Welcome back! In this mini series we have been going through the most famous (and legendary!) Alumni of the Culinary Institute of America. So far we have seen the likes of the revolutionary of Mexican cuisine Enrique Olvera, the Egyptian born restaurant mogul Michael Mina, the creative pioneer of molecular gastronomy Grant Achatz and last but not least the farm boy turned farm-inspired chef Charlie Palmer. At this point you may be thinking, “Chris, there can’t possibly be more legendary chefs from this school, can there?” Well on that note I would like to introduce to you all the one and only: Roy Choi.
Roy Choi was born in 1970 in Seoul, South Korea. Having met initially in the USA, Roy’s parents decided to emigrate back to the USA in 1972 to raise their family in Los Angeles, California. In their newfound land of opportunities, the Choi family would open up many businesses throughout their time in the country, from a liquor store, to a laundromat and eventually a successful jewelry delivery company. One of these ventures happened to be a Korean restaurant called Silver Garden, in which his mother would make Kimchi (a traditional korean dish made from fermented cabbage) that would grow so popular that they would deliver it directly to the houses of those in his community. His time in his family restaurant was key to moulding Roy Choi into a passionate chef, he has gone on to say that his favourite memory as a child was making dumplings with his mother at the age of 8.
After years of moving and trying different business models, the Choi family finally struck gold (quite literally) with their jewelry delivery business, eventually becoming very wealthy and moving into one of the upper class neighbourhoods of LA, Villa Park in Orange County. Unfortunately Choi’s family success did not translate into happiness for the aspiring chef, he would spend his childhood confused about his path in life, taking drugs such as marijuana and crack cocaine (even becoming addicted to the latter) His parents sent him to military school which partly rectified the problem, he would then teach English in his native South Korea before travelling back to the USA to study philosophy. Roy Choi would spend 1 semester at Western State university before dropping out around 1994. While his life had more structure than before, it was no more fulfilling, Roy Choi would later describe the period of 1994-1995 as a “dark time” as he could not figure out his direction in life. Through Choi’s confused period, he would describe his main inspiration to be Emeril Lagasse’s “Essence of Emeril” tv show. This inspiration would lead him to enroll into CIA in 1996 and set in motion the chain of events that would propel his career to legendary status, in his words “Emeril’s show saved a knucklehead’s life”
When Roy Choi entered CIA, he found the advanced, structured learning to be a stark and positive contrast from how his life had been thus far. He excelled in his classes and would spend his internship period working at the luxurious Le Bernardin in Los Angeles. In 1998 Choi would graduate from CIA and like many others he would begin his career in the luxury culinary world, working in many luxury restaurants and hotels such as the Beverly Hilton, Embassy suites Sacramento and Rocksugar Pan Asian Kitchen from 1998- 2007.
While Choi’s professional repertoire was conventionally impressive, he was interested in pursuing a different route with his career. Roy Choi had a big passion for telling his story through his story through his food, while his time growing up in LA had made him fall in love with the city and its amalgamation of cultures. As a result Roy Choi wanted to create a food that would both celebrate his own cultural heritage and that of the city he loved, thus the korean taco was born.
Street food in LA was an integral part of its culture, and tacos were at the forefront of it, often being served in travelling vans known as “taco trucks”. In 2008, Roy Choi burst into the scene with a small team of family and business partners to create his now crowning achievement: Kogi. Kogi started as a single street food truck that would drive around LA serving their signature dish: Korean bbq tacos. Often they would park near nightclubs and work sites to sell their food. Despite Choi’s prestigious experience and education, Roy Choi insisted on keeping his prices low ($2 a taco), to him monetary profit took a backseat to sharing his food, in his words: “We turn a different kind of profit. We turn a very spiritual and human profit.”
Soon enough, Choi’s humble taco truck would kick up a frenzy of attention, particularly from the younger generation at the time. As Twitter was beginning to blossom at the time, many would take to the platform to praise the truck until it reached a status of near-mythical proportion in LA. The myth of “the mysterious taco truck selling korean bbq for $2” would become a common talking point among many in LA. So much was it’s popularity that the organization began to give daily updates as to where the truck would be and when for its fans, as Newsweek at the time would put it, Kogi was “ the first viral eatery,”
As Choi’s popularity grew, as did his mini “empire”, as he now has 4 Kogi trucks operational in LA as well as a taqueria, A catering service, a bar (named Alibi Room) and a restaurant named Kogo, which has been hailed for its unique take on korean rice bowls.
Aside from his achievements with his culinary prowess, through his quirky attitude, his interesting background and commitment to sharing his Korean/Los Angeles cultures has spawned a huge amount of public interest in him. He co-produced and consulted for the popular indie film “Chef” with director and actor John Favreau. Later him and Chavereau would co create a netflix series called “The Chef Show” in which the two would explore various noteworthy culinary businesses and their surrounding culture. Roy Choi would also go on to write a book L.A. Son—My Life, My City, My Food, in which he chronicles the challenges of growing up in Los Angeles and the culinary culture of the city itself.
While Roy Choi broke the mould of the traditional luxury chef after graduating CIA, the school would ultimately be the reason that the young chef would be able to break into the culinary world. Today he credits the school for it’s genuine and friendly teaching environment that is able to turn “green and new” students into professional chefs.
Roy Choi has lived an extremely interesting and colourful life, with an impressive career built upon both his passion for food and the foundations of his education. If you have the passion but are lacking the culinary foundation then we can help you! Simply email us at [email protected] and we will be able to assist you in your journey with CIA
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