At a time when trained chefs and owners of food trucks seemed to be come out of two different spheres of the food world, Roy Choi rented a truck of his own and hit the streets of Los Angeles with his unique Mexican tacos stuffed with Korean BBQ-style meat. With a pedigree that included The Culinary Institute of America, Le Bernardin, and the Beverly Hills Hilton, Chef Choi might not have seemed the most likely candidate to go roadside, hawking tacos—but that is exactly what he did.
As an Angeleno, Chef Choi’s vision was to bring Korean cuisine to the entire city, beyond just Koreatown. He imagined the street foodscenes he grew up with in Seoul, but with more diverse flavors and customers. Kogi evolved around the idea of distribution via roaming food trucks. To create a Korean dish that would plug into the diverse culture of Los Angeles, Chef Choi borrowed from another ethnic cuisine that the city loved: The humble taco.
And so in 2008, in partnership with Mark and Caroline Manguera, he launched Kogi Korean BBQ-To-Go. Kogi’s popularity grew after Eats.com blogger Alice Shin—now in charge of PR for Kogi—took notice. The business later became a phenomenon when Newsweek called it “the first viral eatery,” after it began using Twitter to let its fans know where the Kogi truck would be. Building on the success of his mobile culinary business, in 2010, Chef Choi opened Chego!, his first sit-down restaurant, in West Los Angeles. Mar Vista followed in November 2010 and Sunny Spot in Venice in 2011.
Chef Choi spent the next two years writing his first cookbook/memoir, L.A. Son—My Life, My City, My Food, with co-authors Tien Nguyen and Natasha Phan. Published by Ecco Book, under the Anthony Bourdain ’78 publishing line, the book is a celebration of Chef Choi’s love of his hometown, his development as a chef, and, with the creation of the Korean taco, his reinvention of street food for the masses.
Chef Choi volunteers at A Place Called Home, a safe haven in South Central Los Angeles where underserved youth are empowered to take ownership of the quality and direction of their lives. In 2013, in partnership with the neighborhood-based Coalition for Responsible Community Development, Dole Packaged Food, and nearby Jefferson High School, Chef Choi launched a small smoothie shop and café called 3 World’s Café. The business creates an entrepreneurial training hub for young people in the neighborhood and provides a much-needed source of good, healthy food.
In 2014, Chef Choi partnered with the Sydell Group to handle the entire food and beverage program at The Line Hotel in L.A.’s Koreatown. The dining concepts include Commissary—a greenhouse restaurant within the hotel that focuses on fruits and vegetables; Pot, named after family-style hot pot; Pot Café serving international baked goods; and Pot Lobby Bar. Chef Choi’s stand alone restaurant A-Frame conveys the Hawaiian idea of aloha and is built in a former IHOP. There is also a Kogi outpost at the Los Angeles International Airport.
In August 2014, at René Redzepi’s fourth MAD symposium, Chef Choi and Chef Daniel Patterson, owner of Coi in San Francisco, announced plans to open a new chain of fast-food restaurants called Locol. The focus is on sustainability as well as healthful, whole foods at an affordable price. “The vision is to create a fast-food concept with the heart of a chef. We approached it like we would any other restaurant. So that means a focus on design, function, systems, fee and costs, organization, sourcing, product, farmers, ingredients, recipes, and training.” The first Locol opened on January 18, 2016 in the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles. The next three Locol restaurants are already in the works: East Oakland is set to open later this year, followed by a San Francisco location, and a second restaurant in Watts.
Chef Choi recently partnered with Munchery, the meal-delivery service. The four-year-old San Francisco-based start-up now has operations in Seattle, New York and L.A. “It fits really well with what I’m doing now. This path that I’m on is about trying to create a level playing field for everyone,” Choi says. “There are communities where there are no restaurants, but everyone’s got a phone.” Munchery has a one-for-one program; for every meal you purchase, they donate a meal to a local food bank.
In January 2016, fans of Kogi Korean BBQ rejoiced when Chef Choi opened Kogi Taqueria, his first brick and mortar location of the concept, in a strip mall in Palms neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Follow in Roy's Footsteps. Earn Your Culinary Degree at the CIA.
Roy Choi trains Actor/Director Jon Favreau for his role in CHEF in this behind the scenes video.
Watch our interview with Roy Choi at The CIA's campus in Hyde Park, NY.