It’s midmorning at the Venice Beach Pier in Los Angeles, and we are desperately in search of Roy Choi.
A photographer, his crew and I have arrived at the designated meeting place, on time, but Choi—one of the hottest figures in the food world right now, well on his way to becoming a megabrand that started, improbably, with a beat-up taco truck on the streets of this mother of a city—is nowhere in sight among the flock of homeless people, fishermen and surfers making their way on another ridiculously picturesque Southern California day.
We were supposed to meet right here, weren’t we? At the top of the hour? It’s now 20 past. Are we in the wrong place? Oh, Jesus.
We’ve arranged for a ride-along with the hipster god of the L.A. food scene that will have us spending the day skipping across town and popping by his various ventures—including the Kogi BBQ truck that virtually started the food-truck craze and made him a sensation (on this day, the truck, one of four in Choi’s fleet, is parked outside the National Public Radio studios in Culver City). We are getting anxious about keeping on schedule.
“Could he be down at the end?” someone wonders. So, we hightail it out toward the yawning Pacific, and sure enough, there, at the very tip of the pier, he appears, decked out in his signature Stussy T-shirt and knitted cap, sitting and gazing at that awesome blue vista as if deep in meditation (maybe he is?). A homeless man lies on the bench beside him. We start snapping pictures, exchanging penitent hellos.
We may be twitchy, but Choi is not.
“It was a test—you failed!” he jokes, greeting us with an easy smile that at once resets the mood.
In more ways than one, Roy Choi is a hard man to pin down. He’s a classically trained chef with a Culinary Institute of America pedigree who early on worked under Eric Ripert at New York’s Le Bernardin, one of the top restaurants in the world, and who would go on to run kitchens for corporate giants like Hilton Hotels and The Cheesecake Factory, but who would find fame (and salvation) six years ago when he started, with partner Mark Manguera, selling $3 tacos out of a truck on L.A. street corners and, with the aid of Twitter, became massive. Like most people of accomplishment, Choi is a curious mashup of contradictions. And like most people, he can tell his own story better than anybody else, which he does to superb effect in his book, L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food, published last fall under chef Anthony Bourdain’s imprint at HarperCollins’ Ecco Press and co-written by L.A. Weekly senior food writer Tien Nguyen and Natasha Phan, who heads business development and communications for Choi’s restaurants.
The book is itself a heady concoction: part balls-out biography, part racy cookbook (for one of his recipes, he advises: “Get topless women in hairnets to pack the sauce into small pouches in a house with blacked-out windows like in New Jack City”), part anthropological guide (a chapter dubbed “Cultural Shit” features handy tips like “taste with fingers” and “eat slow; drop the deuce fast”) and part inspirational tract (call it “The Zen of Roy”). In the book, the fascinating journey of the 44-year-old is documented in page-turning detail—from son of Korean immigrants who were, among other things, restaurant owners and jewelry dealers in L.A. and Orange County to smart-ass street hood to down-and-out addict to Wall Street wannabe to Gastronomy 101 to the whirring kitchens of Beverly Hills to messiah of the food truck craze and, now, A-list chef, Hollywood player, advertising pitchman and emergent consumer brand. In its pages, and even more so in person, one finds in Choi a personality who is at once high-end and low-end, flawed and at the top of his game, relentless and chill, coarse and refined—and absolutely, unapologetically authentic.
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