Roy Choi Reveals How a Simple Taco Truck Breaks Down Barriers
With 52,000 people following him on Twitter world-wide, Korean-born, California chef Roy Choi has journeyed light years beyond the day when he sat in L.A.’s Koreatown, listening to his friend Mark Manguera spin out a dream of a Korean BBQ taco truck. A little over a year later, Choi mesmerizes the world with a sense that Kogi, their wildly popular company, stands for more than tacos.
Was starting a Korean BBQ taco truck in L.A. an act of inspiration or desperation?
It was something in between. Mark and I were just like two ex-five-star culinary cons. Two guys who formerly worked in four- and five-star hotels, suddenly out of work because of the economy and drinking coffee in a coffee shop in L.A.’s Koreatown. Mark, who is an extremely gifted person in the dining room, had met lots of movers and shakers, blah, blah, blah, among them the owner of a truck lot. Mark brokered a deal and suddenly had a food truck at his disposal if he ever had anything to do with it. He started talking with his sister-in-law, Alice Shin, a writer. Then, because we’re friends, Mark came to me. When he first suggested a Korean BBQ taco truck, I didn’t believe him, but I was only doing odds and ends. I had spent 12 years building an industry reputation, and it was like I had never been there. I was like a trained assassin with nowhere to go. So I said yes. Take a guy who is down and out with nothing left to protect, no politics to deal with, no reputation to defend, and it’s easy to find the truth in the food industry.
So how did this truck get such notoriety?
You don’t notice the pretty thing; you notice the thorn in your side. I’m really shy about all this stuff, and it was never intended to be like this, but I may have been yearning for it. I was a clean-cut, toque-wearing chef for a long time. I cooked for the King of Morocco, the Royal Family of Dubai, politicos and musicians. I was one of the nameless, faceless thousands in the kitchen. Then, when you break off, you get scars. You put on war paint. Right now, I’m a warrior. So we bought $250 worth of food, trained for a week, prepared it and went for it the day before Thanksgiving, 2008. We didn’t try to come on as two five-star chefs with our chests out, ready to upset the industry and culture here. I grew up in Latino neighborhoods. I see myself as the real stealth. We’re like bandits with guitars who play music in alleyways on roof tops. I equate it to “El Mariachi,” and “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” and Robert Rodriguez. It was just Mark, Caroline (his wife), Eric Shin (her brother) and me in a truck, with Alice Shin in Brooklyn stirring the underbelly, contacting the food bloggers we liked. We hit it right on the nose. It made so much sense: tacos, sauce, marinade. We truly believed in what we were doing. There was nothing like it around. There was nothing left to hold onto but the purity and the truth. So we said, “Let’s make this taco, the most delicious shit on the planet.” It was like life before iPods.
Can you discuss the reaction to the truck?
Kogi is bigger than me. It’s one of those moments when you experience the cosmic, when you see a rainbow and can’t quite figure it out. It’s a private moment. There we were on Sunset Boulevard in a truck “slanging” tacos for anybody and everybody: runaways, transients, hookers, drug addicts, people working out their demons in the evening, wheelies, drunks coming out of nightclubs. I knew where they were coming from; I used to be one of them. People were saying, “Oh, shit, what the hell is this? Check this one out… Yo, yo.” Well-dressed drunk people stumble out of a club, eat a taco and suddenly all that testosterone dissolves. The street is quiet as a monastery.
I talk a lot of gibberish. I talk a lot of smack, but I really believe this taco has brought something to the planet. It changed the planet on a micro level. There’s got to be something bigger. Otherwise, why is the world entranced by a BBQ taco? From Australia, to Macau, to Chicago, to Denmark, to Norway, to Sweden, to Singapore, to Korea, we get emails all day long. Once people ate that taco something shifted. I became the iconic figure. But Alice has done more for Kogi than I have by getting it out to the people via Twitter. It’s a $2 taco but there’s something deeper. I studied philosophy and finally, after 39 years, I’ve been able to develop one. We’re bringing joy and nourishment to people’s lives but doing it by bringing all the elements together, the smells, sounds, tastes and rhythms of the street coming together to bring balance to people’s lives.
Can you discuss the tastes and magic of the tacos?
We were four Asian people in a truck serving Korean tacos and people stared at us. To us it wasn’t so foreign, and we cried out, “Try us!” We were almost brainwashed by the product, having eaten hundreds of them. We used to be called “Kogi crack.” Lots of people don’t realize the subtlety and complexity that goes into the tacos, and I’m glad. We don’t want to gallivant or showboat. We want to give people an experience that fits with their life. That’s what street food is. Bring it to every neighborhood in L.A. and keep it cheap. It has to be part of the fabric of your life. You get a taco and you keep eating and you keep going. This is totally different from our industry where everything is theatre or an event.
Kogi is only one year in my life. I ride buses and subways with a hood on my head. I slip in and out. I’m not faking the funk on nothing. It’s my life. I’m the one on the subway in the Bronx. I’m not the guy out at the Mandarin Oriental sipping tea and discussing development deals in Dubai. On this ride through the streets, I experience the beauty and complexity of street knowledge.
How did your blackjack quesadilla arise?
Alice Shin got a tweet from a guy in Las Vegas, saying he’s coming to Kogi in a caravan with seven cars and would like a treasure at the end of the journey. So I got some Berkshire pork belly, and put it in a Korean chili paste marinade. I fried up the pork with onions, using lots of fat because fat and heat change the texture of the meat. I wanted a salsa verde—something different than a chimichurri—so I came up with a sauce of charred chilies and onions and roasted sesame seeds. When the group got the blackjack quesadilla, which is like a blistered Neapolitan pizza, everyone on the line saw them bite in, saw their faces change and said, “Can I have one?” Luckily, I had bought 50 pounds of pork. Twitter blew up. People blogged about it. It became our new signature item (recipe). We’ve completely broken down the four walls between us and the people. We inspire them. They inspire us. A lot of our specials develop from the people who eat at Kogi. I don’t want credit for it.
Is Kogi a political statement about turning aristocratic structures on their head?
I’m just a street thug slinging tacos. The idea is political, but I’m not. I’m the guy in the hood in the alley who served you the food that inspired you to change policy. I’m the phantom.
Can you tell us more about the power of Twitter and Kogi?
Alice is amazing. 52,000 people follow us on Twitter, but people only see the face value. She does DM (direct messaging) with 5,000 to 10,000 people. Kogi is a comic book for people to live with and Alice is a character in that book. Most people haven’t seen the beauty of Twitter. They just want the results. We put a creative professional in our Twitter position with no revenue and no financial expectation. Now our managers get $38,000 a year. I get a $90,000 starting salary. We grossed $2 million last year. But gross doesn’t equal value. Our tacos cost about $1.25 and sell for $2 each. That’s not a great food cost. But the company has grown from zero to 63 employees in eight months. We have four trucks. We service a bar and are working on a new brick and mortar place that is going to update the rice bowl. I want to pay people so they don’t have to worry about money. I want Latino people to get a job, get an education, enrich their minds, break the cycle. I’m more Latino than Korean. I never cut hours. I use the best pork belly. I never skimp on ingredients. I never use a sesame canola blend instead of pure sesame oil. If I can give my people a comfortable life, use good ingredients and come up $1 in the black, we’re a success. How do we make profit? We’re out there like crack dealers, night after night.
What’s your advice for those who want a food truck?
Don’t do it for the novelty just because you can. Street food is a culture around the world from Singapore, to Tiananmen, to Morocco, to L.A. You have to believe in the spirit of the street. Connect to the strength of the street and afterwards you can inspire the street. Somewhere an old lady sits on a milk crate cooking over a self-made hibachi. If you can tap into that lady, then you’ll be successful. Talent isn’t in bleak, post-modern restaurants. We need to communicate with the street to find a balance that is richer and deeper. This has nothing to do with replacing fine dining. I respect fine dining so much. It inspires me, but when chefs are inspired by the street, they will connect to a flavor they could never have found.