An Interview with Roy Choi

Yesterday saw the release of Roy Choi’s speech at MAD3, in which the food truck pioneer called on chefs to try to feed those their restaurants don’t normally reach. The content of Choi’s presentation sparked a debate on the role of chefs and the question of whether they can make a difference in the face of profound economic, social, and political challenges. 

In an interview yesterday evening, Choi was able to elaborate on the ideas in his presentation. He talked about the genesis of Kogi and how the truck became more than what it was at the start (easy drunk food for club-goers), explained the inspiration for his presentation, and reaffirmed his belief that grassroots efforts to expose people to food of quality can make an impact. “There is something magnetic going on in the world of chefs,” says Choi. “And we need to seize on that.” Here’s Choi:

Did you start Kogi with the intention of reaching people without access to quality food?

No, not even close. That’s what makes it so much more powerful for me. I could just be having fun and enjoying life, because that’s how it started. We would serve to people outside of clubs at 2 AM and try to…

Make money?

Yeah! It was like selling a mix tape. We had a great product that we believed in, with no plan besides that drive to get it out there. Nothing was going to stop us. We were serving beautiful, young people who were partying. We had a delicious taco that possessed us. We just went out and tried to sell it. As I look back on it, the price really was a big deal to us, though. It had to be cheap. I wasn’t thinking about feeding the world, but I still wanted it to be something people didn’t think twice about. That took us to the switch of making food accessible. 

When did that happen?

It’s always been about giving people something delicious in an environment where there are no options. That applied at the very beginning, at the clubs. That started to take on a more complicated meaning when we started going out to the other neighborhoods. We kept extending our reach. That’s when I started to feel the power of it, because people could come out in force. Neighbors would call each other to make sure they got on line. The crowds would get bigger and bigger as we got farther away from the city center, and it wasn’t about the cool factor, at all. They were thankful we were there. It wasn’t just about it being awesome or trendy. People would come up to the truck to thank us for coming. No one had ever thanked me for food in that way. They would bring their kids, take pictures, and make us commit to coming back. 

It wasn’t just about reaching poor people or solving bad economies, either. It just made me realize how few people we chefs tend to reach. 

Can you explain that more?

You’ve got a lot of people that aren’t poor but still don’t eat food that’s worth a damn. When you’re in the kitchen and in that world doing 80 covers, and someone comes by at the end of the night and shakes your hand and says, “Chef, this was great,” you think you’re reaching so many people. But you’re not. I realized no one was eating our food, because it was too expensive. I’m not by any means saying we were the answer to everything, but I saw that something like Kogi could be a nice bridge for a working family that can’t go out to dinner. It’s a breath of fresh air compared to the fast food. The only neighborhood we stayed out of was East L.A., out of respect for the taco vendors. But we tried to go everywhere. 

But poverty wasn’t necessarily in my mind at the beginning. I just wanted to reach people that appreciated it and needed it. After I had my meltdown, and for the speech at MAD, I really started thinking about poverty and the systemic problems. It’s a really intricate fabric, but I know at the very least that we aren’t doing our part to get our food out to people. It’s elitist. 

A lot of us working in this industry don’t come from silver spoon backgrounds, yet we get thrown into this world where we get disconnected from everybody else. That really hit me when I started seeing all these people come out to eat our food, because no one else was going out there. 

Some say chefs should stay in the kitchen and not pretend they can make that much of an impact. 

Now in this blogging world, people can be so mean to each other and are critical in a knee-jerk way. Chefs have been shoved in the back forever. Here’s an example: I have a friend who knows Roger Vergé, a legend, and he’s told me about how Verge’s been treated like crap, being asked to cook at functions where he has to pay his way to get there, book his own room. It still happens today to chefs. 

But the fact is chefs have great ideas and are creative thinkers. I think summits like MAD give us a chance to flex those muscles. People think chefs hang out with each other all the time, but we don’t. We hardly ever see each other, even though we do have a universal bond. So, getting together is a good thing. If you don’t force us to get together, we will never get together, because we are workaholics. 

One thing I didn’t get to express in my speech is that I don’t consider myself the answer to anything. I just want to try to be a bridge. We’re just starting. There’s potential to do way, way better than what Kogi’s done. I wasn’t very good at college, so maybe my presentation wasn’t totally educated and conscious of every angle, but it’s supposed to be that way. It’s the beginning. For a lot us, we’ve never spoke on stage before. We don’t have speechwriters. 

But it’s worth it. Chefs are born leaders. We have something to offer, and there is something magnetic going on today in the world of chefs and food. We need to seize on that in a positive way. Chefs always have something to say to our teams, to our cooks, to people we are training. We are passing down knowledge. That’s what our craft is. So, when people see us in an environment where we’re sharing that with others, it might seem odd to people, since we’re not in whites at a cutting board. A lot of people don’t realize that this is what we do: we push each other, we criticize each other, we learn from each other, we check on each other. We constantly question what we are doing and the impact it has. 

What would you like to see from chefs in five or ten years?

I’d really love to see the chefs do what I was asking at an extreme level. Go to the poorest points of their neighborhoods and think about food in those areas. Think about food in the schools, in the neighborhoods, in the prisons, and think about how to bring some more affordable food there. We have to put the lean on our purveyors, our farmers to help us do that. We have these chefs representing cities all over the world, and they need to think about exactly how powerful they are and how much people would appreciate it. 

If we’re truly the best chefs in the world, then maybe we shouldn’t just be cooking for the most fortunate. So many people think it’s too big a hill to climb, but if we start doing it and giving people more and more options than Pizza Hut, then we’ll start changing the reality. It sounds ridiculous to say, “Why doesn’t Michel Bras have a pizza shop in the Bronx?” But what happens if he does? It brings an energy to the neighborhood, a level of accessible quality, and it’ll multiply. People think I’m crazy, but I literally saw it happen before my eyes. 

I can’t fix the educational system, I can’t fix the economic system, and I’m not a professor, either. But I do know that food has something to do with our ability to pay attention and absorb information — and our ability to be happier, better, warmer. It helps us thrive. We have these staggering negatives in our systems, and it’s a big puzzle and a lot of politics, but I figured I should at least say that maybe if we start fucking feeding kids better food, then maybe the kids will wake up a little and navigate the system better. There’s a lot of red tape, but we need to start thinking about this. What I’ve said comes out of love and a desire to get people thinking. I’m not good at the politics, but I do know something about the underground, and what people are capable of achieving.