The Rise of Chef Roy Choi, L.A.’s New Food Revolutionary

Danielle Bacher

Chef Roy Choi's eyes bulge. He clears his throat and slides his right hand through his thick, slicked back hair. Forty-four years old, tan, and fit, he makes the quintessential duck face. He looks at his phone and points it straight up to the ceiling, staring at the reflection of the most important person there is: himself.

A drop of sweat runs down his forehead as he takes another sip of coffee. He squints and leans back on a wooden chair on the rooftop of The Line Hotel in the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles. "I learned how to take a selfie yesterday," he says. "You give that three-quarter face, tilt and chin down and then you look real good."

He gives a cheesy half-smile and snaps another photo. Around the room, tables are half-set with napkins and silverware, boxes of supplies line the bar top and menus need to be placed inside handmade envelopes. His eyes dart around the space, a 1,600-square-foot greenhouse, as the sun casts geometric shapes on the concrete floor. "I smoke weed all the time," he says to me. "But I don't need weed to come up with creations or see weird things. That comes naturally."

In a few hours, this space will become his new restaurant: the Commissary, which will focus mainly on fresh fruits and vegetables. The menu is nothing but pictures, so you can point to a steak, black bass, artichoke or eggplant and receive what will no doubt be a culinary surprise.

For a while, it seemed as if this new spot wouldn't come to pass. Two years ago, Choi's punk attitude and stoner mentality nearly led him to the chopping block. He wrote a post on his blog Riding Shotgun that generated media speculation that he had given up both meat and cooking altogether. He wrote: "I'm thinking about leaving cooking. How can I cook without using meat?"

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The negative attention got him thinking: "Why are people so freaked out about what I am eating? Maybe they are just freaked out about what they are eating, or what our country is eating," he says. "Now, every time I sit down and eat a meal, there is an opportunity to think about all the hunger and disparity in food in America, just by eating fruits and vegetables." That new mentality triggered the restaurant's concept, but it hasn't resonated with every foodie.

"I'm ruffling a lot of feathers," he says quietly. "We don't cook Korean food the way its 'supposed' to be cooked. Every first generation person is saying this isn't Korean food. But I'm saying it is. If the ingredients are Korean and I was born in Korea, how can you argue it's not Korean food?"

Choi learned how to cook his parents' recipes like kimchi and panchan first at home, and then at their Anaheim restaurant Silver Garden in the late-1970s. Rice paper with bamboo trim covered the walls and a cigarette machine greeted you at the front door. He was an eight-year-old maître d', always answering every question with "Yes, Chef!" At 3:00 P.M., it was family dumpling time. Flour was poured on the table, and the chefs filled dumpling wrappers with ground meat intertwined with vermicelli noodles, ginger, scallions, garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil, and fish sauce. At 4:00 p.m., the dinner rush hit and he would sip Coke and greet all the customers that walked in. He loved smelling the hot pot, his mother's signature spicy kimchi-tofu dish with seafood and raw eggs. To this day, he offers his take on the Choi family staple at POT, the sister restaurant in this hotel.

Their restaurant at its busiest would feed hundreds a night, but after a few years, the surrounding neighborhood went to seed and business fell off. His parents turned to selling Amway and jewelry out of the restaurant. It soon folded. They began drinking to ease the pain. "The alcohol never affected their daily lives. But they turned into different people at nighttime," he says. "They busted their asses, but they felt so much pressure to make the family a success." Choi and his parents started hawking diamonds on the streets of Los Angeles to make ends meet. "It was the immigrant mentality," he says, "I didn't really think about it. It was just what I did, and sometimes it was dangerous."

After graduating high school, he wasn't really thinking about a career. "I still went through the motions of giving a fuck about my future like a good little Asian kid," he recalls. He ended up trying coke and crack, falling into a heavy gambling addiction and hitting rock bottom at 24. He tried his hand at investment banking, but still walked in with booze on his breath. After another club binge, he woke up on his friend's couch to Emeril Lagasse cooking on TV. It was then that he realized that cooking was his buried passion.

"Sometimes when you're around something so closely, you don't notice it. I was around food my whole life, but it was something too close to me. I was never good at anything, so I found a lot of vices because of that," he says. "Through fighting those vices, especially the addictions, I ended up at the lowest place imaginable. I don't know why it took the Emeril show to inspire me, but it was a signal and that was it. I applied to the Culinary Institute of America and somehow got in."

Over the next decade, Choi worked at country clubs, renowned hotels like the Beverly Hilton, and even the four-star seafood institution Le Bernadin in New York City. Later, he would team up with friend Mark Manguera to launch Kogi, offering up Korean-Mexican fusion out of a beat-up 1980s Grumman catering truck for drunken 20-somethings outside nightclubs on Sunset Boulevard.

Within three months, Kogi was drawing hundreds of fans every night. He would go on to open Chego in Chinatown, A-Frame in Culver City, Sunny Spot in Venice and POT here. He published a 2013 memoir L.A. Son, and his life inspired the Jon Favreau indie hit film Chef. Even with all the accolades and celebrity persona, Choi maintains that what he really wants is to push the boundaries and defy everyone else's expectations. He wants people to interact with culture and see food in a different way.

Now, however, he’s just trying not to piss too many people off. "I went up against my own race and culture with my restaurants," he says. "I'm taking it all the way to challenge traditional cooking and show you who I am. I love the ingredients and the food I grew up on. People think I'm an expatriate and not true to what it means to be Korean. I was taken to America at two years old, and I'm expected to grow the same as I did over there. But there is nothing safe with what I do."

Choi shifts in his seat and takes another sip of his signature coffee. He leans in and says, "Who knows? Everything could implode. There could be people in the streets of Koreatown protesting, saying, 'Get rid of these restaurants. It's blasphemous to our culture!'" But he's not that worried. He knows where he has come from and that whatever he does, his heart and soul reside in each meal he cooks. He stands up and looks at me, pacing back and forth. "Okay, so I have like two hours until this restaurant opens. I'll let you know how it goes." He takes one last selfie with his phone. Clearly proud, this time he shows it to me.

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