It’s 1 p.m. and you’re strolling through the streets of Los Angeles. The sun is caressing the top of your head and there’s a gentle wind at your back. The only item on your agenda is finding something to fill your belly and you come across a cluster of food trucks. One of these trucks is Kogi BBQ, the pinnacle of Los Angeles’ food truck movement, which serves up a menu of Mexican and Korean fusion. While the combination may sound strange on the page, owner Roy Choi (who you may recognize as the cohost of Netflix’s “The Chef Show” with Jon Favreau) has found harmony between these two countries’ cuisines. “When the jalapeno meets the soy sauce, the rice vinegar meets the lime, the cilantro meets the sesame leaf, the ginger meets the garlic—it’s a magic potion and it’s like it was meant to be,” Choi says. “It’s the food of hardworking cultures and, in many cases, countries that lived directly off the land.”
Choi was born into a hardworking Korean immigrant family and grew up in his family’s restaurant. Hustle was instilled into him at an early age, and only later in life did he realize that this was his first taste of entrepreneurship. “Most of us come to this country with no money, no connections, no trust funds, and there’s nothing being handed down to us,” Choi explains. “We had to figure out life between the creases, and where not many other people are going, that’s where we as immigrant families went. It wasn’t defined as entrepreneurship growing up because this was just a way of life.”
Despite growing up in his family’s restaurant, he never wanted to become a chef as a kid or even a teenager. However, from a young age, he had a passion for food. “Even in high school, all of my jobs were in restaurants and all of my interests, even before I had a culinary mind, were about searching for the best banana milkshake,” Choi says. “My whole day would be getting stoned and then going to try three banana milkshakes from different places all throughout the city. I was very particular with everything, from movie popcorn to sandwiches to Taco Bell sauce packets. It was all there, it just took me a long time to figure it out.”
In his early 20s, Choi struggled to find his passion and ended up attending law school at Western State University, later dropping out after one semester. His decision to pursue culinary school came at a low point in his life, when there weren’t other options available. “I didn’t really have an ’aha’ moment that made me decide to become a chef, I hit rock bottom,” Choi shares. “By being punched in the face with life, my own addictions and my own struggles, I was at the end of a very dark spiral of gambling and drinking from, like, 21 to 25.” One day, Choi woke up in the middle of the day on his couch and “Emeril Live” was on TV and at that moment, he realized he was meant to become a chef. “I’d done everything I could to run away from who I truly was and this is the moment when life looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Listen, the door is open but it’s closing,’” Choi says. “And I finally listened.”
In culinary school, Choi experienced a huge change, going from the kid who goofed off in the back of the class to the student at the front of the room with his hand up. He finally found something he excelled at and was motivated to be the best he could be. Wearing a suit in a law office was never going to click for Choi. “When the knife hit my hand and I put on the chef’s coat,” he says, “I felt like something had interlocked and come together.”
After culinary school, Choi hit the ground running as a hotel chef cooking for everyday men and women. Despite the job not being as sophisticated and sexy as that of a fine dining chef, he attributes his time as a hotel chef to building up his muscle memory and shaping his outlook on life. “Being the bricklayer is not romanticized, but for me, that was the most influential part of my cooking career because I found out how to cook for people universally,” Choi says. “It’s not just about Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 8:00 p.m., doing my own artistic viewpoint of the world and thinking I’m a genius. It was, ‘What do you want?’ It’s important to be engaged in that moment with the people right in front of you and what’s not cool.” Going against the grain of what was on trend, Choi created Kogi as a food truck and his time as a hotel chef helped him to understand how to feed hungry people quickly.
While food trucks have earned acclaim in both the culinary and mainstream world today, Choi recounts a very different world when he started Kogi. “In popular American culture, food trucks were looked at as dirty and they were called roach coaches,” Choi explains. “You were told that if you ate there you were going to get diarrhea. But it’s not that people who viewed street food that way are necessarily bad people, they were just never exposed to it and they only saw it from their car with their windows up.”
Choi put everything he had into starting what would become the food truck revolution and used social media to get the word out about Kogi. “With Twitter, our food and the fact that we were all the children of immigrants, we created a bridge and a dialogue for people to look at food trucks differently,” Choi says. “Through that and our own survival, we were somehow able to affect culture. Instead of hearing things like ‘roach coaches’ and ‘you’ll get diarrhea,’ you heard things like ‘gourmet’ and ‘food truck movement,’ and you saw food trucks at Golden Globe and Oscar parties. But it also opened up a dialogue for us to be a little more human with each other, and I’m really proud of that.”
Next time you stop at a food truck for a taco, a slice of pizza or a hot dog, take a second to think about how amazing it is to get food that’s delicious, fairly priced and convenient. There are countless entrepreneurs out there whose end goal is to put as much money as possible into their own pocket. But for Roy Choi, his mission is to feed the people—both rich and poor, tattooed or not. And that’s the kind of spirit we should all be hungry for.