We sit down with Roy Choi, the chef and creative force behind Kogi and LA restaurants A-Frame, Sunny Spot and Chego.
By Katherine Kims|
Roy Choi can do no wrong. LA's food darling is the people's chef, stirring Angelenos into a Korean-taco hybrid feeding frenzy with his Kogi truck and serving no frills, flavorful (and, shall we say, a case-of-the-munchies) plates to his brick and mortar A-Frame, Sunny Spot and Chego. His recipe for success? Staying true to his roots. The chef/creative force opens up about his Korean roots, LA love, cheap eats, guilty pleasures and fall debut of Pot.
Time Out Los Angeles: Chego recently relocated to Chinatown. Why Chinatown? Roy Choi: The director of development at Chinatown [Business Improvement District] had been hitting me up for a long time. Our lease was running up in Palms and the landlord and I were going back and forth and couldn't come to an agreement. Serendipitously, the Chinatown space came up. I had lunch at the [Far East] plaza and I felt something very strong, so I said, "Let’s do it." I was hypnotized. I wasn’t thinking of what impact it would have. In all the time I spent in Chinatown as a kid to now, there aren't many businesses besides Chinese, Vietnamese or first generation. I thought that this was a chance to move forward in a different direction, while honoring and representing our parents who immigrated here. Kogi has fed a lot of people but a lot of people in Chinatown weren't eating my food. I'm bringing food to a new people.
Time Out Los Angeles: What are your favorite spots in Chinatown? Roy Choi: The [Far East] plaza is very dope. I like the pho house and restaurants there. Queen's Bakery for almond cookies and Hop Woo. I've gotten to know the chef, Lupe, and I feel comfortable there.
Time Out Los Angeles: You're opening a new restaurant at the Line Hotel. Tell us how that came about. Roy Choi:Pot is a Korean hot pot restaurant that focuses on chon gol [casseroles] like dduk bok gi [spicy rice cakes], but through my eyes. I'm going back to where I was as a chef and where I am today, paying homage to our family restaurant in a new way. It's right in the middle of Koreatown. I want to build the bridge between Koreans and Korean-Americans and first and second generations. I'm a stoner and it's called Pot, so it's also going to be a fun place to have a good time. We want to create an energy of a pojangmacha [street stall] or walking into an alleyway in Seoul.
Time Out LA: What's a typical day like for you? Roy Choi: It’s very not typical; it’s wherever the day takes me—the trucks, the restaurants where I'm at 12 to 14 hours a day. There's no set pattern. I make sure that I stay involved as much as a possible and set aside time for being creative. I am the creative in the identity of the brand and I constantly try to stay connected.
Time Out LA: What's the secret ingredient to Kogi? Roy Choi: Consistency, our soul, our personality, the flavor—those are the main things. We’re offering Korean BBQ and Mexican food and tacos without the mindset of a gimmick. It’s a translation of how we're feeling in LA.
Time Out LA: At what moment did you know you wanted to be a chef? Roy Choi: It was in an episode of Essence of Emeril in 1995. I didn’t know anything about being a chef. I started to do some research, moved to New York and went to CIA [Culinary Institute of America]. I discovered another way that I could live my life.
Time Out LA: How would you describe yourself? Roy Choi: I used to be a chef. As a young manager, I had no idea what it meant to be a chef. I was a dickhead, bossy, arrogant and macho, throwing shit around and threatening people with their jobs. But I was a legitimate chef; I went to culinary school, worked my way up and ran the Beverly Hilton hotel. So, I can legitimize being that because I now cook tacos in the street. I call myself more of a provider. I've evolved into a more maternal role.
Time Out LA: If you weren't doing what you were doing, what profession would you have? Roy Choi: I love maps, so I'd want to be a topographer...or a tour guide.
Time Out LA: What’s on your playlist? Roy Choi: Alchemist, Evidence, Dilated Peoples, Dumbfoundead, Superhumanoids—a lot of LA music.
Time Out LA: What are your favorite cheap eats in LA? Roy Choi: Anywhere, really, for tacos. I like Mariscos Jalisco, Leo's, La Estrella—a lot of people don't get up on that in Highland Park. I also like soon doo bu at Beverly Soon Tofu, In-N-Out for a grilled cheese, Tommy's and Sage in Echo Park for a Brazilian bowl or one of their sandwiches. El Parian is great. Pico Union is an underrated part of LA and not a lot of people go unless you live there. I spent a lot of time down there; there are a lot of places to eat, shops and people around.
Time Out LA: Any vices or guilty pleasures? Roy Choi: Milkshakes...and hot fudge sundaes. I make milkshakes at home, but the two best are at at GulfstreamandDisney's Soda Fountain on Hollywood Boulevard.