Third part of three parts, please start here with the first part
Chef Roy Choi believes food more than anything else brings people from different cultures together. Choi has been around and always been in awe of artists especially musicians. He’s seen how music can also bring people together. But no matter how popular a musician is, a musician can still alienate other audiences that aren’t into that artist’s sound. So no matter how big the audience, the audience will still be specific. With food though, Choi has found that even people with different and specific patterns can all come together and eat food. Once Choi realized this, he played with it, and now tries to push his cuisine to see how far it can go.
Moreover according to Chef Choi, food has always been the connector. But food in restaurants ten years ago wasn’t as accessible as it is today. Food was concealed “in a box” that only more recently has been opened for every one to see, explore and taste. So Choi has been exploring different ways to expose more and different people to this even more expansive world of food.
As part of this exploration, he decided to work with SPAM® for cultural reasons to confront and discuss how a lot of Asians and Hawaiians including Polynesians and Filipinos grow up. His decision wasn’t a political one, whether SPAM® is right or wrong, since Roy believes there can’t be an ethical conversation about SPAM® if people don’t understand why people eat SPAM®. SPAM® is an American product introduced by America to Asia and Hawaii during and post World II when Hawaii became part of the United States and when the United States helped Asia recover after the war. Hawaii is the largest consumer of SPAM® products in the U.S; consuming more than 7 million cans of SPAM® each year. Furthermore, since WWII SPAM has been built into the Hawaiian culture where the popular snack SPAM Musubi, is comparable to a NY slice of pizza or a hotdog in Chicago. So in many ways SPAM® became a gateway to America for many countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea, Guam and Japan to understand what America was about. SPAM® products are sold today in more than 44 countries, including China, Japan, England, Korea, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the Philippines.
Another completely and seemingly contradictory way Roy has re-examined food and what he himself eats is that Roy for the most part has abstained from eating meat for over a year. He’s not absolute. He’ll eat meat when he taste dishes he’s cooking or if he’s in a situation like at his grandmother’s house, who has been cooking all day, he won’t turn her food down. But, in general, he’s largely vegetarian. Roy changed his diet in order to change his patterns and by doing so he raised new questions, and found new solutions Plus his new diet made him think more about what he was eating even if just for a millisecond. This diet and his blogging about it opened up a new dialogue with people who weren’t part of his life before.
Roy’s blog came about in conjunction with the creation of his new book, “LA Son, My life, My City, My Food,” set to be released November 5th, and that can be pre-ordered on Amazon. Originally entitled Spaghetti Junction, the book’s title changed as the content evolved and became more personal.
As for what’s next for Choi, The Line Hotel at Normandie and Wilshire is well into construction. The Sydell Group doing this renovation conversion is the same group that built and operates the Nomad and Ace Hotels in NYC. Roy turned down the project twice before he was persuaded to change his mind. Roy feels this project is going to be a big deal for Korean Town and for his food. All of his internal development is done. He and his team are just waiting for the shell construction to be completed so his team can get in and start building out their concepts. The brands Choi’s putting in are still under wraps.
Plus he’s taking over food for the entire hotel. So once again, Choi is returning to hotel kitchens, and having been a hotel chef, he’s never been caught up in his own ego, so he’s developed systems that aren’t so self torturing and that allows his team of generals, majors and privates to execute with confidence.
Kogi too is still a huge part of Roy’s plans moving forward. Despite there no longer being lines, Kogi is still doing the same amount of people. Kogi was never about the lines. The neighborhoods where people use to line up now know when the trucks are coming and that they’ll be there for three hours. So nothing has changed from the inside out. The media’s perception may have changed, but the business hasn’t. Kogi is doing even more business.
Choi and his team firmly believe that the food that Kogi cooks is meant to be eaten by as many people as possible. So after almost five years Roy feels, it’s time to be less protective and take Kogi to the next level, that is open up a bit and listen to outside capital. To this end, the next big step for Kogi is the licensing deal at LAX with HMSHost to open up a Kogi in the terminal four food court.
Two things that made this deal work for Roy are first HMSHost made a real commitment to bringing in new chefs by putting all their current employees through the LA Tech culinary program where they learned basic skills like how to make sauces, sauté, braise and roast that as unionized employees they had never learned before. HMSHost’s employees got certifications. Second, Roy got complete access any time all the time. So even though HMSHost’s employees will be running this location, the location for Roy will be, in essence, his fifth truck. From HMSHost he has complete access and ability to run this location as the chef.
With locations like the LAX one, and a desire to expand outside of Los Angeles with both more trucks and brick and mortars, Roy foresees the reality of Kogi finally catching up with Kogi’s identity since those people around the globe, who hitherto have only experienced Kogi via social media through sites like twitter, will finally have even more opportunity to taste Roy’s food.
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