Roy Choi is a chef who's celebrated for food that isn't fancy. He's one of the founders of the food truck movement, where instead of hot dogs or ice cream, more unusual, gourmet dishes are prepared and sold. His Kogi trucks specialize in tacos filled with Korean barbecue.
Choi was born in South Korea in 1970 and moved to Los Angeles with his parents at the age of 2. His parents owned a Korean restaurant near Anaheim for a few years when he was a child. He tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that his mother had some serious cooking talent.
"She had flavor in her fingertips," he says. "She had this connection and this innate ability to capture flavor in the moment and people felt it. Because our lives were so based around food, when someone is good at food, everyone notices and it's a big deal."
Choi's new book, L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food, is part memoir, part cookbook.
On what Korean tacos represent for him
The Korean taco was a phenomenon. ... It just came out of us, we didn't really think about it. The flavor, in a way, didn't exist before, but it was a mash up of everything we had gone through in our lives.
It became a voice for a certain part of Los Angeles and a certain part of immigration and a certain part of life that wasn't really out there in the universe. We all knew it and we all grew up with it, and it was all around us, but the taco kind of pulled it together. It was like a lint roller; it just put everything onto one thing. And then when you ate it, it all of a sudden made sense.
As I was putting it together, it was all of the pieces of my life coming together. It was almost like an avalanche. So it was growing up; it was being around low-riding; it was growing up in Korea, the immigration, being around the American school system; all the snack food and junk food that I've eaten; all of the tacos that I've eaten. It was all of these things. Then I really wanted to make it feel like Los Angeles, so I felt like it had to be just like a street taco in L.A.
On his Hawaiian restaurant, A-Frame, which is housed in an old IHOP
It's my love for the Hawaiian Islands, but it's not a tiki restaurant: It's really taking the feeling of "aloha." So we put people together, it's all communal seating, so strangers get to sit together. ... You eat everything with your hands and it's like a backyard barbecue.
... I wasn't always the most professional looking/acting dude in the world, so I'd go into restaurants, get treated not that well, kind of like crap. So what happened was I thought, "OK, if I ever make a restaurant, as soon as anyone opens that door, no matter where you're from, I want you to feel like we've been waiting for you."
On his rice bowl restaurant, Chego
That's a real personal place. ... A lot of Asian-Americans, growing up, we kind of live double lives. We had our refrigerators at home and the way we ate at home, and then we went to school and we couldn't really show that food because it was real stinky and stuff like that.
When you're going through that whole puberty/teenage angst ... you don't want to show that. Chego was my vision to show that food, to open the refrigerator, to show it to the world, and then make these rice bowls that were under $10. So it was also a platform to create great, delicious, healthy fast food that's affordable.
On growing up in Orange County and the cultural differences between his family and his friends
I was doomed because everyone had peroxide in their hair and they were coming from ski trips on Mammoth Mountain and snorkeling trips in the Cayman Islands, listening to Depeche Mode and The Cure, and I had never seen anything like that before. It wasn't really my rhythm.
I did the best I could. I was doomed because there weren't that many Asians and girls weren't really feeling me, but I was also doomed because if we get down to the food, the food was different for me too. I was embarrassed to show the food [we were eating] because everywhere I went, it was so different. Youngsters are mean to each other sometimes so I'd bring friends over and they'd look at my food and they'd be like, "Ew, what is that?"
... When you bring a bunch of rich friends from Orange Country over to your house and your whole house is surrounded by dead salted fish, it was tough.
... I loved it at the time. When I say the word "embarrassed" it's not that I was embarrassed and that I tried to shy away from it or that I tried to put it into the dirt and hope that it never came out again; it's just I didn't have the language to really stick up for it at that time.
On his addictions
Gambling hit me at like 22, 21. And it was three years of the darkest time of my life, but it started out just all fireworks and pom-poms, you know?
It was an amazing ride for the first year, I mean tens of thousands of dollars in shoeboxes ... just ballin' crazy. ... And then I started losing. And when you start losing in gambling, then you start chasing it. ... I lost all my friends; I lost all my family; I stole from my family ... sold everything I had.
... I'm addicted to feeding people right now. It's a good thing. I don't know how long this is gonna last right now, so I'm living it up and really focusing and putting everything I got into it. I'm putting my back into it.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is a famous chef who is celebrated for food that isn't fancy. In fact, by the time this interview is over, Roy Choi will have taught you how to make ketchup fried rice, and he will have convinced you that you'd like it. He will also be pretty convincing about why you shouldn't try crack or get addicted to gambling, or even milkshakes, like he did before he became a chef.
Choi is one of the founders of the food truck movement, where instead of hot dogs or ice cream, more gourmet and unusual dishes are prepared and sold. His Kogi trucks specialize in tacos filled with Korean barbecue. Choi was born in South Korea in 1970 and moved to L.A. with his parents at the age of two. His parents owned a Korean restaurant near Anaheim, California for a few years when he was a child.
Choi has a new book that's part memoir, part cookbook called "L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food." Roy Choi, welcome to FRESH AIR. Your tacos with Korean barbecue, which you've become famous for...
ROY CHOI: Everyone wants to start there.
GROSS: Yeah. Had you tasted anything like that before starting to make it? I mean, I know you've made all kinds of unusual dishes in your time, but specifically that?
CHOI: No. the Korean taco, it was a phenomenon. It was - you know, it just came out of us. We didn't really think about it. So the flavor, in a way, didn't exist before, but it was a mash-up of everything we had gone through in our life.
GROSS: What makes it work, flavor-wise?
CHOI: If we're talking specifically, I would say the lime juice, the garlic and the soy sauce. Like, that combination right there is an elixir that created...
CHOI: Yeah. It created, like, this crazy flow, you know. But more than that, I think it became a voice for a certain part of Los Angeles and a certain part of immigration and a certain part of life that wasn't really out there in the universe. We all knew it, and we all grew up with it, and it was all around us, but the taco kind of pulled it together. It was, like, I don't know, like a lint-roller, I guess. It just kind of put everything onto one thing, and then when you ate it, it all of a sudden made sense, you know.
GROSS: So when you were growing up, did you have a lot of Mexican friends? Like, was there any kind of connection or animosity between young people in the Korean-American and Mexican-American communities of L.A.?
CHOI: No, not at all. I mean, I grew up around so many different people in so many different neighborhoods, but the Latino heritage, the neighborhoods and people have always been a part of my life, ever since I was a kid. And I was even a low-rider when I was 16, 17, up until I was 18. I rolled with a crew from Norwalk. And I think I was the only Asian dude, one of the only Asian dudes around that was rolling in a dropped-down, deep-dish-rim, you know, Blazer.
And so I've always been around it. I've been in kitchens for a very, very long time. We're kind of like similar kindred spirits, in a way. We're just kind of - you know, work hard, family, do our thing, you know.
GROSS: So, speaking of the, you know, Korean barbecue taco, what makes barbecue Korean barbecue?
CHOI: It's very different than American barbecue. American barbecue is all slow and low, you know, or low and slow, as they say down in the South, in Texas. But Korean barbecue is thinner cuts of meat. So instead of taking whole briskets and whole sides of meat and smoking them and letting them go for a long time, Korean barbecue is thin cuts of meat, and marinated, and then grilled quickly over charcoal and mesquite and really quickly, almost like flashed.
And then you just eat that with rice and different vegetables and pickles and kimchi. So, in a sense, it's like - you know, I don't even know if the word barbecue applies. It's the American - it's the English word that was applied to it, but it's - in a way, it's not really barbecue. It's grilling. You know, it's like just searing and charring.
GROSS: So, you want to give us your recipe for the taco itself?
CHOI: Yeah. The taco itself is really, as I was putting it together, it was all the pieces of my life started coming together. It was almost like an avalanche. And so it was growing up, it was being around low-riding, it was being around growing up in Korea, the immigration, being around the American school system, all the snack food and junk food that I've eaten, all the tacos that I've eaten.
And so it was all these things, and then so I really wanted to make it feel like Los Angeles. So I felt like it had to be just like a street taco in L.A. So it was on a four-inch tortilla, two tortillas griddled really nicely. And the meat, I wanted to do Korean barbecue, but then I was thinking carne asada. So it was, like, this feeling that I wanted the meat to be cooked, then chopped, like it's been chopped all day, and then thrown back on the plancha, so it gets crispy again.
And then I thought of that feeling you get, it was like trying to capture everything in one bite, so that feeling you get right before you eat Korean barbecue. You get a little salad. So I was thinking of that salad, and if I could put that in there, and then cilantro and onion, which come on true Mexican tacos, and then a salsa roja. But then the salsa roja, we would combine the dry chile arbol and the smoked flavors and the roasted garlic, but then also with Korean chili paste, lime juice and soy sauce. And all that just came together, just whirled together, and then sesame seeds on top.
And then, in the slaw, it has green onions, cabbage and Romaine lettuce. So it's like this whole meal in one bite.
GROSS: It sounds really interesting. It sounds good. So, how much time do you actually spend in trucks?
CHOI: I'm there every day.
GROSS: Oh, really? I just assumed that you had other people doing that.
CHOI: No, like - well, I have a crew, you know, that cooks, just like a chef has cooks in the kitchen. But the trucks are my kitchen, you know, and so that's where I am. You know, if I'm not doing something crazy like this, you know, talking to you or, like, you know, doing a book tour or whatever, like, I'm with my trucks, on the streets with the people. I don't know where else I would be. It's my life, just like you do radio every morning, you know. Like, this is what you do. This is what I do.
GROSS: But you have several restaurants now, too.
CHOI: Yeah. Every day, I wake up. My only goal every day when I wake up is to try to see every single person within my organizations and shake their hand and give them a hug and then check the food, and then go back through at night. So my route is usually hitting - I have four places, four restaurants. So I'll hit all the restaurants during the day, check on prep, say hello to everybody, hit one lunch truck, hit the trucks in the morning, as well, to check on prep, and then do some office work.
I don't really do that much office work. I just go to the office, and I'm like Steve Carell in "The Office." You know, like, I just go around and like - I don't know what I do in the office. I look at paperwork and act like I'm understanding what's going on there, and I shake my head and put my hand on my chin and like, hmm. But then I - and then I take off.
CHOI: And then I go back out and check on the trucks again, and then I go back out to the restaurants and then enjoy the crowd and enjoy the people and see them eating. I really get a lot of energy and my information from how people are eating the food. So that's where I am.
GROSS: The restaurants that you have now, are they like the food truck, kind of like popular food, you know, as opposed to high-end, expensive food, food-as-art food?
CHOI: Well, I never had a plan for anything. So, like, once the trucks hit, it was this crazy ride, this crazy, two-year roller-coaster ride. You know, if I was, like, I guess, smart about it, or if I was a businessman about it, I would have created this continuous or contiguous brand, you know. But all the restaurants are different. They were just kind of artistic expressions of what I was feeling and going through at that moment.
And so one restaurant is in an old IHOP. It's called A-Frame. And it's - it's my feeling for - it's my love for the Hawaiian islands. But it's not a tiki restaurant. It's really taking the feeling of aloha. And so we put people together. It's all communal seating. So, strangers get to sit together. It's not, like, one long, communal bench. It's, like, at your table.
If you're, like, on a date, we'll put, like, another date next to you, or something, you know. So like - and then you eat everything with your hands. And it's like a backyard barbecue. So that was just, like, my feeling of trying to - really where A-Frame came from was, like, I've been, like, really into food since I was young, but, you know, I wasn't always the most professional-looking, acting dude in the world.
So, like, I'd go into restaurants, and I'd kind of get treated not that well, kind of like crap, you know. So - and so then what happened was I was like, OK, if I ever make a restaurant, I want - as soon as anyone opens that door, no matter where you're from, I want you to feel like we've been waiting for you. And that's what A-Frame is. Like, you just walk in, and, like, you know, like, we've been waiting there for you, and we give you a big hug, and we're just showering you with hospitality and making you feel at home.
And so that's A-Frame, no matter how you're dressed, where you're from, what you look like. And then I have a Caribbean restaurant called Sunny Spot, which came to me in a dream. You know, just, like, I was dreaming in Jamaica and the Caribbean islands, and just saw this vision of this place where everyone was dancing and eating food and all the flavors and the fruits of the islands. And so that's that.
And then I've got a rice bowl restaurant called Chego, which is - that's a real personal place, you know. It's kind of tied in with the book a little bit, but it's, like, a lot of Asian-Americans growing up, we kind of lived double lives. You know, like, we had our refrigerators at home and the way we ate home, and then if we - and then we went to school, and we couldn't, like, really show that food, you know, because it was, like, real stinky and stuff like that.
So, like, it was kind of like when you're going through that whole kind of like puberty, like, you know, teenage angst and all that stuff, it's, like, you don't want to kind of, like, show that. So - but Chego was, I don't know. It was, like, my vision to show that food, to open the refrigerator, to show it to the world and then make these rice bowls that were under 10 bucks.
So it was also like a platform to create great, delicious, healthy, fast food that's affordable.
GROSS: My guest is chef Roy Choi. His new memoir is called "L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is chef Roy Choi. He has a new memoir called "L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food." So you were born in Korea. Your mother's from North Korea, your father from South Korea. They had actually both emigrated to the U.S., met in the U.S. but then ended up moving back to Korea, where you were born in 1970, and then you all moved back when you were two.
So when you were a baby, you were in South Korea, and you write that there was no baby food there, no baby food per se, and I thought, well, I can understand that there's no, like, commercially prepared baby food in jars. But it also meant that you were getting fed pretty adult food when you were really, really young.
So how do you think that affected your palate? Like what were some of the things you were fed as a baby there that a baby wouldn't get fed here, and how did that affect what you considered to be, you know, like your comfort food?
CHOI: Bean sprouts, roots, tubers, herbs, kimchi, pickles, rice, fermented pastes, soups, braises, stews, pureed mung bean pancakes and seafood and octopus, and all those things, eating it from a very young age, it's - I don't know, it's like being exposed to just amazing jazz, you know, since - from being a baby. Just you look - everything about what you experience from a young age influences who you are, I think.
You know, so like for me with the food, it's - it started my life running instead of crawling, you know.
GROSS: So then you moved to L.A. when you were two. Your parents eventually opened a Korean restaurant. Some of the food there is prepared by your mother, who you say was already kind of famous in the neighborhood for her kimchi. What was so great about her kimchi? And in doing this, for anybody who hasn't tasted kimchi, you should describe it.
CHOI: OK, well, you know, it's more than just her kimchi. The thing about immigrant communities, wherever country you're from, we have whole other lives that aren't documented in English. Like, you know, we have whole other - you know, we have our American life, but we have our whole other life and communities and friends and networks and families. So it's almost like you have - you can, like, have your work life or your regular life and then also have this whole other existence.
And so within our Korean network and our Korean community life, my mom's kimchi was crazy because, like, she would make it at parties and feed everyone, and everyone would - they would be crawling over each other to get to it. You know, like it would be gone in a second.
And so, you know, we starting selling it and, like, packing it and bringing it to homes as gifts. And it was like selling mix tapes. You know, she would have our trunk full of stuff, you know.
CHOI: You know, and so I think, you know, my mom, she had flavor in her fingertips. You know, she had this connection and this innate ability to capture flavor in the moment, and people felt it. You know, and once your food - because our lives were so based around food, when someone is good at food, it's - everyone notices, and it's a big deal.
And kimchi itself is like sauerkraut. You could think of it like sauerkraut. It's fermented cabbage or fermented vegetables with chili powder and usually some kind of - most times some type of seafood agent, which acts as a kind of a kick-starter to the fermentation. And then you marinate or you salt it, then you marinate it, and then you pack it.
And then in the olden days, even now, but in the olden days you'd pack it underground, and then you take it out after it ferments. And it's really taking the bounty of all the vegetables at the harvest and then pickling them. So it's kind of - if you consider like in America it's like jamming, you know, like making jams and stuff, you know, and - or preserves.
You preserve everything and then go through the cold winter.
GROSS: So when your parents opened the Korean restaurant, what was your job there?
CHOI: My job, I didn't get paid for my job, though, I've got to go back and collect my money. But I was the maitre d'. You know, I was the young nine-year-old kid that you see in a lot of Asian restaurants that hangs out watching TV, doing their homework. I was that kid, man. I was that chubby little kid that you see at the pho spot, that you see at the Chinese restaurant, that you see at the Korean restaurant, you see at the El Salvadorian pupusa restaurant, you see at the Guatemalan bakery, that you see at the Mexican restaurant. I was that kid.
And, you know, some days when I was in a good mood, I welcomed people in and helped out. When I wasn't in a good mood, I'd sleep on the booth and not give it up, you know...
CHOI: Like sleep right during service, all grumpy and stuff.
GROSS: So from your perspective as a child, seeing your parents have this popular restaurant and then watching the restaurant fail because of the way the neighborhood changed and the way the traffic changed, what did you grow up thinking about restaurants and whether it was, like, a good way of making a living, whether it was a good life or whether it was trouble?
CHOI: It was the best time of my life. You know, it was maybe three years. Even with all the ups and downs, it was the most beautiful time of my life because of all of the things of our life intersected together because food was so ingrained in just our family lifestyle and - but then now it was our work, as well, and then there was also my homework, and it was like we were all together.
So it was - there was no beginning and no end to the, you know, algorithm of life. It was like it was all one thing. So - but I was young, but I was aware enough to see the decline in the business and then also the neighborhood. But we had moved a lot before then, and we had been through a few businesses before then, and we had gone through a lot of businesses after.
But I don't know if I thought too deeply about it. It was just time to move. If you talk to any immigrant kid, they'll understand what I'm talking about. Like sometimes there's just no question to it. You just pack up and move.
GROSS: Your parents ended up getting in the jewelry business and becoming millionaires. How did they manage to make that much money selling jewelry? What was their access to the jewels, and how did they sell them?
CHOI: It was Reaganomics, man. It was the 1980s. People were (unintelligible). The Korean community was coming up. The whole community itself was growing and becoming extremely rich and entrepreneurs, and the people that had come over as doctors and engineers and scientists were all excelling in their fields and becoming elite doctors and surgeons and scientists and engineers and computer scientists.
Everyone was excelling because it was now about 10 - no, more than 10, about 15 years into immigration. Like most of the Koreans came in the '70s, so by the mid-, late '80s, Korea, the country itself, started to grow, as well. It started to move from a textile-based country into electronics and semiconductors and all that, and then so money started flowing out of there.
And my mom was at the tempest of the storm. We had connections through the jewelry business through my uncle, and so he had a deep network. We got into that, and my mom had this idea of, like, selling Tiffany, you know, Tiffany stones, quality stones in jewelry but marked all the way down, so straight hustle stuff.
You know, like so yo, if - like the jewelry business is marked up, you know, I think like 60 percent. And so her idea was like yo, like let's bring everything down 10 percent, better quality, and straight Asian way of thinking, you know, like - and then, you know, here you go, how are you going to resist this opportunity.
And, you know, we sold it just like kimchi out of the back of our truck, you know, like D flawless diamonds. Like we used to sell that stuff out on the street. It was crazy.
GROSS: Roy Choi will be back in the second half of the show. His new memoir is called "L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Chef Roy Choi. He became famous for his Korean barbeque tacos. They're prepared and sold in L.A. on his now famous Kogi trucks which launched the food truck movement. Choi also owns several restaurants. He was born in South Korea in 1970. His family moved to California two years later where his parents eventually opened a Korean restaurant.
After doing well for a few years, the restaurant went under. But with the help of a relative in the jewelry business, his parents became millionaires selling jewelry, which is where our conversation left off. So your parents get very prosperous. They become millionaires. You move to, you know, a very swank and very white neighborhood and you're in 7th grade about that time and you write, at that point, I was doomed.
So why did you feel doomed just as your parents had kind of, like, arrived in terms of prosperity?
CHOI: I was doomed because everyone had peroxide and they were coming from ski trips and Mammoth Mountain and, like, snorkeling trips in the Cayman Islands and listening to, like, Depeche Mode and The Cure, and I'd never seen anything like that before and it wasn't really my rhythm. And I did the best I could and so, like, I was doomed because, like, you know, there weren't that many Asians and, you know, girls weren't really, like, feeling me.
And I was also doomed because, like, the food - if we get down to the food, the food itself was different for me, too, because, like, I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed at the time to show a lot of the food that I was going through, because everywhere I went it was so different, you know. And then, like, being young, you know, like, youngsters are mean to each other sometimes so I'd bring friends over and they'd look at my food and be like, you know, make - they'd be like, oh, what is that?
You know, and so...
GROSS: What's an example of embarrassing food back then?
CHOI: Fish heads, bubbling fermented paste, pig intestines. fish roux, fish guts, squid, marinated anchovies, drying pollock and croaker in baskets all along your front yard, you know.
GROSS: I can definitely see how that would be different from what..
CHOI: Yeah, it's different, you know.
GROSS: ...your neighbors are doing and eating.
CHOI: Yeah, you know, and yeah, when you bring a bunch of, you know, rich friends, you know, Orange County over to your house and there's, you know, you whole house is surrounded by dead, salted fish, yeah, it was tough. I was young. And then, you know, but this book is a part of me really, really, like, loving it again, you know.
I loved it at the time. When I say the word embarrassed, it's not that I was embarrassed and tried to shy away from it or that I tried to put in some - into the dirt and, like, hope it never came out again. It was just I didn't have the language to really stick up for it at that time, you know. So I went deep into addiction and just, like, went into a dark way.
GROSS: So you mentioned after you moved to this affluent neighborhood and you feel really out of place, not fitting in, you end up getting addictions. I mean, first an addiction to crack and then an addiction to gambling. How did you get into that? Like, were you - did you have a circle of people that was different from the circle of people in the neighborhood?
CHOI: Yeah. You know, I spent half my life - my youth in L.A., half in Orange County, then after high school bounced around back to L.A., all over the country and I've just been someone that always finds people, kindred spirits. And even within Orange County, you know, there was a lot of heads that I connected with that weren't rich, you know, and that came, you know, Orange County is also a very big blue collar town as well.
And so, you know, just a few miles down from Villa Park, was Orange, Santa Anna, Anaheim, Fullerton and, you know, that stuff gets pretty grimy out there. So I just, you know. I've always been connected to others that don't fit in sometimes, you know.
GROSS: You fell in with a pretty tough group of people for a while. They were known as - what was their name? The something mob, as opposed to gang.
CHOI: Yeah, there's the (unintelligible) Street Mob. It was just, you know, a bunch of young, sharp, strong dudes came together. We had a bunch girls with us.
GROSS: And you had a period of gambling a lot, started off doing well and then got deep in debt.
CHOI: That was my addiction. Gambling was, you know, crack was just - it was a fling and then gambling hit me at 22, 21, around there. It was just like three years of the darkest time in my life. But it started out just all fireworks and pom-poms, you know what I mean. Like, it was an amazing ride for the first year, I mean, just tens of thousands of dollars in shoeboxes, just kisses and massages and meals everywhere, and nightclubs and just balling, crazy.
And then, I started losing. You know, the truth is it's about this metaphysical luck, you know. And if you ride that dragon's tail and you're dripping with that confidence, you can just ride it and ride it and it just, like, it continues to mushroom. But then, once you start chasing it, it just sucks you all the way in. And I started chasing it and it's like as long as it's - you know, it's like money. It's like all money.
As long as it takes you to build it, you lose it a hundred times faster. And then with gambling, it's just the slope is so steep and it drops so fast before you even know it. And then, all of a sudden, it's so fast that it's passed you up and you no longer know who you are.
GROSS: So after getting to a low point in terms of being addicted to gambling and being deep in debt, you decide...
CHOI: I owed people money. I lost all my friends. Lost all my family. Stole from my family, stole from myself, sold everything I had, it was crazy, yeah.
GROSS: And then, you decided you wanted to cook. Like, what was the turning point?
CHOI: I was there, you know, wherever that is on the bottom of whatever ocean that is. I was watching TV in the morning. It was 1995, maybe '96, around there and I saw Emeril Lagasse on his first show, "The Essence of Emeril." And I was watching it in a haze and...
GROSS: It was a cooking show.
CHOI: It was a cooking show. It was Emeril's first show. It's called "The Essence of Emeril." It's just him in, like, a black and white checkerboard kitchen, very small kitchen, with just a camera and him and we was looking at the camera and cooking and it was very personal. It was almost like he was right there with you. And I was watching that in a haze and I felt like he was talking to me. And it was a sledgehammer on my head.
And I was like, this is it, you know. This is what I got to do. And enrolled in a night class in L.A. and I was like, OK, let's do this.
GROSS: Well, you ended up going to the Culinary Institute of America.
GROSS: Tell me something that you learned at the Culinary Institute of America, that just changed your thinking about food.
CHOI: You know, the Culinary Institute of America for me, the thing that really dialed it in was the structure of the program. You know, like, I have a very short attention span. You know, I'm very compulsive and, you know, I live things out. I live whole lifetimes out in days, you know, and so, like, I'm done with stuff a lot and then I move on.
But this didn't allow me that wiggle room. You know, if you give me wiggle room, you know, I'll wiggle right out of your life, you know. So, like, but the structure of the CIA didn't allow me any wiggle room and I that was the most important thing that I needed at that life, you know, 'cause it's not like a traditional schooling, like, college system where you have the whole semester and then you can goof around and just take the midterm, whatever.
They're bloc programs so they're specific seven-day, 14-day and 21-day bloc programs and if you miss a day, it's like missing a month. And so that was really, really important for me.
GROSS: My guest is Chef Roy Choi. His new memoir is called "L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.
My guest is Chef Roy Choi who launched the food truck movement with a small fleet of Kogi trucks in L.A. where his Korean barbequed tacos are prepared and sold. So Roy Choi, tell us your recipe for ketchup fried rice and this is not a recipe - I'm sure this is not a recipe you were taught at the Culinary Institute of America, but it's in your new book, "L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food."
And I'm going to preface this question, actually, by telling you one of the top five worst meals I was ever served as a child was spaghetti with ketchup. I mean, it was really - it was, you know, like spaghetti from the box with cold ketchup on top.
CHOI: Well, maybe this recipe can - you know, I've confronted a lot of my skeletons. Maybe this recipe will let you confront this skeleton.
GROSS: Heal me.
CHOI: I will heal you with this, you know, because it's not cold ketchup on top of, you know, noodles. It's treating the ketchup like tomato paste in a veal stock or in a brown Espanol sauce, you know. It's getting the smoky flavor out of the tomato so, but it's in an L.A. kind of like drug state, you know, like no money, kind of like, you know, just a homey way of looking at it way.
You know, so it's like blending all the worlds together. And it's also like a snack food within the Korean community of, you know. Like, when a lot of people throw, like, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich together or if you just grab a banana and snack on a banana or, you know, eat a handful of granola or whatever it is. Like, we make ketchup fried rice, you know.
So really the recipe is very, very simple. You could literally do it with just ketchup and rice. But in the recipe we have, we added minced scallions, minced carrot, minced garlic, minced kimchi and then ketchup and then sesame seeds and then one egg. So you could omit all the vegetables, but why would you? So the thing is, you just sauté the vegetables and get the aroma and then it's like a wok cooking.
And then, you add the rice or you add the ketchup and you kind of like pull the flavor out of it and get it smoky. Add the day old rice, then make a fried rice with it. And then, you cook an egg and then a sunnyside up egg and put it on top with sesame seeds and then you mix that all together. It's really, really delicious. It's munchy food.
GROSS: I could see that being good.
CHOI: It's delicious. And the great thing is it's a gateway to get cooking. You know, sometimes a gateway to cooking is it doesn't have to be the most exquisite ingredients. You know, and I know, you know, chefs are going to hate me for this, but, like, I know, like, we in the chef community always talk about ingredients, ingredients, ingredients, you know, but, you know, I'm saying the opposite for once.
You know, so even if you're using just ketchup and rice, it's a gateway for you to follow the technique and the process, and then through that process you can create flavor.
GROSS: Can I just ask how much ketchup do you use?
CHOI: OK. So this recipe, I have three tablespoons of ketchup for two cups of rice and then there's like a tablespoon of each of the vegetables. So it's like this is for about like one and a half, two people. Oh, no, actually it serves four to six. I'm kind of hungry. But if you're hungry, it serves one to two people. If you're not hungry it serves four to six.
GROSS: Yeah. This sounds great. It's not making me feel any better about the spaghetti with ketchup out of the bottle - cold ketchup out of the bottle, pour it on top. That still makes me sad. It's always going to make me sad.
CHOI: Well, yeah, but that's a scar that you have. I can't correct that. You know, but maybe this can kind of ease it for you.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Allow me to think more creatively about that terrible mistake that happened. So I think a lot of people who are into food, professionally, are worried about putting on weight and sometimes they really discipline themselves so much so that they don't - I'm wondering if weight has ever been an issue for you.
CHOI: Weight's always been an issue in my life. I'm not, like, a skinny, lanky kid, you know, so, like, I've been chubby and I've been skinny. You know, during my addiction times, I got really skinny. I got down to like 145. During my fat times, I had a milkshake addiction as well. You know, all my addictions weren't vices. I had a huge milkshake addiction when I was working up in Lake Tahoe. I tipped the scales, I think, at 198, almost 200.
And I think my natural weight is, like, 175, 165 around there. So I fluctuated a lot. Yeah, I've dealt with it, but as chef, I've never really dealt with it because when I'm cooking, I'm so engrossed in the food, I'm just eating and tasting an touching and feeling and looking at it and cooking it. And I'm on my feet all day burning it off so, yeah, when I cook, I don't really eat meals. I'm just tasting, tasting, tasting all day long.
GROSS: You have recipe for a milkshake in your new book. Do you still have milkshakes even though you had a milkshake addiction earlier?
CHOI: Yeah, I have to - I still have addictions right now. I'll never be able to get rid of my compulsions and addictions. But I'm addicted to feeding people right now, which is kind of cool.
GROSS: That's a good thing.
CHOI: It's a good thing, you now. And I don't know how long this is going to last right now so I'm living it up and really, like, focusing and putting everything I got into it. I'm putting my back into it, you know. I'm putting everything into it. But people that don't have this type of rhythm in their body or their life, you know, you get the people, oh, just have a drink, one drink.
But they don't realize if you're an addictive person, if that one drink can take you all the way down so I don't drink no more, you know, like, because if I do, there's no stopping. And it's the same thing with milkshakes so I have to control my milkshake intake. It's same thing with - I don't know if I can say the word marijuana on NPR, but it's the same with marijuana.
I have to, like, put marijuana and milkshakes on my calendar, you know. So, like, I create a calendar for milkshakes and so I pick a day that I'm going to have the milkshake and then I go and I have milkshakes like nobody has milkshakes. And then, I'll have like three, four milkshakes in a day. And I'll search out the best spots or I'll make them myself and I just enjoy it. And then, I, you know, create distance again until it's back on the calendar.
GROSS: Are the marijuana and milkshake days the same days or separate days?
CHOI: Milkshake has been with me for a long time so it's been with me through marijuana. Milkshakes were an obsession for me in high school so, like, I used to drive all over L.A. County, from Inglewood, all the way out to Riverside, to Anaheim, up to the valley in search for, you know, these greasy spoons that had milkshakes, you know.
When I was, like, 17, I was on this quest to find the perfect, quintessential life-transforming banana milkshake, you know. That was like my thing, you know. I had to get that banana milkshake and everywhere I go and I - that's what this milkshake recipe is for me in the book. It's that banana milkshake that I searched for.
GROSS: So one more question. You know, your mother had been famous when you were a child in the neighborhood for her cooking and now you're kind of famous in the whole country for yours. She's still alive, right?
GROSS: So who is considered the better cook in the family now?
CHOI: Oh, man. You know, I can't talk smack about my mom's cooking, man. Like, even if I was better than her, like, I still got to say her, you know. Like, I don't know. Like, I mean, I'm not going to, like, challenge her on "Iron Chef" or nothing like that so. It's hard. I'll tell you the truth, though. It's hard for me and my mom to cook together because we're such, like, aggressive personalities when it comes to food.
Like, we are toxic when it comes to us cooking together and kick it. So if she's cooking, I'm, like, on the couch watching TV. I won't even go near the kitchen. And if I'm cooking, I'm like, yo, you know, like, I put a force field around the kitchen. I'm like, mom, out, out. No, no, no. No, no, you know. And so we're, yeah, we're real toxic as far as that goes.
So but I mean, yeah, I mean, she raised me. She cooked the food that I grew up on so I can never beat her.
GROSS: Roy Choi, it's been such a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.
CHOI: Thank you.
GROSS: Roy Choi's new memoir is called "L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food." Want to try his ketchup fried rice? You'll find his recipe on our website, freshair.npr.org. Coming up, the self-help messiah. Maureen Corrigan reviews a new biography of Dale Carnegie. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.