When food truck revolutionary and culinary rock star Roy Choi was 24, his mom went to see a fortune-teller. “Don't worry about your son,” the seer told her, “because he is going to be surrounded by people in a parking lot, in a party, always. Surrounded by smiling faces and warm laughter.” At the time, Choi was depressive and recovering from a year-and-a-half-long destructive deep-dive into gambling. He’d stolen money from his mom’s sweater-pockets, swiped his dad’s credit cards, pawned off his sister’s harp (and other family possessions), and stolen rent money from his roommates. So a foretelling that might have otherwise sounded like vague hogwash became a glimmer of hope for Choi’s worried, and possibly despondent, mom. She fed him bowls and bowls of kimchi, broiled fish, soups and noodles to bring her walking dead of a son back to life, what Choi describes as a “detox of infinite Korean love” in his new part-memoir, part-cookbook L.A. Son: My Life. My City. My Food.
Whether or not his mom believed the fortune-teller at the time, the vision came true: In 2009, Choi, 38 and then out of work, launched the KogiBBQ food truck with a former co-worker and set in motion the food truck revolution that’s swept across the country. They drove around the streets of L.A. serving tacos filled with Korean BBQ (a then-new concept that has since been imitated in many cities) to lines of people that grew to snake around the corner and across blocks. “I had never seen people react to food like this,” recounts Choi, sounding somewhat incredulous. “Tears would come up, smiles would come up, they would say, ‘Thank you for this food, it changed my life. Just how did you come up with this flavor?’ ” That question stuck in Choi’s head. He knew he needed to answer it but a seven-word sentence wouldn’t do. It needed a book and a good look at his life and everyone, everything that had touched it. “I had to open the closet and look at all my skeletons, man,” he says.
And boy, was his closet bursting with them. When his parents first moved from Korea to L.A., baby Roy in tow, they struggled with a string of failed businesses (including a briefly successful Korean restaurant) and leaned heavily on alcohol, before finding their groove in the jewelry industry. Choi himself lost a week to crack, had brushes with crime, struggled with a gambling addiction and went through an alcohol-addled phase during which Emeril Lagasse leaped out from a Food-Network TV-screen to tell him to “get his shit together.” That’s when he realized food was his destiny. From there he went to the Culinary Institute of America ("the Harvard of culinary schools," as he puts it), did an externship at the famed seafood temple, Le Bernardin and worked in several impressive kitchens, till he finally had a meltdown at Rock Sugar, a pan-Asian fusion restaurant by the Cheesecake Factory folks and got fired. It’s all there in the book, written in gritty, unflinching detail.
Was it difficult baring all so honestly? His momentary silence over the phone says more than any words could. “Yeah it's hard to, like, put yourself out there,” he starts, “’cuz our whole life sometimes is setup to hide our insecurities.” His co-writers, Natasha Phan and Tien Nguyen, played a big role, challenging him at every step to go further, to tell his story and then some more. “It was tough for my family to see some of the things I wrote,” he admits, “to read about their alcoholism and what it did to me, to read about their son who they saved from gambling, because they never told anybody.” It’s an Asian thing, he notes with a sigh, to be bleeding on the inside but never tell anyone, no matter what.
But Choi is the tattoed bad boy of the food world who doesn’t shy away from telling it like it is, Asian genes be damned. It’s why, at September’s MAD3 symposium—a gathering of some of the world’s most influential food professionals held each year in Copenhagen—Choi got on stage and delivered a ballsy speech, telling chefs to get off their high horse and feed flavorful food to those really in need, not just an elite handful. (“I'm surprised no one threw tomatoes at me,” he chuckles.)
His book has that same sort of raw and unfettered air about it, even if it is dressed in Choi’s homeboy swagger and a whole lot of expletives. He describes his dad in his youth as a "badass muthafucka,” quotes Tupac, refers to Frida Kahlo, drops a Star Wars reference and compares marinated beef to a J Dilla track. His introduction ends with, “You’re riding shotgun with Papi now. What could possibly go wrong?” A recipe titled “Dumpling time” concludes with this instruction: "Go to fucking town!!!" A page-size photo of Vietnamese pho has the words, "Fuck the world for a minute while I finish my bowl” splayed across it. And while there are 87 recipes, from kimchi to carne asada to ketchup fried rice, they’re not about showing off Choi’s culinary repertoire; they merge, instead, with the stories that precede them, the foods he came across then. “I look at the book like an album, like Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon,” he explains, “where it's just one long play and then the recipes are vignettes that lead into a long story.”
In a way, L.A. Son is decidedly Asian, over-achieving at every step. It’s a memoir, a cookbook, a photo essay of sorts and perhaps even a social missive. “I wrote the book for addicts, for my friends, people who don't read that many books, people who aren't into the food world, to read it and say, ‘Dude, I can make this stuff,’ ” he admits. It’s the same flavors-to-the-masses cause he spoke so passionately about at MAD3.
Choi’s book is a grateful and humble homage to his extraordinary journey so far. So humble that it takes you only up to the founding of KogiBBQ and then wraps up. No mention of how the truck became a sensation, how it used social media to revolutionize the food truck business. Nothing about how he won Food & Wine’s Best New Chef honors in 2010 and converted the Kogi popularity into brick-and-mortar restaurants at Chego, A-Frame and Sunny Spot. “Kogi is not my story to tell,” remarks Choi. “Kogi, we're a collective, we're a co-op, we're a band and if there is going to be a Kogi book, it would be a group project.” For now, L.A. Son is just the wryly narrated, street-wise story of “a fucked-up, restless kid from L.A. who had morphed into a thug who had become a chef who had cooked his way up a ladder, only to fall into the arms of the streets.”
When not swooning over bad-boy chefs and salivating over mish-mash foods, Nidhi Chaudhry is a freelance writer based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.