Sometime around midnight on the evening before Thanksgiving 2008, Roy Choi and a handful of friends parked their food truck outside a nightclub on Sunset Boulevard and offered the bouncers something to eat. Little did those doormen know that they’d be the first members of the public ever to sample a Los Angeles food landmark: the Kogi Korean taco. By 2am, the club was emptying, and a queue of hungry night-owls had formed.
Between them, Choi and his business partner Mark Manguera had $3,000 (£1,850), a borrowed truck, and an idea for a street dish so simple that it could be sketched on a paper napkin and bought for just two bucks: Korean barbecue, in a Mexican taco. They named their mouthwatering combination of classic LA cuisines Kogi BBQ. “It wasn’t a gimmick,” says Choi. “It had all the flavour and authenticity of a true LA street taco. And it electrified people.”
If you’ve eaten anything from a gourmet food truck in the five years since, you have Choi and his colleagues to thank for it. Before Kogi, taco trucks were a feature of the local food landscape, but few, if any, served quality, contemporary cuisine, they rarely roamed so much of the Southern California sprawl in search of custom, and none of them used Twitter to advertise their location.
Today, Choi and Manguera own four Kogi trucks and four LA restaurants, and their imitators have transformed the food scenes of cities across the globe. Yet Choi’s new memoir, LA Son, is not about those five years, but about the 38 that preceded them. His story is many-flavoured – gambling, drugs, alcohol – and describes how he snatched success from the jaws of failure.
Born in Seoul in 1970, Choi moved to California with his family when he was two years old. At the time, Asian immigrants had just begun to arrive in large numbers in the neighbourhood now known as Koreatown; today, LA is home to more Koreans than any other city outside Korea or China. LA Son is a conscious attempt to give a voice to second-generation, Asian-American LA. “I wanted this book to feel like LA, talk like LA, smell like LA. And to put a voice out there that’s not really being heard – Asian-Americans haven’t had someone with a voice in the culture since Bruce Lee.”
When he was eight, Choi’s parents opened a restaurant, where he had his first taste of a professional kitchen. His book is packed with recipes to match his memories, the first of which is for kimchi, a fermented vegetable dish that forms the basis for much of Korean cuisine. “Kimchi is to Koreans what sauerkraut is to Germans,” he says. “The Korean meal isn’t linear. It has no beginning or end, it just all comes at once – and kimchi is what unites it. It’s always been a part of my life.”
But the restaurant didn’t last. After going through a bankruptcy, Choi’s parents changed direction and started a jewellery business, which thrived. They moved to a wealthy neighbourhood in Orange County, where their city-bred son found himself one of the few Asian students at an overwhelmingly white suburban school. “I couldn’t fit in anywhere,” he says.
That sense of alienation had its upside, though. “I’ve always had a magnetic ability to connect with people on the fringe. That’s why my food relates to so many different people. I can cook for beautiful people in Venice Beach, but that same food relates to someone in Torrance, Rosemead, the Valley: > people from any neighbourhood or circumstance throughout Los Angeles.”
In his early twenties, after a flirtation with crack cocaine, Choi began drinking and frequenting casinos, where he was gripped by a three-year gambling habit that saw him win big, but lose bigger. “Drugs are bad, but gambling will destroy everything around you,” he says.
“I lost all the money I had – hundreds of thousands of dollars – plus thousands more that I owed to other people. I could take you to a casino right now and show you people that have completely transgressed, from a guy who pays his bills and has relationships, to a hollow shell of a human being. It’s like becoming Gollum. It’s all about the ‘precious’: the five-dollar chip.”
Though he’d stolen from his family to fund his addiction, they intervened to save him from himself. Finally, with his mother’s financial support, Choi resolved to channel his energies into a career in food, and in 1996 won a place at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. “Instead of vice and destruction, I unleashed that intense, addictive, fuck-you force in another way,” he says.
Over the next decade, Choi worked his way up through some of the country’s most high-profile kitchens, from a spell training at the Michelin star-spangled Le Bernadin in Manhattan, to the role of chef de cuisine at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, a celebrity haunt at the heart of Beverly Hills. But in 2008, as the recession washed over the US, Choi lost his job. Struggling to find work, he was poised to abandon his vocation altogether, when his friend Manguera called him – to talk about putting Korean barbecue in a taco.
“I grew up with taco trucks but I never thought I’d run one. It came out of pure necessity,” he recalls. But given his deep personal knowledge of the city, it’s no surprise Choi knew just where to park to find his audience. “I was at the wheel, and I thought about the places I’d been in my life. As I unlocked that part of my soul, I started to see spots the way graffiti artists see walls. I thought about my street days, my low-riding days, about people and places I used to know – and I just went there.”
Roy Choi: Seoul-to-soul food
1970: Born in Seoul, South Korea
1972: Moves with his family to Los Angeles
1987: Purchases his first vehicle, a customised Chevy Blazer
1997: Graduates from the Culinary Institute of America in New York
2007: Appointed chef de cuisine at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, Los Angeles
2008: Serves the first Korean BBQ tacos from the Kogi BBQ truck
2010: Opens his first bricks-and-mortar restaurant, Chego!
Street view: Three UK food trucks to watch in 2014 as chosen by Richard Johnson, founder of the British Street Food Awards
Bangwok, Sarah Chuaibamrung
“My husband Dong wanted to sell food from a van like in Thailand where they drive around serving whoever flags them down. We cook on a tuk-tuk with two wok burners: satay sticks, salad, and everything else you’d get on a Bangkok street stall. Bestseller? Easily Pad Thai.”
The Cauldron, Hannah James
“We serve modern and stylish food which is influenced by wholesome country cooking, from our razorback van. We use quality ingredients, butcher whole animals and play around with dishes such as crispy rolled pork cheeks with smoked potato mash. Ultimately our soul belongs in the south-west – but we relish the fact we are a truck and can trade nationwide.”
Original Fry-Up Material, Jon Knight
“We started as a tribute to the British greasy spoon, but wanted to dispel the idea you need to go to bed after a fry-up. We make all the sausages from scratch. US Diners are packed all day but we invented the cooked breakfast, so why not here?
interviews by Oscar Quine
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies