, dude. So I wrote that, and then I was thinking, well, if I can't cook with meat, then I gotta explore how I can cook. And I was just going to stop eating meat for a while. But I don't know how becoming a vegetarian and a vegan came from that.
SI: And if that's your choice -- if you just decide to have a Meatless Monday that lasts five years -- there's not necessarily a direct correlation between that choice and your restaurants. Unless you want there to be.
RC: I guess everything that happened since that Monday has put me in a little bit of a pickle. Because I didn't know my words carried any weight. And I sure as hell don't want to walk on eggshells about how I write or speak. But yeah, I never said I was going to be a vegetarian. But on the positive side, it opened up a whole other community to me. The communities I was already living within were putting headlines up, and friends of mine were asking me if I was OK, but then the vegetable community came out in force. They were so supportive. It was almost as if I came in from the cold. So if that's what it means to be vegetarian, then I'm down with that shit. But it was partly spiritual and partly because I'm searching for a new flavor.
SI: You know, one would hope that animals would talk to more chefs, if not literally, then metaphorically. You want people to have a responsibility to what they're cooking, especially in this era of whole-animal cuisine.
RC: Yeah. And you know, hunting, gathering, killing, it's all there -- but it's gotten to the point where it's not beautiful anymore, the way we kill animals. Right now, we're buying thousands of pounds of meat, between all the [restaurant] outlets. And if I continue to grow the business, that'll become tens of thousands of pounds of meat. The business is predicated upon giving the best quality for the cheapest price, so then if the businesses continue to grow at the pace they're growing, then I'm only going to be forced to make commodity decisions, which means I'll be forced in a way to give in to mass slaughter. Right now we deal with very good farms, but we're able to do that because we only sell so much. But if these businesses multiply throughout the States, how can I offer things at $2, $3, $4 without dipping into mass slaughter? I can't. So that was one question.
Another thing that sparked this was that I'm working on a co-op farm in Malibu and we were raising this pig and he was slaughtered and I ate the meat. Everything was done the correct way, but when I ate the meat it just tasted like flesh. Like human flesh. It was the first time that meat ever tasted that way. And that's after, well, I'm a Korean barbecue king, right? Ask anybody who eats with me at Park's BBQ.
So if you look at two posts before the one that sparked all this, I was starting to go through this transition. Then I experienced Gonjasufi during the MOCA event -- he was part of it -- and I was reading some of the things he was saying about breaking patterns that no longer serve you. The whole energy started to shake me as well. And meeting Mike D and being a part of the whole Beastie Boys family for three weeks. They never said anything to me directly, but being a part of that environment -- all of those things converged together. It was like a 2 a.m. little diary post. So that's the vegetarian part.
SI: What did it mean to find out that you're so important to this town? Is it a lot of pressure, or does it bother you?
RC: No, it's humbling. What has happened a lot in my life a lot in the last years, especially in the media, is that, you know, you have word counts. The thoughts have to be compressed. And sometimes people take it the wrong way. I'm really, really like a fucking sensitive fractured person sometimes. But I'm like a turtle: I have a really tough shell. I've scrapped with the best of them -- and I still scrap.
SI: You worked really hard to get here.
RC: I worked really hard, and I also have a lot of blood, sweat and tears all over this city.
SI: You grew up here.
RC: Yeah. Even outside of the food world, in the low-riding community, in the skate community, in the stoner-drug community. In the gang community, in the college community. I've been through a lot of things in my life. It's humbling. Because no one ever gave a shit about me before. So for people to give a shit about you, it's humbling and it means a lot. But I haven't changed my approach to things since the first day we rolled out Kogi. We're doing the exact same thing we did up on Ivar and Sunset, it's just that back then no one knew who we were. So the biggest challenge I'm having is to keep that energy and stay true to that; that's what's driving everything.
SI: That's what drives your food too: There's an authenticity and a creativity in that that you don't want to lose as a chef, not just as a businessman or whatever.
RC: Yeah, I don't really care about job security. Everything I do is like tough love, everything I put out there in the universe is me trying to feed you. I really care. One thing you can see with all the food that's been created the last few years, whether you like it or not, is that there hasn't been a problem with consistency. Our No. 1 philosophy is to make sure we're thinking of you as we cook.
SI: What do you mean by consistency?
RC: As far as the food going down in quality, or thinking that we've focused our energy somewhere else.
SI: Well, you're still there. You're still in the kitchens.
RC: Still there. They're [the restaurants] living, breathing entities. It's been trippy sometimes. I didn't know people cared that much.
SI: They do. And I think you touched some nerves. Not just you personally, but the meat issue, especially with foie gras in the news right now.
RC: Yeah, if you look at the post, it wasn't totally about meat. I'm not trying to make it profound or anything, but the title of the post was about who's going to do this. I'm not saying that I'm going to do this, but who's going to climb this beanstalk and figure this shit out? Not the whole equation, but who's going to figure out the next step.
SI: You're talking about a much larger picture.
RC: It reminded me of what I went through with taco trucks. I realized that when people heard the word -- created the word -- vegetarian, it was almost like it was part concern, part how-could-you, and also a little fear. It was like the issues of taco trucks and street food and trucks clogging up the streets, it was that same energy.
SI: Like when you started Kogi and people got really freaked out?
RC: Yeah, a little bit of that ruffling-of-the-feathers type thing. Or even before Kogi did what it did -- outside of the Latino community and construction workers and people working down here, where taco or catering trucks were truly a part of their lives and culture -- it was, like, "How can you eat off that truck; aren't you going to get sick; how can you trust them; do they wash their hands?" It's fear. I'm like, those are my brothers and sisters, of course they're washing their hands; they're feeding you the same thing they're feeding themselves; what the fuck, you know? But it was the same thing. So I kind of feel for the vegetable world -- the vegetarian world. It's almost as if people look at them like aliens or foreigners. They're just like us.
SI: I do think the foie gras issue intersects with a lot of those same emotions: Where is my food coming from, where is it going, where is my position in all of this. What do you think of the foie situation?
RC: I'm a chef and I've been cooking for 20 years and I'm a student and a disciple of the craft, so when I was in culinary school I studied the origins [of foie], from Gascony and the way the geese are raised and the culture. In Asia we have a similar cultural fixation about the fish egg sac as the French do toward the goose liver. I understand it and I appreciate it from a cultural level. So I believe it's just a soapbox. Because if you're going to target well-fed geese for their livers -- take a look at what they do to our cattle. These geese are taken care of and fed well. Yeah, they're force-fed, but it's a relative term. They're being manipulated through love and a true philosophy of raising this bird.
That seems to me minor compared to us picking up half-dead cattle with forklifts. And stuffing chickens in little boxes and killing baby cows for veal. And maybe target rich motherfuckers getting endangered meat for private dinners.
SI: Shark fins.
RC: Focus on that, or even just hunting for trophies. To me it seems -- I'm going to get in trouble with the NRA; I gotta move -- less sentimental to kill animals for glory than to actually raise them for delicacy. I don't know why people are tripping on it. If they have that much energy to stop something, they should take a look at what we're eating on a mass scale. Shift that energy over. You're picking on the small guy. If we have all that momentum, let's take on the real bully.
SI: Something that has a lot more effect than foie gras. Like maybe the beef industry.
RC: It's a very tiny percentage. Out of all the people I'm feeding right now, there's a whole other community I'm not feeding that I really care about: foster kids, kids from broken homes, people who can't get to the food. It's the same thing in the food world: Even with the new bubble of bloggers and this new thing of chefs being out there, we think our world is so huge. But this stuff is a very, very small speck of how others are eating out there.
SI: The people who actually need to be fed. We have such an inflated sense of our own importance.
RC: Even a great restaurant maybe only does 120 covers a night. That's not feeding a lot of people. It's OK for that to be a hobby or a profession or a craft, but it seems like our food world is pretty inflated, and I'm trying to punch a hole in that a little bit. I just want to be the ODB on this shit, because I don't care about the industry accepting me or nor, or me lighting fires or not. I'm very aware that it only continues to feed itself.
I love the whole new blogging community. Like when I got into cooking, there were no Asians in culinary school, and there were no Asians eating in restaurants. And now it's all young Asian guys and girls writing blogs and eating and tweeting. It's a whole community and it's great. But they get on these huge, beautiful, inflated roller-coaster rides, and they don't know anything about the craft of this industry. I don't know if any of them know about Fernand Point or Carême or the origins of Chinese food.
SI: I think for a lot of people these days, food knowledge starts with Anthony Bourdain. Much as we all love him.
RC: It happens in the hip-hop community, too; there'a a lot of that. And now everyone is being called "chef." I'm a little old-school in that I think there's some value in the classics and the steps of achieving a certain profession. If we start slanging the word "chef" on anybody and everybody who cooks, it takes away a lot.
SI: Well, it's not accurate. Chef is from the same word as "chief"; it means something very specific in the French kitchen brigade system.
RC: It doesn't make sense. I think we need to come up with another word. We're calling [all these cooks] chefs. I mean, I know people are going to trip, but chef is a specific title, like a doctor. There's no way to distinguish anymore and that's tough. Eric Ripert, Paul Bocuse -- they're chefs. They can do all the technical things and they also have a spiritual connection. How a turnip grows, how it's cooked. But then if you call someone who doesn't have that training a chef ... It's all kind of related to my foie gras thing. I feel like we're in a moment of inflation, of our own egos, of our own perception of what the food world is. And if I can do anything, I want to pop that a little bit so that we can look outside that bubble.
SI: It is a weird moment. We're reaching critical mass on a lot of things: hunger, obesity.