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.
For the first 15 years of his career, he
worked executing classical French technique in professional kitchens
across the country. But never feeling like he was fulfilled or meeting
his full potential, he took the opportunity to regroup and really
consider what food he loved the most.
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: Instead of forcing your
customer to come to your restaurant, why not bring the restaurant to
them? That delivery platform also helped define who their target
customers were. 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. 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. “My goal is to help them understand they are beautiful human
beings and they are responsible for making the community better,” he
says. 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.
Hollywood came calling when actor/director John Favreau hired Chef Choi as the culinary technical advisor during the filming of the movie Chef. Chef Choi was a guest on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown on the CNN network. In the segment, viewers were introduced to Street Food,
which appears on CNN’s digital platform. Street Food is a series of
five-minute clips showing Chef Choi interviewing musicians, artists, and
community leaders while highlighting LA’s inner city neighborhoods.
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. A Kogi BBQ truck
also makes a daily visits Terminal 4 at the Los Angeles International
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. Patterson and Choi worked with a team of chefs
including Chad Robertson ’93, of the famed San Francisco bakery Tartine,
who created a whole-grain, long-fermented bun for Locol’s burger, the
cornerstone of the project. “We’re following a zero-waste model.
Everything we buy and the things we use are going to be things we can
shred, chop, braise, cook down, pickle, peel, and turn into something
else. We’ll transform bruised, misshapen vegetables into purées and
sauces. We’ll buy off-cuts of meat and make them work,” Choi says. “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 team raised
$128,103 through a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. The funds were
used for research, development, and real estate. The first Locol opened
on January 18, 2016 in the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles.
addition to building the 2,900-square-foot space, outfitting the
kitchen, and designing the menu, Choi and Patterson chose to provide
compensation above minimum wage. In its first few weeks, Locol was
already serving about 700 meals a day. The team hired more than 50 staff
members, all from the Watts community. "We got very lucky to start in
this place because of how strong a community it is and how deep the
roots are," says Chef Choi. 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.
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
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.