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Roy Choi: A different path

Premier Chefs Dinner keynote speaker discusses how food, family and community shaped his journey to activism
Roy Choi
Chef and social justice activist Roy Choi will headline this weekend's Premier Chefs Dinner. Photo by Travis Jensen

“I’ve lived four or five full lives,” chef and food activist Roy Choi said.

It’s not hyperbole. Before he created a TV show, before he started a food truck revolution and before he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, Choi found success as an investment banker, beat a gambling addiction, participated in lowrider culture and acted as a preteen courier in his parents’ jewelry business.  

He’s ridden waves of success that crashed against rocks of despair. Through it all, food has been a lifeline. It’s been an expression of parental love and a touchstone through which Choi connected to new and unexpected communities before using it to build his own.

Choi headlines the Premier Chefs Dinner May 19 in support of cancer prevention studies at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. The annual event, which joins local chefs and wineries, has raised over $11.3 million over 27 years. Proceeds will fuel the development of resources to help cancer patients and survivors make the best dietary choices for their health. The connection between food and health is one area of social justice that Choi explores in "Broken Bread," a TV show he produced for KCET and Tastemade.

When Choi and friend Mark Manguera first put Korean barbeque in a taco and sold it out of a truck in 2008, they brought food to the masses who soon mobbed their growing fleet of Kogi food trucks in Los Angeles. Since then, Choi’s vision has grown to encompass society itself.

“I explore the context of how food shapes our lives, whether it’s through disparity, poverty or lack of access,” Choi said of his show, "Broken Bread."

The show addresses a range of topics, including food deserts and a dearth of healthful food that can help stave off our ills, including cancer.

Choi has seen friends and family members afflicted by the disease and feels that our cancer rates are closely tied to what we eat.

“A lot of the times when we deal with cancer as a society, we’re only confronting it once it comes … versus knowing it’s out there and scrutinizing our prevention,” he said.

‘I’ve lived all of it’

“I grew up around food,” Choi said. “It’s a part of everything that I am.”

In his memoir/cookbook "L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food," written with Tien Nguyen and Natasha Phan, he recalls early memories of his mother’s fabulous cooking, around which an extended family of fellow Korean immigrants communed. Choi’s parents, who met in the U.S. before moving back to South Korea, relocated to Los Angeles permanently when Choi was 2.

There he learned the value of community. Every month, members of the burgeoning Koreatown contributed money to a group pot, and every month it became the seed of a new business. This pot helped Choi’s parents open their first entrepreneurial venture, a liquor store.

Choi also watched his parents reinvent themselves as many times as it took. When the liquor store folded, they started a jewelry business. Then they opened Silver Garden, a booming Korean restaurant built off his mother’s famous kimchi. When the neighborhood’s fortunes shifted and Silver Garden shuttered, they tried again. And again, finally finding success in the diamond trade.

Because of his parents’ wide-ranging ventures, Choi moved around a lot. When he was about 13, they moved from a diverse neighborhood to a house previously owned by Nolan Ryan in all-white suburban Villa Park. In "L.A. Son," Choi describes his teenage years in the Grove Street Mob, which combined “small crime and fisticuffs” with community-minded activities like babysitting, lawn care and car maintenance. He also interspersed schoolwork with life in the local Latino lowrider community.

“Looking back, I think all of that contributed to being able to cook Kogi,” Choi said. “Because I understood so many people and how we grow up. I didn’t just understand the streets but the suburbs, I understood affluence and I understood poverty, I understood a community that’s mostly white, and a community that’s mostly minorities. I’ve lived in all of it.”

Most of the memories recounted in "L.A. Son" deal, not surprisingly, with food. It was food that helped save Choi at low points in his life. In his mid-20s, Choi’s parents pulled him from the grips of a gambling addiction. Their patience and his mother’s cooking helped him regain his footing. Food saved him again after another downward spiral: it was while watching Emeril Lagasse that Choi had a nearly out-of-body experience that cemented his desire to become a chef.

But it wasn’t smooth sailing from there. Choi graduated from the CIA, the Harvard of cooking institutes, but hit another low point in his late 30s. His fledgling chef career seemed to have stalled. That’s when Manguera called.

Finding his voice

Choi brought life and color to Manguera’s “pencil sketch” of Korean-barbeque-plus-taco and in so doing, found his voice as a chef.

“When I started cooking Kogi, all of [my experiences] were unlocked and unleashed … I was able to translate it,” he said.

With Kogi, Choi began using food to build community. In L.A. Son, he recalled his hopes for the duo’s first food truck: “In my mind’s eye, I could see the empty corners filled with people. … They would be strangers, but excited to be friends.”

This vision was quickly realized, and Kogi sparked a foodie food truck movement. Now, 10 years later, Choi is capitalizing on the community he’s built and finding his voice as a person — and a ready audience. Choi attributes much of his success to going against the grain and finding counterintuitive solutions, an approach he hopes could also lead to new ways of addressing our broken food systems. Though he doesn’t discount policy, Choi also doesn’t see a top-down approach as the answer to healing community ailments; instead, he looks to the people who make up the community.

“It has to be all these little movements happening simultaneously that is going to move the soil or the tide and we don’t even notice it, but because of the work, it changes where we are,” he said.

Sabrina Richards, a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has written about scientific research and the environment for The Scientist and OnEarth Magazine. She has a Ph.D. in immunology from the University of Washington, an M.A. in journalism and an advanced certificate from the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. Reach her at srichar2@fredhutch.org.

Last Modified, June 17, 2019