Korean taco innovator Roy Choi rolls into Napa Valley
“You can count on one hand the chefs who have tilted the world with their innovation,” said
Michael Chiarello, event founder and owner-chef of Bottega in the heart of California’s Napa Valley. He also owns the lifestyle brand NapaStyle. “Roy and his Kogi BBQ truck have forever changed the landscape of cooking in America. Flavor! Napa Valley was created to celebrate great chef innovators like Roy.”
Choi is best-known for his fleet of Kogi BBQ trucks. But what gives Choi the chops to be securely in the ranks of other chefs featured at Flavor! Napa Valley on Nov. 20–23 are his classical culinary training and years of experience in professional kitchens.
In 1998 he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America campus in Hyde Park, N.Y. Restaurants he has worked in include Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin and Rock Sugar Pan Asian Kitchen. He also worked for nearly 10 years in the hospitality industry as an executive chef in many high-end hotels.
Yet he did not imagine in 2008 when he began driving the streets of Los Angeles looking for hungry Angelenos to feed that he would be one of America’s most famous Korean food ambassadors.
“Kimchi is not a foreign word. I never imagined this day growing up Korean, but I am a part of shaping it,” he said.
Choi, chef and chief executive officer of Kogi BBQ, credits his success to “attention to detail, caring, humility, life lessons.”
“I’m constantly studying, asking questions and following my gut,” he said.
|Roy’s Milkshake and Beef Cheek Tacos from Choi’s upcoming biography, L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food. (Bobby Fisher photo)|
Choi spoke with Koreanfornian Cooking about his soon-to-be-released biography, Flavor! Napa Valley and his opinion on pairing Korean foods with wine, the marketing of Korean cuisine and advice for the next generation of chefs and food writers.
Flavor! Napa Valley attendees will have two opportunities to see Choi in action. On Thursday, Nov. 21, he will be one of five chefs catering the welcome dinner, titled “Celebrating a Century of Milestones,” at the Silverado Resort and Spa from 6:30–10:30 p.m. Entrance will set you back $325, but an opportunity to taste cuisine from world-renowned chefs such as Todd English, Masaharu Morimoto and Choi is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
On Saturday, Nov. 23, at 9 a.m., Choi will be demonstrating his recipes step by step at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone campus in St. Helena, Calif. Tickets for this “Culinary Demonstration with Roy Choi L.A.merica: My Twisted Life” costs $95 each.
Filling ‘food deserts’ via Korean food
Choi is preparing for the Nov. 5 release of his book, L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food. The book, co-written by Tien Nguyen and Natasha Phan, is the second publication from celebrity chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain’s line of books for Ecco.
The book is part biography, part cookbook, introducing readers to his iconic mix of Korean, Latin and American cuisine.
Beside preparing his promotional tour for his book, Choi is also speaking up for food justice in South Central LA and other American “food deserts.”
In his years selling his Kogi BBQ Korean tacos in L.A.’s urban sprawl, he observed that people in the inner cities have easy access to fast food and processed food, but access to flavorful, quality food made with fresh ingredients at a reasonable price was more difficult to come by.
So he decided to start speaking out about making “good food more accessible.” Street food was his megaphone.
“The Kogi BBQ” Korean taco changed the way America eats and how they are accessing food,” he said. “It gave people an entrepreneurial spirit. It also lowered price point of good, delicious food. It created a street food movement. It struck a nerve.”
Demystifying Korean food in America
Korean food is no longer a mystery to most Americans, but it’s not quite understood yet either. Koreans started immigrating in large numbers to the mainland U.S. since the 1970s, while the Chinese have been here for more than 100 years, Choi noted. That’s a long head start over Koreans in terms of integrating their foods into American food culture.
“It took time for the Korean generation to translate Korean cuisine and expose it (outside the Korean community),” he said. “Once we were able to do that, without watering it down, that created a doorway and then the food can speak for itself.”
Choi believes Americans like Korean food “because Korean food is innately delicious. It’s a primal delicious communal food. It’s a soulful food, it sticks to your bones. It got great flavors, balancing chills, soy, spice, sesame. The culture of Korean food is very inviting with the communal nature. The free banchan is inviting and you feel like you’re getting more for your money.”
Korean food has been a “hidden gem” in America for many years, Choi said.
“For us as Koreans, who grew up on it, it’s always been delicious. It took time for the Korean generation to translate Korean cuisine and expose it (outside the Korean community),” he said. “Once we were able to do that, without out watering it down, that created a doorway and then the food can speak for itself.”
Breaking the barbecue barrier
Korean food goes far beyond barbecue, and Choi wants to help more Americans go there. “There are a million dishes I wish they would try. … Korean cuisine is a vegetable-based cuisine and the barbecue is relatively recent.”
This overemphasis from restaurateurs on both sides of the Pacific, is particularly common at buffet establishments run by Korean-Americans from L.A. to New York City, according to Choi. Yet, grilled meat is more often special-occasion food than everyday fare, he said.
“Just like here in America, restaurants serve certain kinds of food, but it doesn’t reflect how we eat at home.” Choi said. “If you want to see Korean food as it is, you need to visit Koreans in their homes.”
What one will commonly see are rice, up to a half-dozen 반찬 banchan (side dishes such as 나물 namul, which are seasoned and marinaded vegetables), some fish and soup.
“It’s not an overabundance of food. It’s not all-you-can-eat barbecue. It’s smaller portions.”
There was a time on the Korean peninsula when Buddhism was the dominant religion. Yet in the 21st century, South Korea doesn’t seem to have a vibrant vegetarian or vegan food culture outside Buddhist temples.
Vegetarian and vegan expats in the country devote entire blogs to their successes and failures in finding vegetarian-friendly Korean restaurants.
A key distinction between Korean and American cuisine is the age of their food cultures, more than a thousand for the former and relatively young for the latter, according to Choi.
“Americans gravitate [toward] very remedial basics. I can’t really say it’s a generation thing, because we are so far removed from the 1950s, but there’s a residual aftershock of the icebox generation.”
Choi also believes American cuisine is more profoundly shaped by the influence of corporate advertising than Korean cuisine.
Pairing hanshik and wine
Flavor! Napa Valley is all about promoting Napa Valley’s wine and food culture. Yet Choi is skeptical of the trend toward pairing Korean food with red wines.
“To me, it’s always been a tough thing because the flavor profile of Korean food,” he said. “I’ve seen people trying to pair it with red wine. I’m still in the Riesling and Gewurztraminer camp to match up with the spiciness.”
Two of the most challenging Korean dishes Choi paired with wine are 양념게장 yangnyeomgejang (raw spicy crab) and 번데기 bungdaegi (steamed silkworms). The steamed silkworms are a common street food all over South Korea. The brininess of the crab, chilis and soy would be a difficult match for any wine, Choi asserted.
“I’d love to see a pairing with that!” he about yangnyeomgejang. Choi mouthed similar mirth about bungdaegi.
Choi recommends pairing hanshik with lighter beers — hefeweizens and pilsners, rather than IPA and hops-forward beers.
“To me, culturally, Korean food is more of a beer food,” he said. “That’s just the way I feel about it.”
Hampering hansik in the States
Choi had plenty of first-hand experience with the South Korean government’s efforts to promote Korean cuisine worldwide, and it wasn’t pleasant.
Officials in the government’s hansik campaign in early 2009 approached him for help a booth at the 2009 National Restaurant Association show in Chicago. After that, the business relationship soured.
“They didn’t want to listen to a word I was saying,” he said. “I couldn’t endorse how they were representing Korean food…. The campaign was horrible. It did nothing.”
There’s stark contrast between how South Korea’s electronics and car industries successfully marketed their products in diverse countries and how the government approach for hanshik, according to Choi.”
“The Korean electronics and car campaigns were done very well, because they employed major advertising firms to create a campaign,” he said. “The way Samsung, LG or Kia sell themselves have opened themselves to the American fabric.”
Conversely, the government sought direction but was willing to walk that way only so far. For example, the hansik campaign included visuals largely relevant to older-generation Koreans, showing off the food along with 한복 hanbok (traditional clothing) and 궁중음식gungjung eumsik ([royal] court cuisine).
“It was the wrong message — no one understood,” he said. “It made sense to the 50-year-old ajusshis who understand royal cuisine, but there was no context or explanation to Americans as to why that should mean anything to them.”
Choi said those “ajusshis” (general term for an older man), in their quest to promote Korean royal cuisine and bibimbap in America, ignored advice from Choi and other Korean-American chefs, food writers and long-term expats.
“Americans don’t know about the Shilla or Goryo dynasties and that history. They were using Korean history with sound-bite advertising campaigns in America, it never resonated with the American public.”
Advice for aspiring chefs and food writers
Being a chef is a craft that aspirers need to patiently develop, Choi said.
“You can’t force a craft overnight or believe that you can just learn the tip of the iceberg of the craft and feel you are there. It’s an ever-evolving, lifelong craft. There will come a point where you will become a master, but you will not know you are a master. It’s not something you should try to achieve. The ones who really get there they are no longer worried about those titles, because they are so far on the Jedi level.”
Just as culinary school graduates need to find their way and learn more, food writers and bloggers need to do likewise to be in a mode of continually learning, Choi advised.
“If you’re a blogger, that means you’re not writing for the New Yorker, but it means you’re starting — you’re working to find your voice, your words, your perspectives.”
It takes time to tap into that knowledge.
“There’s a spiritual, soulful side once you learn all this,” he said. “And that shapes your life. Your life experiences will shape your food and flavor.”