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Q&A: Roy Choi Dishes on Being LA's Son, Pot and More

By Lesley Balla
November 14, 2013
Photo by: Roy Choi

LA’s son, Roy Choi, is back on the West Coast continuing his tour for his new book, L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food, which was released just last week and already on the New York Times Bestsellers list. In it he lays it all out for the reader - growing up in LA in the 1970s, family, addictions, food, Emeril Lagasse, all the things that led him to this point right now - and talks to the world about kimchi, Kogi and more. L.A. Son is more than a cookbook; it’s an autobiography, a memoir, and a love letter to all that made the man and chef who he is today. We caught up with Choi to chat about the book and tour, the fans, gratitude and more a few hours before his talk last night at the ALOUD series hosted by the Los Angeles Central Library.

Zagat: The book tour seems pretty whirlwind so far. How’s it going?
Roy Choi: It’s been great. We’re only done with one-third of it. I wanted to treat it like a music tour. You know, I’m not really an author. I’m not conventional. I don’t really look to previous structures to define what I’m doing. I thought, I’m in a unique position. I try to maximize it, live in the moment. We have an opportunity to get this book out there, and I wanted to see how far we can push it. Have a publisher like Bourdain, and that made it easier. He understands. He’s Bourdain. Having him involved was a huge part of it. It allowed me the latitude and leverage to try something that others aren’t trying.

Zagat: Like what?
RC: Things like making a concert poster and really hitting the streets. Throwing after-parties on the streets in the Lower East Side in New York. Taking it to colleges. Getting it to the youth. Not just within the food community, not like, just a cooking appliance store. We put it on a food truck, we went out; they did raffles. We were out there with the kids. The East Coast is really great. Just being out there with the students was exhilarating. That pure energy of just wanting to learn. Brooklyn was amazing. We had a launch party with Tony [Bourdain] at Powerhouse Arena, we had my friend DJ, and Momofuku catered. I was surprised with the turnout. I know what my relationship is here with the West Coast. I could’ve easily fell flat on my face out there. I had a lot of anxiety in Brooklyn. But as soon as it was over I felt like I was in LA. The love is everywhere. Love is universal.

Zagat: Any favorite moments? Like were you surprised to how crowds in, say, Boston reacted to you, Kogi, your story?
RC: It’s faaaar away. And they could not know anything about what’s going on here in LA. But one of the hallmark moments was being at the Culinary Institute of America [in Hyde Park, NY] again. That was really special. I was there, you know? I was that student watching a chef come in and do a demo. And I just saw a lot of myself in their eyes. I felt their energies and seeing that possibility and that space between now and the future. A room with 300 culinary students just thinking about how much they’re going to go through. Just being on a tour talking about a personal situation and a personal book, and remembering when I was them. And everything I’ve been through to get to this point. I was also surprised by how much love Boston had for me. The students, the faculty, the community. Even the people at the hotel.

Zagat: But you love when you get back to LA.
RC: Oh, yeah. I love the tour. But I love being back in LA. It just felt good. I was so happy when I got back, I wore shorts. I had a little speed bump along the way, and did an Anthony Bourdain Live show and promoted the book in Las Vegas. It was a big rhythm change. We landed in Vegas on a Saturday night. Just the difference between the two, Boston to Vegas. Sequined miniskirts.

Zagat: Did you eat anywhere great in Vegas?
RC: Blue Ribbon.

Zagat: If you had to describe the book in one word, what would it be?
RC: Journey. Of my family from Korea. Of our life here in Los Angeles. Journey through being rich and poor. Journey through addictions. Through life. Through being a chef. And being where I am right now.

Zagat: I was thinking "gratitude." You’re very thankful for a lot, including LA itself.
RC: A lot of people have said that. The book really allowed me to open up and see it all. That’s the process of writing a book. And I found in that process the gratitude. Sometimes when you’re here, it’s hard to see that gratitude. Sometimes you hurt the ones you love the most. I never really expressed my love for the city until recently with Kogi, I was struggling to find myself in my hometown. Not like I’m looking at it with fresh new eyes. In writing this book, I was able to step away a bit and realize that I was thankful. For the city and its freedom and its landscape. For me to find myself out. Grateful for growing up around Latinos and so many cultures. For Hollywood. For Dodgers games when I was young. My parents for always being there no matter what I did.

Zagat: You talk about addictions in the book, especially yours to gambling. Would you say going into the restaurant business itself is its own gamble?
RC: Oh yeah. I believe that’s a compulsion and addiction as well. You’re possessed by a desire to bring joy and fun to people at any cost possible. I think anyone in the restaurant business will understand this book and these compulsions because we’re all that way. Otherwise we’d all have office jobs. We all have that drive, that compulsion to never congratulate ourselves. To always keep pushing. To beat ourselves up over every little thing. To work very hard for very little pay. It’s a good addiction, but an addiction.

Zagat: The other day I heard you on NPR's “Morning Edition,” cooing about kimchi in my ear while I was waking up. Is there anything kimchi can’t make better?
RC: I haven’t seen it. Kimchi in desserts probably don’t go too well. As far as savory foods, to me it heightens everything. It’s like champagne at a party. There’s never a moment where it can’t make the situation better.

Zagat: We learn how you got from the couch to Kogi, but what about what came after? Like transitioning from food trucks to brick-and-mortar spots like A-Frame, Sunny Spot and Chego?
RC: I haven’t even finished that yet. I didn’t want to write about Kogi because that’s not just about me. It’s a group of people; we’re a band. And we as a band aren’t ready to write that story yet. I want to end the book right when [Kogi co-founder] Mark [Manguera] calls me up. But everything from Kogi on has been a really non-cerebral rollercoaster. It just happened. That’s never happened before in my life. When it did, I was unaware of the pitfalls or even the turns in the road. I was on such a high with Kogi. When [restaurateur] David Reiss said he had the spot for A-Frame, I just said ok. I didn’t even ask questions. I just said, ok, let’s start. Those moments were in the moment, and maybe I’ll go back and look at them and see how beautiful it was to follow your heart. The last five years were like… like eloping. No contract, no business plans, no nothing. It was like one big trip to Vegas. People want to hear more substance, but that’s the truth. I can defend or deny it, but those decisions have gotten me here. And maybe I won’t even figure it out.

Zagat: L.A. Son is very personal. Is there any one part you’re excited for people to know about now more than before?
RC: I’m really proud of the 1970s Los Angeles that we wrote about. Steve Garvey. Tommy’s Burgers. Bob's Big Boy. Movie theaters. Crenshaw Boulevard. Down by Vermont. Jefferson. The beginning of old Koreatown. Olympic Boulevard. I feel like those chapters, they encapsulated what it felt like to be here in the VW Bug era. The turquoise. Big bell bottoms. Stoner shades. It’s still the same sunshine but not as crowded. I’m really proud of that.

Zagat: Do you think your story helps people understand your food more? Or food in general?
RC: It’s still really early to tell; it’s only been out a week. But I hope so. I hope they can see that the food that’s in the book, that I grew up with to what I’m cooking now, is a cultural bridge in a way. I hope they understand a little more. In many ways, in these last few years that you’ve all gotten to know me, I’ve been pigeon-holed into a sound bite. The Kogi taco guy. That’s my Stairway to Heaven, and it will define me from this point forward. But it’s my chance in my words to talk about who I really am.

Zagat: You tell the story about how watching Emeril on TV one day was a pivotal moment for you. Like Emeril speaking to you that day, do you hope this book, your story, your food speaks to any one person, or kind of person, in particular?
RC: I hope it speaks to a lot of people I know are struggling. Even people I don’t know. In the food world, we only want to talk about the pretty stuff. Like you guys at Zagat aren’t writing about the food culture in South LA or the homeless people on Skid Row. What people are doing paycheck to paycheck to survive. You want to write about the new restaurant openings. But my life is not only surrounded by the food world, and I know there are a lot of people struggling with life, addiction, getting a job, with their own personal identities. Maybe they happen upon the book, and maybe something connects. And even if it doesn’t, maybe the recipes would be something they want to cook. Maybe that food could help them change. And if nothing else, that food will at least be good to them. I just want this book to ride shotgun with you, no matter where you are in life. I just want someone to open it up and say, “I want to make this.”

Zagat: What’s next on the agenda - more restaurants? More books?
RC: What’s immediately next is the Line Hotel. That should open within the next few months. The signature restaurant is Pot, a Korean restaurant in Koreatown serving Korean food from a chef who’s not trained in Korean food. And it will be either spectacular or fall flat. I’m laying it all on the line, like the book. Putting it out there. If you guys love it, great. If not, then that will be ok. I get to go back to cooking, back to the lab to create new recipes. That will be fun.

Roy Choi starts the hometown book tour at A-Frame tonight, Thursday, November 14; at Book Soup in West Hollywood (with the Kogi truck) on Friday, November 15; at the Diamond Jamboree in Irvine on Saturday, November 16; at Skylight Books in Los Feliz on Tuesday, November 19; and then next month at Sunny Spot in Venice on Wednesday, December 11, and the Westlake Culinary Institute on Thursday, December 12.

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