Kogi BBQ – Liberation on Wheels

 

 

“Food revolution” is a term that should not be applied loosely. Certainly, the real thing only occurs every 15 to 20 years or so. Roy Choi triggered one in Los Angeles with his kitchen on wheels and a brand new approach to cooking rules, namely: Anything goes.

Baseball cap pulled sideways, tattooed arms, streetwear, and a weathered set of wheels, Roy Choi doesn’t fit the image of a pioneering cook. And he enjoys a joint, too. A major factor in his business, according to Roy, since good weed provides him with the appetite he needs to create impressively good-tasting food along with the laid-back composure to do pretty much exactly what he likes. A philosophy that clearly means a lot to the son of Korean immigrants. “Lawyer, doctor, something respectable, that’s what they wanted me to be,” he grins. “Korean parents are merciless in that sense.” And so, he started out by not being anything at all. Hanging around on the streets, he thought about joining a gang, tried out all kinds of drugs, got some tattoos. Then one day he realized what he wanted to do and signed up with the renowned CIA. No, not the spy agency, but the Culinary Institute of America. He even landed an internship at Le Bernardin in New York, one of the best French restaurants in the US.

The food trucks of today are like the music of the Grateful Dead in the 1960s. An eclectic mix of styles and long, soulful improvisations.

Taking his dented car and its sun-bleached paint job, he drives us through downtown LA to a small food and shopping mall in Chinatown. “I don’t think anybody would remember me at Le Bernardin,” he comments dryly from behind the wheel. Though he suspects the boss he had after that, the one at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles, probably does: Roy’s poor discipline annoyed the boss so much that he was fired on the spot. After that, Roy Choi, the black sheep of the family, couldn’t get another job at all. Nevertheless, today, he’s the one calling the shots at the shopping mall in Chinatown. This is also where foodies will find Chego, the first restaurant he opened in a permanent location. Roy founded it after the Kogi food trucks and their legendary tacos had made him something of a cult figure in LA.

With his new approach to food, he created the concept of high-class fast food. Or “Gourmet Fast Food,” as Americans aptly call this new type of cuisine. In Chego, the only difference to the food from the kitchens on wheels are the bowls of rice instead of tacos. Grabbing a wok in the small, busy kitchen, Roy quickly sets it on the flame of the gas stove, saying, “Pour in a little oil, start out with fresh ginger, garlic, spring onions, chili, then layer one flavor over the other before adding the rice.” His hands appear to be moving to an inner rhythm – “like Hip Hop!” – as he adds Kurobuta pork belly glazed with Gochujang Korean chili paste, Chinese spinach and broccoli, pickled radish, dashes of soy sauce, and salsa roja, followed by a fried egg with nicely crisped edges. He tops the creation off with crumbled Mexican Cotija cheese and chopped peanuts. “Here,” he says as he slides the Chubby Pork Belly rice bowl over to us. It tastes so incredibly good that you get the munchies even without a stimulant.

LA gives you a lot of room for improvisation.

Roy Choi sprang forth from the Los Angeles melting pot and its search for a culinary identity. He grew up amidst Korean BBQs, Mexican tacos, Chinese dumplings, Bengali Biryanis, and fast food and family diner chains. The white middle and upper class in their parallel universe preferred to stick to French and Italian cuisine. “Ethnic food? I don’t think so!” Possibly out of a reflex to prove to global metropolis New York that culture existed on the West Coast as well. “Well, the hell with that,” Roy thought, unemployed and bored, lying on the sofa watching one TV cooking show after another. Dishes like Bœuf Bourgignon or Scalopine al Limone were not going to do it for his taste buds. The traditional menu sequence of starter, main course, and dessert annoyed him as much as Monsieur Escoffier’s strict rules that the CIA had tried to drill into him. He wanted intense flavor, taste orgies, the sensation of food juices running down his fingers, and remnants of fiery salsa staining the corners of his mouth.

My kind of cooking connects high and low. It doesn’t discriminate anyone and everyone can afford it.

In fall 2008, Choi and his buddy Mark Manguera, who he met during his stint at the Beverly Hilton, started pulling up at night with the first Kogi truck in front of the clubs on Sunset Boulevard. They offered Spicy Pork Tacos, Short Rib Sliders, Kimchi Quesadillas – Kimchi is hot, spicy Korean sauerkraut – and other Korean-Mexican combinations. “These tacos tell the story of the multicultural ethnicity of LA,” Choi tells us. “LA is non-elitist, and it’s a matter of personal pride to me that you can get a really good meal for only a few dollars. One that has been prepared with as much know-how, creativity, and TLC as any dish in an exclusive restaurant.” Out of nowhere, hundred of foodies began queuing up in long lines in front of the Kogi truck. Gustatory liberation at last: LA had finally found its own culinary identity. Before long, more trucks were needed. Roy upsized to four and started tweeting locations and offers to his fans; this, in turn, drew attention to him as a forerunner of social media marketing and converted his success into a sensation. In 2010, he was voted Best New Chef by the US edition of Food magazine: Roy Choi and his fabulous Korean tacos received nation-wide publicity.

What many don’t understand about me and my success is: It happens because I have nothing to lose.

Ever since the advent of the Kogi truck, the streets from LA to Paris aren’t what they used to be. Gourmet food trucks have started popping up everywhere, with offers ranging from tacos and fried chicken to cupcakes. And Roy the restaurateur has become a cultural phenomenon in his own right. He runs several restaurants spread throughout LA and is a partner at the new “in” hotel, The Line, that belongs to the renowned Sydell group and that is located in the now – also thanks to Roy– trendy Koreatown. There he continues to explore cross-cultural food using fire pots in the hotel’s restaurant, eponymously named Pot. And, unsurprisingly, a biography has already been published about his meteoric rise: “LA Son.” A truer title would be hard to find.

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