Food Truck Pioneer Battles Food Deserts With High Cuisine

Oct 8, 2013
Originally published on October 9, 2013 9:46 am

What do restaurant chefs dream of? Most would be satisfied with a great review, a full house every night, maybe a restaurant or three of their own, a television show.

Not Roy Choi.

Choi has cut his own unconventional path to fame and success in the restaurant world, as his forthcoming book, L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food, shows. Out Nov. 5, it's a memoir and collection of recipes documenting Choi's transformation from drug addict and gambler to one of Los Angeles' most admired and charismatic civic leaders, one who is raising the bar on what it means for chefs to serve and feed their communities.

About five years ago, Choi got inspired by the Latin American food trucks of Los Angeles and decided to put his own spin on them, tapping his Korean roots and his training at the Culinary Institute of America.

His Kogi BBQ truck was an almost instant hit, thanks in part to his team's pioneering use of Twitter as a way to get the word out. These days, several Kogi trucks roam the streets of L.A., and people line up to wait hours for his short rib and chicken tacos, drenched in sweet and spicy sauces.

Since Kogi's launch, Choi has grown his business in all kinds of directions, with more trucks, new restaurants, and even a café serving coffee and smoothies inside a high school in South Central L.A. That project, called 3 Worlds Cafe, is Choi's first serious foray into food justice, a theme he delved into deeply and eloquently at the third annual MAD symposium, a gathering of the culinary illuminati — the likes of David Chang and Rene Redzepi — in Copenhagen in late August.

Choi's talk was entitled "A Gateway to Feed Hunger: The Promise of Street Food," and it's worth watching. In it, Choi challenged the chefs in the audience to reach out to the people who can't afford their food. He cited the tyranny of junk food in the food deserts of the inner cities and pushed chefs to think about how they could challenge it. He asked them, "Do we have the guts, us, collectively, to break this cycle?"

We called up Choi to get him to expand a bit more on his challenge to the food world.

"The question," Choi tells The Salt, "is how can we continue the evolution of the culinary world, avant-garde cooking, and balance that with reaching the people we're not reaching. We're already cooking on a high level and pushing the envelope. We can still do these things and balance it with food that's more accessible."

For Choi, that means chefs need to find ways to bring healthier food, with the creative flavors they've honed in their restaurants, to the people who will never be able to afford their restaurants.

"My dream is that in 20 years we won't have this same society where inner cities have no options for food except fast food," he says. "I believe we can change it because of what happened with street food," referring to the explosive growth of the food truck movement that he helped launch. "But we have to use the same model and framework of fast food, the same economic model, the same price point, to get them there."

And Choi argues that people who've been raised on junk food may not initially go for the flavors of haute cuisine. One way chefs can ease this transition, he says, is by incorporating ingredients that are familiar to the communities they are serving. For example, Choi says he uses ingredients like Spam, canned green beans and mac and cheese in the meals he prepares when he takes his food truck to disadvantaged L.A. neighborhoods, but then he adds his own twist.

"I pair it with something I would do in the restaurant — so I take an intense puree of leeks, chilies, spring garlic, and mix that with mac and cheese," Choi says. "So they're getting something familiar and something different, full of flavor and nutrients."

So what's next for Choi? He'll be promoting his book, of course, but he has further plans to develop his food justice projects.

"I'd like to continue to evolve 3 Worlds Café," he says. "I want to get more money invested in it, get hot food there, and I'm leveraging good purveyors to help me out. The goal is to create a café you would put in any school. It can help build a work-study program, provide jobs and nutrition. ... And I'm trying to open up more projects to provide more jobs for people in the communities that really need them."

To follow along, check Choi's blog: ridingshotgunla.com.

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