—THE CHOW 13—
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LA’s Kogi barbecue taco truck became a seeming overnight sensation when it debuted last December, amassing long, hungry lines, coverage on food blogs and in the national press, and several copycats. It was a mobile hole-in-the-wall for those in the know: LA street tacos filled with Korean barbecue, broadcast via Twitter, only after midnight. Drunken kids coming out of clubs tweeted it to all their friends, proving you can rely almost entirely on Twitter to launch unconventional new restaurant ventures.
But Kogi would have been just a novelty act if the food wasn’t amazing. Which it was, thanks to Roy Choi. An intense former chef for the Beverly Hilton Hotel, Choi was tapped for the project by his old friend, Mark Manguera, who had the truck and the idea but needed somebody with the chops to execute it. Drawing on the Korean food he grew up with, Choi developed the truck’s crazy-good mainstays: barbecue short ribs inside soft corn tortillas, and the kimchee quesadilla. Then he ventured into even more creative realms: Last summer’s daily specials included a spicy Korean pork sandwich, pressed between El Salvadoran soft pillow loafs, with caramelized onions, house-made chile mayo, grilled heirloom tomatoes, and cheese. In a year when nouveau food trucks became the most buzzed-about trend in the restaurant industry, let Choi go down as the chef who nailed the concept as sure as a drunk craves tacos at two in the morning.
Was there any dish you created that failed?
“With the exception of two or three dishes out of hundreds we created since we opened, everything has gone over really well. There was a mandarin-yogurt dish that didn’t go too well, though.”
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
“A lot of people do something for so long, then they say: I wish I could be a ballet dancer instead of an accountant. I’m like the complete opposite. I tried everything in the first part of my life. I tried to be a good student, son, tried out for sports. I tried to work in an office, at an investment bank. I did all these things that I guess normal people do, but I just wasn’t good at them! And so, from there, food is all I’ve done. I have no hobbies. Any spare time I have or creative joneses, I give it towards food.”
What would you change about your industry?
“In the last eight months of cooking for Kogi, I’ve learned that there’s nothing more important than seeing the expression on somebody’s face when you hand them food, directly. How great would it be if the best chefs in the world brought their food to the people? I don’t mean the people who can afford the food. I’m talking about the people who would never get the chance to eat at a Le Bernardin, or even a Lombardi’s pizza, or a Shake Shack! Kids in Queensbridge projects or South Central LA, who may never get the chance to eat great food from the hands of a master like an Eric Ripert or Daniel Boulud. Imagine if they brought that food down to the people? If we made that fundamental shift in the industry, it would change the framework of who we are as humans.”