Industry Innovator: Roy Choi

This week’s Industry Innovator is considered a leader in the food truck movement. Roy Choi has become an icon in the LA culinary scene, and his food truck empire sparked a nationwide trend.

Finding His Way

Roy Choi was born in South Korea in 1970, and his family immigrated soon after to Southern California. As his parents started and developed a successful jewelry business, Roy roamed the streets of Los Angeles, often interacting with criminals. Due to his declining grades and rebellious nature, his parents sent him to Southern California Military School. After high school, Choi briefly returned to Korea to teach English. He graduated from California State University with a degree in Philosophy, and attempted law school, but found that it was not his calling. With no clear career aspirations or plans for the future, Choi was depressed and looking for inspiration. This inspiration eventually came from Emeril Lagasse and his show, Essence of Emeril. The iconic chef’s use of all five senses spoke to Choi, and he immediately signed up for culinary school night classes. In 1996, Choi began his studies at the revered Culinary Institute of America in New York and started an internship at Le Bernardin. Choi then began cooking for Hilton hotels, working his way up to chef de cuisine at the flagship location, the Beverly Hilton. It was here that Choi met Mark Manguera and together they developed the Korean taco.

Then there was Kogi

In 2008 the Kogi Korean Taco Truck was born, and Choi flourished in the mobile environment. He found the shift away from brick-and-mortar freeing, allowing him to focus on food and fun. What started as one food truck on Abbot Kinney Boulevard grew into a thriving business, as hundreds of fans scanned their Twitter feeds daily, searching for Kogi’s next location. In 2010, Choi was the first food truck operator to be named one of the top ten Best New Chefs by Food and Wine Magazine. Kogi’s rapid expansion led to the opening of Chego! restaurant on the eastside, featuring rice bowls and a youthful environment. Alibi Room opened soon after on the westside, serving Kogi and Chego! dishes and pairing them with high-end cocktails and craft beers. Choi also opened Pot, a commissary style restaurant, Sunny Spot, a Caribbean-inspired cookshop, and A-frame, a Hawaiian restaurant and bar.

Collaborations

Choi has collaborated with world-renowned chefs such as Wolfgang Puck and David Chang. Choi appeared on Bravo’s Emmy-winning Top Chef as a Quick fire challenge judge. In May 2014 actor, comedian and director Jon Favreau asked Choi to help him prepare for his movie Chef, which depicts a man reinvigorating his passion for cooking by opening a food truck. Choi was involved in every cooking scene, training Favreau on preparation, technique, ingredients and more. After Chef premiered, Choi and Favreau hosted El Jefe inspired pop-ups, recreating the food truck in the film. These pop-up dinners sold out in minutes.

Cooking for Change

Although Choi has achieved astronomical success, he still sees himself as an outcast by traditional Korean-American standards, and only truly feels at home in LA. This is why all of his cuisine marries ethnic flavors and LA “vibes”. In 2013, Choi paid homage to LA in his part memoir, part cookbook L.A Son: My Life, My City, My Food. Later in 2013, Choi delivered a speech at the MAD Symposium in Denmark, urging chefs to serve healthy, accessible food to urban areas, thus providing alternatives to “corrosive” fast food. Choi volunteers at A Place Called Home, teaching students how to prepare affordable and healthy meals. Choi also supports 3 Worlds Café, an initiative that teaches local high school students culinary and business skills.

Food trucks have become an integral component of pop-up dining. Not only do food trucks create livelihoods, but also cultivate an unprecedented interactive and engaging relationship with customers. Over the years, these mobile businesses have appeared on best food/best restaurant/best chef lists across the country. For this, we have Roy Choi to thank.