May 8 2014, 6:01pm CDT | by Forbes
Roy Choi could easily hike up prices at his restaurants with the kind of empire he’s been building, but that would defeat the purpose.
The Korean American chef’s restaurants, Alibi Room, Chego, A-Frame, Sunny Spot and more recently, POT at Line Hotel, are spread out in different regions of Los Angeles and serve mindboggling fusions of various cuisines, each one demanding its own write up that Choi himself doesn’t describe systematically. What the food truck king’s restaurants do seem to have in common is that they are all birthed from impulse, spontaneity and soul.
“There is no typical day, not when there are so many people out there that I care about that can’t access good food in their neighborhoods,” said Choi.
When it came to creating each restaurant’s menu and theme, Choi said, “I let the moment tell me what to do. Like a melody then I make a song.”
Though he shares an alma mater with TV personalities Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern from the Culinary Institute of America, Choi has become a star in his own right, having been a judge on Top Chef, a consultant to Jon Favreau for his latest movie called “Chef,” and a guest speaker at this year’s L.A. Times Festival of Books, where he talked about his first book, “L.A. Sons: My Life. My City. My Food.”
An immigrant from Seoul, there are no limits to how Choi’s part memoir, part cookbook weaves his turbulent life story with recipes in a way where they couldn’t exist without the other. Flashbacks to L.A. are intertwined with Choi’s recipes for chorizos and carne asada. His days in New York are attached to recipes for fancier meals like pounded pork schnitzel, coconut clam chowder and seared beef medallions with sauce Robert. Some of the more surprising recipes include his own adaptation of instant ramen and buttermilk pancakes–a reminder that good food doesn’t always have to be lavish.
They’re also a reminder that Choi is far from being your average celebrity chef. He’s been proudly breaking rules and blurring lines in the culinary world.
Once upon a time, food trucks, including taco trucks, or “loncheros” in Spanish, were at war with L.A. authorities. State and local regulation forces argued that food trucks unfairly competed with restaurants and viewed them as eyesores that were indicative of a poor neighborhood. But the rise of Choi’s Kogi BBQ as gourmet cuisine changed the stereotype and spurred a food truck craze across the nation.
“Those same officials are now eating off trucks right in front of city hall. Ha! The same racist views of calling someone’s cultural food from a truck unsanitary is now eradicated from popular culture,” said Choi.
The change was good for the city. I’m proud of this.”/>
Unafraid of uncharted territory, Choi has long been combining food and technology. From the beginning, part of the Kogi BBQ truck’s allure was that it always changes its location. The truck is parked at different locations and times that are announced on its Twitter TWTR +4.24% account, which has 123,000 followers as of May.
Recently, you might have seen Choi’s Google GOOGL +0.35% Glass Explorer storythat dropped on the internet on St. Patrick’s Day, or his reported investment in food startup Munchery, which delivers prepared gourmet food meals on demand. Both opportunities came from friends who thought he would be perfect for the roles.
“Munchery came to me through Jon Favreau. He introduced me to this food startup and I was very impressed with how this could be the facet of the future of food delivery and accessibility for all,” said Choi.
In 2009, Choi had openly told media Kogi grossed $2 million its first year of rolling out. Later in 2012, in an angry rant on his site, Choi wrote about possibly leaving cooking after some difficulty finding meaning in his work.
“Maybe I talk like I’m from Saturn but I don’t understand profitability,” Choi wrote. “Profitability when our whole existence is at stake? F*** you.”
These days, however, Choi is simply tight-lipped about revenue figures but exudes optimism about his operations./>/>
“I don’t think of business like that,” said Choi. “I operate in terms of energy and connection. The energy is strong, my friend.”
What’s next on the Food Truck King’s list?
“I want to reshape fast food in America,” Choi said.
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