For nearly a decade, celebrity Chef Roy Choi has been on the cutting edge of food in Southern California and all over the world. In 2008, he co-founded Kogi BBQ Taco Truck & Catering, which gave birth to the insanely popular Korean short rib taco and burrito and lit the fuse for a national food truck explosion. Choi’s career was the inspiration behind the immensely successful 2014 film Chef, which he also co-produced. In the years since, Choi has found time to open several restaurants across Southern California including Chego!, A-Frame, POT Cafe, Commissary and LocoL. He has also written an acclaimed book combining beloved recipes with a personal memoir and become one of the most in-demand culinary talents on Earth.
“Weed, marijuana, THC—it unlocks a lot of ideas and our ability to connect to other dimensions. Psychedelics also do it, and virtual reality is touching on it for sure, but psychedelics are so immersive that it can be almost too much sometimes. Weed is just enough where it allows you to find those ideas that sometimes you can’t without it.”
Choi’s success has landed him on TV shows like Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown and Top Chef, in addition to his own show Street Food with Roy Choi on CNN. Though Choi is most well-known for his labors in the kitchen, in recent years he’s been recognized for his ideas about where food, business and communities intersect. Recently, CULTURE had the opportunity to sit down with Choi and hear all about his experiences with Kogi BBQ Taco Truck & Catering, the better world he envisions through food and, of course—his feelings on cannabis and his favorite edibles.
In reading and listening to interviews with you over the years, one thing that seems to be of paramount importance to you and the restaurants you create is community. Where does this deep value of community come from for you?
It’s something that was really reinforced by my experience with Kogi. With Kogi, I was really thrust into a life-changing situation, and it was built by creating things like flash mobs and different environments in parking lots, street corners and driveways. And it all relied on people coming together and creating this impromptu agreement, “We’ll show up with the food, you show up with a hungry stomach, and we’ll all figure it out together.” Also, for me, the truck always gave me a ship at sea kind of feeling, and with my team and the people around us, it always felt like we were in this thing together. It was like a free state where we were all figuring out new ideas and rules to implement.
Was Kogi the first time you were able to see community and food brought together?
Well, I saw it before Kogi, because I’d obviously also seen it in areas of activism and rebellion, as well as in places of crisis and rebuilding. But, I’d never really seen it in a form where people were just showing up out of nowhere, where everyone was an equal and loving and caring for one another. It was like this Burning Man thing, but it wasn’t an organized event, and there wasn’t an overarching doctrine or philosophy with rules telling you that you had to do this or that. Instead, it seemed like it was this instinctive thing where everyone already knew the rules and created and amended these rules together. Things like, everyone would clean up afterwards, we would leave no trace and do all of these other things together that weren’t necessarily premeditated. So, I’d seen versions and aspects of it, but I’d never seen it all come together in one place like that.
“But, edibles right now are still a little bit of a mixed bag. Every time you eat them it can be a little like ‘Russian Roulette’.”
Did that transform what you were doing?
Yeah! It transformed me and my partners, it transformed everyone around us. We used to have mobs on the streets of like 1,500 or 2,000 people where you would never have that many people before. In a normal situation, maybe the cops would have broken it up or things would have gotten rowdy, but in a Kogi line there was always a feeling and understanding that everything was cool. If you were driving by and saw it, maybe you’d even pull over and join it. I think at that moment in time we were tapping into some other algorithm, and that algorithm was a glimpse into world peace in this weird, funny, cartoonish, stoner way. That changed everything about me and reinforced the values that I believe in; things like taking care of people, going the extra yard and making less profit and providing more service.
As you moved from food trucks to “brick and mortar’ restaurants, what did you and your teams do to keep that atmosphere and vibe similar to what you saw in Kogi?
I guess I just really believed in what was happening, and that really fueled everything that happened beyond it. The progression from Kogi was Chego!, then A-Frame, then my book L.A. Son, then Commissary and POT, and then LocoL—and in those progressions I’ve never looked at anything with just profit in mind; everything had to start from culture. It’s like making an album, yeah you want the record to sell, but the most important thing is the art; it’s the same thing with these restaurants. I remember people using the words “brick and mortar” as if I was moving from an abacus to a calculator and that the math wouldn’t add up. I never really understood that point of view. I just flowed all the way through. Even though restaurants are these things that are made out of wood, stone and glass, the culture of it remains the same as the streets, and we made a lot of revolutionary moves because of that.
One of your biggest food and community projects has been your LocoL restaurants in Watts and Oakland. Has it helped bring people together and draw people to the area in the way that you’ve hoped?
LocoL is such an important, beautiful project, and it’s provided so many jobs, discussions, ideas and hopes. It has opened up a world to folks who have never been to, understood, or even seen neighborhoods like Watts or West Oakland. For the people from Watts and West Oakland, it’s introduced them to a population of people they’ve never seen before
too, so it’s really created a beautiful synergy. The only thing with it is that it’s not thriving as a business. It’s thriving in every other category and, even compared to all of the other things I’m involved with, it’s the most spiritually powerful. It’s the first thing that anybody asks about when I see them, and it’s the first thing that comes to people’s minds when I meet them; everyone is constantly interested and wants to know how it’s doing.
“Actually, I was messing around with [cannabis] sugar a few years ago which was pretty good; a teaspoon in your coffee in the morning unlocks a lot of doors.”
Over the years you’ve always been open about your enjoyment of cannabis, something we at CULTURE applaud a great deal. Not too long ago, California voted to allow for recreational in addition to medicinal cannabis. Do you see this dramatic changing attitude toward drug laws and culture as something that’s going to benefit the communities you’re trying to serve?
Theoretically it could, but let’s be real, that shit’s all going to be controlled by the government. In my dreams, it could become something natural or become an industry similar to the way produce is with restaurants—something where you have the big commodities like Monsanto, but you also have things like farmers markets with local growers, businesses and vendors that are able to create community and commerce similar to microbreweries. But, I don’t know man, I don’t know if the little man is going to be included in all of this, because just look how long it took for artisan beer and liquor to develop from prohibition to now. And that’s an industry that’s less restricted and considered less sketchy than weed. I hope that love and nerdism can win, I’m just skeptical that it will.
We’ve read that smoking has helped clear your head and relax you while you were considering new ideas or figuring things out. Is it something that’s still helpful and inspiring for you in that way?
[Pulls out vape pen] Yes, of course! [laughs] Weed, marijuana, THC—it unlocks a lot of ideas and our ability to connect to other dimensions. Psychedelics also do it, and virtual reality is touching on it for sure, but psychedelics are so immersive that it can be almost too much sometimes. Weed is just enough where it allows you to find those ideas that sometimes you can’t without it. For a creative person like me, I really enjoy it. Even if I was to smoke too much, if when I come out of it I’m able to find one littler kernel of an idea, if I just find out from that journey the type of glass or the color of napkin I want to use for a project, then that’s been very successful. So, I cherish it, and I use it a lot. I let it come out and help me find ideas that allow me to continue to create things for other people to enjoy.
Do you have any favorite edibles that you particularly enjoy?
Actually, I was messing around with [cannabis] sugar a few years ago, which was pretty good; a teaspoon in your coffee in the morning unlocks a lot of doors. Most recently, I ate a cookie at Outside Lands and it fucking floored me; people were worried about me. I was at the concert, and I was out for about six hours. I woke up, and Lorde was playing, and
it was wild and foggy. Recently, I ate some dried fruit, some mangos and stuff, that were a nice little buzz; a nice high. There have been some paper sheets that I’ve eaten that have been real chill. But, edibles right now are still a little bit of a mixed bag. Every time you eat them it can be a little like “Russian Roulette.” I still haven’t had the feeling of eating a beautiful batch of strawberries from the farmers market that have just come into season or beautiful loaf of bread fresh from the oven at Tartine. There’s supposed to be a sense of honesty behind food, and I don’t know if there’s a sense of complete honesty behind edibles yet, and because of that it hasn’t fully evolved the experience for me.
One last thing, for other aspiring small business owners or restauranteurs, what small things or even big things can be done to give back to the communities they inhabit or create community where community groups are fractured or non-existent?
Well, first of all, we’ve got to care; we’ve got to give a fuck. I think that’s the first step. I’d prefer if people led by action. It doesn’t always have to be so political or vocal, you can just do stuff. If you have any sort of privilege in any sort of way and you can help, then find ways to care and be like a dam that breaks off a river and forms tributaries; find ways to release some of that stuff so that it’s not all going to yourself. That’s where I think people can make a difference, if all of us were doing that a lot more, I think it could help.