Pioneering L.A. chef Roy Choi on improving food in inner cities

Tue Sep 16, 2014 6:03am EDT
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By Lisa Baertlein

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Los Angeles chef Roy Choi sparked a nationwide food movement with his Kogi BBQ food trucks that peddle short rib tacos, kimchi quesadillas and other Korean/Mexican mash-ups and turned Americans' view of the "roach coach" on its head.

Choi, 44, spent his youth wandering and eating his way through L.A.'s ethnic neighborhoods. Classical training at the Culinary Institute of America in New York ended a streak of partying and gambling. Success came quickly, with stints in kitchens from New York's celebrated Le Bernardin to the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles.

When he was fired from a new corporate concept restaurant as the global economy went into a deep swoon, it opened the door to Kogi.

A friend came up with the idea to put Korean BBQ meat into a taco. Choi wrote in his book "L.A. Son" that working on the project showed him that he had inherited sohn-maash, or "flavors in their fingertips," from his mother's family.

Choi spoke with Reuters about working with inner-city youth, getting kids to eat vegetables and his ideas for ending so-called "food deserts," which are generally areas, often in the inner city, that lack fresh and healthy food.

Q: Why did you start working with kids?

A: Kogi was a beast. This whole fame monster thing took a little bit of a toll on me. I wasn't ready for it. I just tried to find another place for myself, so I started working in South Central (Los Angeles).

I grew up in a family where food was a central part of our lives. We had a restaurant. We had a very up and down life. We were immigrants. The one thing that always remained constant was food.   Continued...

Kogi co-founder Roy Choi poses for a portrait at 3 Worlds Cafe in Los Angeles, California September 12, 2014. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni