Community Award Winner Chef Roy Choi
Kogi BBQ | Los Angeles, CA
At a time when chefs and food trucks were members of distinctly different classes of the food world, Roy Choi had the gall to rent a truck of his own and hit the streets of downtown Los Angeles. With a pedigree including the CIA, Le Bernardin, and the Beverly Hills Hilton, Chef Choi might not seem the most likely candidate to go roadside, hocking tacos on street corners. But that is exactly what Choi did, and that’s precisely what’s garnered rabid praise and attention of the food press and public ever since.
Of course, serving upscale Angeleno street food out of a moving vehicle wasn’t always in Choi’s sights. He worked for fifteen years prior, executing classical technique in professional kitchens and banquet halls in New York, San Francisco, Portland, and Lake Tahoe. But a night of carousing and brainstorming led Choi and his future business partners to an unlikely formulation: gourmet food served straight to the streets.
With his Korean-Latin tacos as the marquee star, Choi found a way to develop and carry out the vision that drives him to this day. With Kogi BBQ, Choi is serving top quality food at a great price to the very people who don’t normally have access to it—Angelenos, the kids and neighborhood people Choi grew up with on the streets of K-town and beyond. And building on his accrued success (including television appearances and major buzz in local and national press), Choi will be providing yet another source of culinary revelation for his Angeleno clientele with his first sit-down restaurant, Chego in Mar Vista, in March of 2010.
Antoinette Bruno: Where did the concept for Kogi come from?
Roy Choi: The concept came from my business partner Mark, and Alice. They thought of it one night. It was just a crazy idea. “Why don’t we put Korean barbecue in a taco?” And he called me the next day and we met for coffee. I had just been laid off. I had nothing to lose, you know. So from there we started to think about it, play around with it, play with the flavors. We had the truck already, so that’s where it started.
AB: Who had the truck?
RC: A friend of ours owns all the trucks in LA. He had an empty truck he was willing to loan us for 2 months for free. It was started in November and we didn’t have to pay until January. That’s really how Kogi got started, because we didn’t have any capital.
AB: And now do you own the trucks or do you lease them?
RC: We lease them. But we’re building up so we can build a show truck. We’d love to buy one down the road, but if it doesn’t happen, that’s okay. Leases are fine.
AB: So the equipment inside is yours?
RC: No, it’s like renting a car from Hertz. Everything comes the way it is. It’s a complete one stop shop. You get maintenance, you get tune-ups, you get your equipment all taken care of. All you do is turn on the ignition and drive.
AB: Do you need specialized equipment?
RC: We designed the menu based on what was already here. What was already here was a plancha on the back side of the truck, and then on the right side it has three low boy coolers, and then a prep table, and then a top drop for mise en place. It has a warmer on the front side of the truck, which is kind of like a little oven. That’s about all the cooking equipment it has. Everything we do is on a 2½-by-2 foot plancha.
AB: And how many people a day do you serve with that 2½ foot plancha?
RC: It varies. We have 4 trucks now, each truck does about 800 people, maybe 1,000 including lunch, 1,000 to 1,200, times four. Times eight, actually. So about 8,000 a day.
AB: What’s the average check?
RC: Check average can go anywhere from two bucks to 80 bucks but I’ve seen the average at around 13. But our margins are really slim. We serve a two buck taco with actual short ribs, pure sesame oil, and roasted sesame seeds. Our marinade has 17 ingredients. Everything is made from scratch. Our sauces have 20 ingredients. What people don’t realize about the taco is that in that little two buck taco, you have hand-pressed tortillas, then you have boneless marinated boneless short-rib and 14 ingredients in the marinade, the cilantro-onion mix, the salad mix which has julienne romaine cabbage and green onions, and that’s tossed in a vinaigrette with 20 ingredients.
AB: 20 ingredients?
RC: Again, ginger, garlic, scallion-based, but then it has chili, it has chili powder, it has orange juice, lime juice, sesame seeds and so on. So in that one little taco for two bucks you have all of that. Our margins are like, pennies. So we really do this for love. We make some of our margins on some of our drink sales. But everything that comes in goes back into the operation.
AB: What would happen if you raised the price of a taco 25 cents?
RC: That’s kind of contradictory to who we are. If you really take Kogi for what we are putting in the food, this taco’s probably worth $3.50, the burritos probably worth $7.25, $7.80, the quesadillas probably high $6. We should probably run the truck with like maybe three people, but we run the truck with five people and we charge our food at two dollars and five dollars. We do it all for the people. We do it all for the people who come out for Kogi.
We try to stay consistent with that. I think that’s why, after one year, we’re still going strong. It’s why people believe in us. It could have been a fad, but people still are diehard true to us, because even through this recession we haven’t raised our prices. We offer more stuff for cheaper prices and we buy better ingredients. And we provide better service and faster, quicker food.
It’s great. It’s truly changed my life. As a person and as a chef, it’s changed my life. It’s stripped away everything that I thought I should be preoccupied with, you know going through kitchens and running kitchens. It stripped all that away and made me realize that cooking can be fun, and we don’t have to take ourselves so seriously. We can really just cook fun food—and great food—for people and create an interactive community. It’s why we do it. That’s what keeps ups going. If we didn’t have that, I don’t know how long we would have lasted. It’s tough. It’s tough to run these trucks. To prep in this little kind of galley space, check the truck, run the streets, check the streets late-night for any danger, manage a crew, have four different satellite kitchens throughout the city that you have to keep an eye on. It’s a new dynamic.
AB: How do you pick your locations?
RC: It’s a myriad of things. One thing is the people we have a relationship with through Twitter and people who experience Kogi. They call us, they email us, or Tweet us and say “Hey, come here, park here, I’ve got a parking lot or I own the hair shop I own the hair shop and I want you to park right in front of it. I’ll save a parking spot for you.” So that’s one way. Another way is through formal relationships. Bar owners will call us and say “Hey, we would like you to permanently park here, or we’ll give you this to park here.” And the third way is the most fun, which is to do what I call gangster stops, where we just roll around the city and look for hungry people. And that’s the most fun.
AB: When you got your first truck, did you envision having four?
RC: No. You know to be honest, Kogi, we never ever—if I say this you may not believe it—but we never ever intended or imagined any of this attention, as far as media or growth or anything. It was literally 1,500 bucks that we had, it was me, my partner, his wife, his brother-in-law, and then Alice doing the Twitter. And we just roll into the streets. It was like opening a lemonade stand. We knew we had a great product.
AB: Did you start with Twitter from the very beginning?
RC: Yeah, but, you know, it took a lot of grass roots relationship building. We had to go out and meet people. If you were standing on the street, Mark would go up to you and say “Hey, you want to try a Korean barbecue taco? It’s delicious!” No one would believe us. It was a trip. When we opened up last year, when we opened the doors, it was like four Asian people in a taco truck. People were like “What?” But before we even rolled onto the streets, we knew we had a great product. And that’s what we believed in.
We only bought $300 worth of food every day. It was truly a passion project. Whatever field or profession you’re in, even if it was a great chef, if you made great pancakes or anything and if you could just take time out and moonlight and just do that for fun, put your product out there just to feed people, for the pure pleasure of feeding people, that’s it. That was the essence of Kogi. It still is. We just didn’t want to lose money. It was a complete wash for a long time. And actually I got another job. We started in November and I got a job in January, and we told each other if this thing doesn’t pop off by the end of January, I’ll take this job and then we’ll run this thing from midnight to two in the morning or something like that, after I finish dinner service.
AB: When did you add the second truck?
RC: The second truck came in February. And the bar came in February—the Alibi Room. That’s almost like a pop up restaurant. We’re co-opping with the owner of the bar. He just gave us this kitchen and we kind of made a home in there. And the third truck came out, maybe May or June. Our fourth truck just opened up a week and a half ago.
AB: And you’ve set your sights on New York?
RC: We did. We went to New York. We first thought about New York in February. I went there in March or April. It was a great trip, there was great energy. I cooked in New York. I went to the CIA, so I have a lot of friends out there, a lot of memories. I spent almost four years in New York. I’m not trying to conquer New York or anything like that. It was just like this feeling, like a spiritual feeling, like I know if I brought Kogi to New York people would love it. They would love it for no other reason than just loving it. It was just like a natural thing, like “Let’s open in New York. Why not?” So everything was going well, then we got to the nitty gritty, the licensing, the vendor permits. Just the whole landscape of Manhattan, then we started to think about Queens and Brooklyn. It got real in June. We were really starting to roll up our sleeves and think about business, what we’d have to do, and there were just so many things that had to be done to go to New York that we didn’t have the capital or resources for. So we just kind of pulled back and focused back on LA. We want to go back when things are right.
AB: What does it take to open a truck in New York?
RC: Well, you can’t unless you get a vendor’s permit, and they’re almost impossible to get unless you find someone that you could either sublease from or is dying, literally dying, or giving it up. Those are pretty much locked down through generations. You can do it black market, buy a fake license. Or just roll out with no license and get in trouble. Avoid the cops, avoid the police. I’m down for that. But the microscope is too intense over there. It’s very hard to slip through the shadows in New York City.
AB: And you have too much of a spotlight on you, too.
RC: That too. And it’s also in respect to the people in New York. I don’t want to go to New York half-assed. I really respect New York. Not only that, we’re going to get murdered in New York if we don’t’ do it right. So I’m not going just because I want to open Kogi New York. I want to make sure when we open up the beef tacos are really delicious, that the line moves quickly, that everything works, and I don’t have the capital or resources to build that up right now, to pay a team or set up an office over there.
AB: How much money do you think it would take to set up in New York the way you want to?
RC: Hundreds of thousands of dollars? Maybe less. Maybe in the high tens, you know like 70 or 80. That’s the difference between LA and New York. Both are huge cities, over 10 million people and crazy energy in both cities. But the thing in LA is that it’s still kind of like the Wild West. You can still do stuff and get away with it. Here in LA even if I walked away from this truck and got a shopping cart and put two Sternos underneath it with a sheet pan and got an ice cooler, I could go around making blood sausages or chive pancakes. I could just roll around the city and sell those and nobody would bother me. You can’t do that in New York. The way that I wanted to open Kogi was like that. I wanted to show up in like, Woodhaven, Queens or something, and just sell. But it wasn’t as easy as I thought. And that’s okay. We’re only 10 months old.
AB: What’s next? Where do you expect to see yourself in five years?
RC: Well actually we opened Orange County which was a huge deal. It would be like if Shake Shack in New York, an organic, family-run company that was busy all the time, opened up something across the river in Jersey. For us going to Orange County was a big deal. I don’t know. From a food end, I want to come up with something really fresh for 2010.
AB: What has working at Kogi done for you?
RC: What Kogi’s done for me—it’s like I was never really a chef. I’m not a youngster, you know, I’ve been in this game for a long time. I’ve been in since the mid 90s. I was a journeyman hotel chef. What Kogi did for me—it’s just that our world, our chef world, is so centered around being a great chef before you’re 30. And I went through that, I was part of that. And a lot of my friends went through that. A lot of my friends were Rising Star chefs, but I didn’t make it. I didn’t get t here. So I got to my early thirties, towards my late 30s, and I was cool with it. I was a hotel chef, doing banquets, doing all these things, and I was fine with it. And then I lost everything. And then we opened Kogi. And then what happened was like I was resurrected. It was like I finally understood cooking after 13 years. And it opened up a whole new level of flavors. It allowed me to be humble and not compete with people. It allowed me to just put my ego on the shelf and just cook.
AB: In your 13 year career, were you ever cooking Korean food?
RC: No. I went to the CIA. I ran away from Asian food because, like all of us, we challenge ourselves to be better all the time. So for me, when I was younger, it was an easy thing to say “Oh I’m going to be an Asian fusion chef,” or “I’m going to be an Asian-American chef.” So I challenged myself to work in French restaurants or try to really focus on four star and five star hotels, really doing refined cuisine and really elegant banquets and weddings and stuff like that. I never cooked Korean food, or Asian food, really. I eat it a lot and I grew up in a Korean restaurant.
So what happened when we opened Kogi, it was like the levy broke. And then everything that I ran away from finally opened up and the flavors just started gushing out. And I grew up in a Latino community, so it was almost like it all came together. And all the problems and tribulations I went through were preparing me for this moment, to be able to have the courage. It’s tough to run these trucks in the streets. Not only from a physical and structural level, but it’s kind of embarrassing, you know? You’ve got to be out there. It’s like you’re completely naked. You have to be comfortable putting yourself on the line. You pull up into someone else’s community and you say “Here, I’m here for you.” There’s nothing to protect you. There’s no waiter to protect you, there’s no host.
AB: So the guest is right in your face?
RC: Exactly. He’s right there. And then also chefs, we’re not really good talkers. We spend 14 hours a day in the kitchen. After work, we go out with other cooks and chefs. We smoke, we drink, we hang out, we talk about food, and then we wake up and go back to work. So for this, it’s like, I’m around 400 people at a time, and they’re all kind of looking at you and watching you. It was intimidating at first. It’s kind of like a fish bowl. But once I knew that we were sharing a moment together, we were sharing an experience together, I let down my guard. And once I let down my guard, that’s when the credibility of Kogi started to cement itself.
But I don’t think I answered your question. What’s next? I don’t know what’s next. We don’t really plan, to be honest. We’re a family run company. The next thing comes naturally. The next step is training this crew, making sure the food is delicious. And then I’ll get to the next thing when it comes. I told you I’m surprised doing this. It’s not an act. I’m still really surprised and humbled and overwhelmed by everything, you know. I don’t care what people want to believe we are—we’re a taco truck on the streets of LA. And so it’s like in our world, we don’t really exist within the normal food space, which has been defined over the last 10 to 15 years. We don’t live within that world.
AB: Do you want to see ten trucks? Do you want to see 50 trucks? Do you want to be in one city? Do you want to be in 10 cities?
RC: It depends on what is best for the people and for Kogi. I don’t mind having 1,000 trucks around the world as long as the spirit of Kogi stays true. Which is guerilla, urban, underground, doesn’t answer to anybody. As long as we can keep that spirit, then I don’t mind being in Beijing or Tai Pei or Paris or Brussels, I don’t mind. As long as we can keep that spirit. But if that spirit can only be energized through four trucks, that’s where we’re going to stop. But if we can continue on, like a movement, then I’m all good.
What I would love to do in the big picture is change the paradigm of how people eat, how younger generations, and people that aren’t within our foodie world, view food. Like skaters or the kids that I grew up with that don’t even know what vegetables grow in what season, that live off fast food for 70 to 80 percent of their lives. But when they eat Kogi and it speaks to them on that same level that their skateboard speaks to them, because it’s got that vibe and that credibility. So what happens is I get these skaters that call me, like top-end, crazy skaters, they call me after they eat Kogi and they’re like “Hey chef, I’ve been thinking about asparagus and artichokes” or “I went to the market and bought this, can you tell me how to cook this?” And so eventually I’d like to help change the way kids eat, but that’s a long ways away. I’d like to expose food to a wider audience, Korean food and Latino food. We’ve taken like a micro take on cultural food, street food from a certain section of LA, and that’s really what our food is.
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