There is no dictionary definition for a real one. Realness is subjective and intangible, but unmistakably obvious. As game always recognizes game, real will always recognize real. Realness is being genuine, understanding your inner self and never abandoning your core values. Realness is being loyal to the soil, respectful of tradition and fearless in the face of cynics. It’s never going Hollywood or acting brand new to your day ones. It’s using timeless ingredients to conjure something startlingly original. It is Roy Choi.
Over the last decade, the Dr. Dre of the food truck revolution improbably transformed himself from a journeyman hotel chef into an avatar of Los Angeles’ vibrant, diverse and demotic food culture. His abridged resume includes stints as a restaurateur, author, host, go-to culinary consultant for film directors (Jon Favreau’s Chef) and a two-time member of Time’s 100 Most Influential People. The Beastie Boys tapped him to a write a mini-chapter in their autobiography. But the day after our interview—amidst the stress of hosting a television show (Broken Bread on KCET) and opening up a 9,000-square-foot restaurant at Park MGM in Las Vegas—Choi emails me to change his Top 5 all-time rappers list. He’d made a grave omission by forgetting Scarface, the Houston rap legend so real that his breakthrough album’s cover showed him wheeling his partner Bushwick Bill out of the hospital after his eye had been shot out.
It’s easy to take Choi for granted. The 48-year-old has reached a level of ubiquity to where his celebrity occasionally shrouds his lasting imprint. But in an era where chefs became “rock stars,” complete with clownish gimmicks and sordid allegations, the Seoul-born embodiment of L.A. hip-hop and car culture ultimately made his reputation by staying cool and selling $10 rice bowls and tacos out of a truck.
But sometimes a taco is not a taco. The Kogi taco was an idea, Southern California’s sabor sublimated into a feast that could fit in the palm of your hand. The components were plucked out of the familiar ether like a scene from Iron Chef Fantasia. Fresh steaming-hot corn tortillas, a blizzard of sweet chopped onions, Napa cabbage, and cilantro, a tangy acceleration of lime juice and salsa roja, and of course, the BBQ short-rib beef, practically caramelized but still savory, chopped into divine oblivion and tossed on the plancha like a sacred rite.
When Choi first began serving from a truck called “Roja” on a rainy Thanksgiving weekend in 2008, it felt less like an invention than a discovery; If you grew up in L.A., the first time you had a Kogi taco, it hacked into an atavistic code scrawled in the recesses of your cerebral cortex. The favorite taco truck you’d grown up going to in pre-Internet days that one day suddenly disappeared into the freeway archipelago never to return, colliding with the K-BBQ strip mall spot with the god-level bulgogi, that you could only go to with your Korean homie because the menu was entirely in Hangul. The Kogi taco was Magic hitting James Worthy on the fast break. Herb Hudson in 1975 renting out a storefront on Sunset and Gower to tell the world about the holy alchemy of fried chicken and waffles. Snoop teaming up with 2Pac, two of Amerika’s most wanted in the same motherfucking place at the same motherfucking time. No champagne glasses necessary at Kogi, but a Mexican Coke couldn’t hurt.
Choi’s almost mythic backstory screams for cinematic adaptation. Chronicled in his excellent memoir/cookbook L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food, Choi immigrated to L.A. from South Korea with his parents as a toddler. His madeleine’s were Tommy Burgers, Chinatown almond cookies and Bob’s Big Boy’s chili spaghetti, accompanied by his mom’s dazzling heaps of home-cooked Korean food. His family weathered struggles with alcoholism, financial pressure and countless relocations all across L.A. They eventually settled in Orange County, where they briefly ran a restaurant that served the best kimchi in Garden Grove. After multiple business failures, his parents finally hit it big in the discount jewelry business and bought Nolan Ryan’s house after he left Anaheim to sign with the Houston Astros.
His coming-of-age was tumultuous. An outsider behind the Orange Curtain, Choi cliqued up with a tough crew of mostly black and Hispanic friends who called themselves the Grove Street Mob. His book devotes an interstitial chapter to a friend who never made it out, dead from a car accident of murky circumstance (written with the pour-out-a-little-liquor pathos expected from a real one.) At one point, Choi joined a Norwalk and Whittier-based Latin car crew called the Street City Minis. Zapp was bumped—more bounce to the ounce was accomplished. There were bouts with drugs, a ferocious gambling addiction and innumerable wild and violent nights in Koreatown. Somehow, Choi survived and wound up at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. And then a decade wandering the gustatory Sinai: he worked in country clubs and for Embassy Suites, at the Beverly Hilton and a Century City pan-Asian mall restaurant from the founder of The Cheesecake Factory. The last business fired him, leaving him down and out and ostensibly marked for career death at age 38. Instead, Choi built an empire by doubling down on himself and the very thing that made him singular but symbolic of the city writ large.
2018 was a year of transition and grief. On the professional level, he parted ways with Koreatown’s Line Hotel after overseeing its food and beverage program since its opening in 2014. Last August, he closed both the Oakland and Watts locations of LocoL, his and chef Daniel Patterson’s fast food concept that sought to bring cheap and healthy options to historically underserved communities. Last year also found Choi grappling with the deaths of his friends, Anthony Bourdain and legendary L.A. Times food critic Jonathan Gold—one of Choi’s most steadfast champions.
To understand Choi is to understand someone possessed with a streak of indomitability. He is fiery and passionate, willing to humbly listen to criticism, but quick to lash out if he feels it unfounded. So here we are on a winter afternoon in Chinatown in the shadow of Chego, his rice bowl Nirvana located in the Far East Plaza. It’s one of Choi’s three current restaurants in the L.A. area (including the Hawaiian-themed A-Frame and a Kogi brick and mortar).
His latest venture is Best Friend, a Korean BBQ restaurant in Vegas with a menu advertised as Choi’s greatest hits—including a chili spaghetti homage to Bob’s and slippery shrimp inspired by Yang Chow. There’s an entire section of the menu titled “L.A. Shit,” featuring Kogi Tacos, carrots and elotes from his Line Hotel rooftop restaurant Commissary. Best Friend’s name is fitting because that’s the vibe Choi exudes. You know Roy Choi even if you don’t. He’s the O.G. pulling up to you at the stoplight blaring “Computer Love” from the booming system, the two of you silently nodding at each other as a sign of respect. The badass older brother of your friend that always snuck you cigarettes, who your parents said to avoid because he’d never amount to nothing. But they were wrong.
Best Friend opened around New Year’s Eve with a weekend of shows from The Beat Junkies (a very real one booking). Consider Choi the only person on earth who could bring Katy Perry and Y.G. out to a restaurant launch party. If Vegas feels permanently corny and garish, Choi aspires to bring the L.A. that exists to locals to the land of Liberace. A tall order, but one that almost feels fated, the ambassador of staying true transplanted to the city that revels in artifice. I wouldn’t bet against him.
When did your vision with food crystalize? Was it Kogi or before that?
I think I’ve always had it. But the crystallization, as far as me being able to ‘be one’ with it was Kogi. Before it, there were signs for sure. Like when I had a regular job, I’d get other jobs that I wasn’t normally supposed to get. For example, I was the corporate chef for The Embassy Suites, a mid-level type hotel.
There’s no way in the world that an Embassy Suites chef is supposed to become the chef of the Beverly Hilton. It’s just two different class levels. But the corporate side really wanted me to go to the Beverly Hilton and turn it around. When I got there, they really put me through the ringer. I was like someone showing up uninvited to a cocktail party. I could tell they didn’t want me, but they were going through the steps because their boss was like ‘you gotta give this motherfucker a chance.’
I knew that if me getting the job was only based on the interview, I wouldn’t get it. But then I always understood that if I cooked for everyone, it would be over [and I’d get the job]. I’ve always had that experience where I’ll stutter or mess up, but as soon as I’m able to cook, everything crystallizes. Just like the performer who grabs a mic and takes over. But I was only a salary man at the time, so I didn’t know what that power meant yet.
And then Kogi hit and changed everything.
It’s a weird thing. You have to have the talent, the charisma and the experience to do it. But there’s also a moment where rising to that, whether it’s in sports or music or food, where one thing can change the trajectory of everything. You can be a journeyman or a bench player and when you hit that shot, it changes everything. For me that was Kogi.
It’s like [L.A. Dodger] Justin Turner—the nobody who signs a minor league contract at almost 30 and suddenly becomes an All-Star.
That’s what happened. I was a journeyman in my mid-30’s. There was no indication that I was supposed to start a food revolution. Then there was that moment where I saw 300 people in front of me and knew exactly what to do.
How soon into Kogi were there lines like that?
Week three. Week two required a different sixth sense. It was about knowing where to go. Our first pull-up was next to [what was then] the Cabana Club on Ivar. It was Green Door at the time. [It’s now Lure nightclub.]
I found myself there on consecutive weekends once, saw Colin Farrell twice and was like ‘what’s wrong with you, never come back here again.’
We got chased out with billy clubs; it was crazy. At that time, [in 2008] things weren’t as conscious as they are now. Street food is now legal. There’s social media and everyone has these hashtags and movements. Everyone gets behind immigration. There are arguments and debates on both sides. Back then it was still run like street politics. We would park on Ivar and the cops would immediately roll through.
It was literally like Boardwalk Empire. There were nights where we’d be serving and these cops would roll up, and one guy with a tilted hat and an Irish cigarette would be swinging this billy club around, hitting the side of our truck. In the early days, we’d just show up in different hoods and serve late nights. We didn’t get threats, but a lot of signs were thrown up and names were called. We just constantly extended with love. Cars would roll up and be like, ‘fuck is you doing here, foo?’ I’d just hand them a burrito. A lot of my instincts kicked in in those moments, hand them a burrito, hand them a taco. They’d eat it; you’d see everyone’s head nod. That was the beginning of Kogi culture.
Where did those instincts came from?
I grew up in Koreatown, but moved to Orange County in the 7th grade. So it’s this tough situation where I had to live my puberty and high school years in the suburbs, but grew up in the city. I spent five years always having this longing to come back to L.A. Once I got my license, I would drive up here and roll through every corner, every block. I got into cruising. I got into lowriding. Anything I could do to get out on the streets. Sometimes, I would take the train here and just walk.
You were doing that at 14-years-old, right?
Yup. Anything I could do to be in the city. The only time I’d stay in Orange County was basically to go to school. All those things became a blueprint for the first two weeks of Kogi. I’d remember the spots I used to drive by. All these random corners in Carson, Wilmington, Hawthorne, the Valley, the East Side. I’d say ‘okay, lets go to that spot.’ We’d go there, pop up, and people would show up.
It was about the third week when it started blowing up around Miracle Mile, Wilshire and Cloverdale, and different parts of Venice. There was no blueprint for it. That moment was everything. It felt like early hip-hop, where you don’t have any experience that necessarily mimics that ‘right thing to do.’ But you grab the mic, step on stage and move the crowd. It’s over after that. There’s a moment where everything crystallizes, and you become that icon. That was Kogi for me.
One of the things that resonated with me about your book was your willingness to cop to the dark periods of your life: whether family-related or concerning your own struggles with drugs and gambling. Do you think those experiences helped you build the strength to handle success and the long road leading up to it?
Definitely. When you’re raised in those situations, and where you’ve seen the worst of it all, nothing really fazes you. Nothing can touch you. Koreans are really strong because of that mentality. Nothing fucks with us because we’re our own worst enemy. I think that’s where a lot of the older tensions between Korean merchants and black communities [which culminated during the L.A. Riots of 1992] began.
I honestly believe a lot of it was the fault of Korean merchants. I understand where that fault was. They were so stubborn, so strong-willed and strong-minded. They felt like they needed to endure the punishment to provide for their family. If they weren’t that strong, they really could’ve opened up and gotten to know what was around them. They could’ve figured out the flexibility between stealing a pack of gum and armed robbery. The problem is that in the ‘80s, those were treated as the same thing. That’s where the fault was. I’m trying to repair some of that with Broken Bread. I wish I could turn back the clock and figure out how to ease the cultural understandings. I was only a kid then…
That’s around the time when Ice Cube’s song ‘Black Korea’ came out, and it obviously contained a lot of racist invective directed at Korean people.
I’ve never crossed paths with Ice Cube, but if I ever do—now that I’m at this position in life—I’d want to talk to him about it. I imagine his argument would be that Koreans were racist towards them. And that’s the tough part. I can’t really argue against that. I just wish those artists at that time would’ve used their platforms in a more holistic way to be able to address some of those concerns.
I’d say 85-95 percent of the time, people were just living their lives. ‘Mr. Kim what’s up?’ ‘Hey how’s you doing, how’s your boy?’ And then there’s just certain bad scenes. Just like with police. Most Korean-owned businesses had really deep relationships with the neighborhood. But I’d say one out of 10 had really bad ones. Those became the target at that time. Again, I feel like the Korean folks didn’t take the time to understand. They’re probably coming from a home in Norwalk or Paramount or Fullerton, driving to the middle of South Central Los Angeles, and they open up a store and go into commando mode.
And a lot of them are born in a post-war environment of deprivation.
They’re hard on themselves. Hard on their kids. They don’t take the cultural differences into consideration. They’re treating people the same way they’re treating their kids. They probably weren’t going out of their way to be mean or racist. If you were my kid, and I was that liquor store owner, I’d grab you and smack you. You come home with an A minus, you can’t go out for a month. It was 0 to 100 when it came to punishment.
Were your parents like that with you when you were really young?
Kinda. It was 0 to 100, and that’s what I think contributed to the tension. A pack of gum. Little kid coming in, you know, being a kid, and the next thing you know it escalates out of control. But yeah, ‘Black Korea.” I dunno, man. I hope one day I can talk to Ice Cube about that.
What would you want to tell him?
I’d probably want him to re-address that song. We all make mistakes. I’m trying to make up for the years of my mistakes with everything that Kogi has given me. I’m trying to bring love and light to this world. I think something as mean-spirited as that maybe deserves a second look. Especially since you are still a very current and relevant artist in a sense.
Did you ever expect any of this to happen?
I’ve never been the center of attention until Kogi happened. That’s why my [Twitter and Instagram] name is “Riding Shotgun [LA].” I’ve always been riding shotgun.
I thought it was interesting how in your book one of your favorite literary characters was Sal Paradise because he was perhaps the most iconic person riding shotgun.
I’ve been a latchkey kid since I was four years old. I used to ride the bus here and walk around the jewelry district, Chinatown, and Koreatown, all by myself. I don’t know what people were thinking then. It was the ‘70s — a different time. If you saw a 4-year-old kid walking around alone today, you’d think something was weird. I was always a quiet kid left to roam, almost like an alley cat, so I’ve been always been able to connect and always be in the mix.
In the ‘80s, I was deep in the B-Boy mix, lowriding all throughout Norwalk and that continued on through high school joining different gangs, this and that, connected to the weed world. Now as an adult, a lot of people don’t know where I come from. People have written or commented that he’s trying to be gangster. Maybe because I come from an older generation, but I never really understood these Internet haters and commenters. Because they don’t know anything about me, they comment that I’m just trying to gain street cred. They don’t understand this is who I’ve been the whole time. LocoL and Kogi are things that I’ve always been, but now finally as an adult they’re things I now have the ability to execute.
Do you think the historically tumultuous relationship between Koreans and Black people in South L.A. led to you wanting to bridge the divide with LocoL?
It’s really just that now as an adult I have the ability to do what I want to do. These are the things I did when I didn’t have money or the ability, or when I was a child. I don’t know any other way. That’s why LocoL existed. I had to get to a place where I got the platform to talk about these things. Everything was lining up for this moment: having these relationships, putting in the work beforehand, having a direct contact to Watts, being accepted by Watts. Everything was set up for it.
You hired exclusively people who came from Watts, right?
They were all folks who accepted us. We became part of their lives and they became part of ours. When I was younger, I used to have homies from Watts who I would pick up and drop off there. In the second part of my life, I met a gentleman named Aqeela Sherrills, one of the architects of the Peace Treaty [also known as the Watts gang truce] in ‘92 with Jim Brown. Around 2011, I was doing a lot of charity work at Jefferson High School and through a community redevelopment organization, I got connected to Aqeela. We hit it off and remained friends.
When LocoL came around, I hit him up for recommendations for a real estate agent. He said, ‘Listen, if you come into Watts, let me bring you in. I’m gonna be your chaperone. I’m gonna connect you to everyone from grandmothers to shooters to young bangers to OGs to triple OGs. You get in, we get you the hood pass, and you be you.’ So that’s what I did for six months.
Before you even opened?
Before we even signed the lease. He walked me through the Jordan Downs [public housing projects] and brought every OG out and every single young banger. Then we brought the whole thing and concept to them. It was really just us presenting this plan and asking the community ‘are you cool with this?’ We got the co-sign from Aqeela and everyone looked at it with clear eyes and said ‘OK, we fuck with that.’ The thing that kept us going was that we delivered on every promise we made: hiring, development, investing, ingredients in the food.
I imagine that a lot of your frustration with the press coverage of the closure was that few people knew how deep the commitment to Watts went.
They didn’t. A lot of journalists summarized everything as if it was a matter of fact thing. The headlines bothered me because they started with ‘failure.’ But that’s only if you equate success and failure based upon financial gain. We invested about $4 million into this project. We built a $1.5 million facility, which is still running. We gave over 50 jobs to the community, and there are about 10 people who have learned and gained skills and moved onto other jobs. We brought a world conversation to a situation that’s happening in towns like Watts and Baton Rouge and St. Louis.
You’re talking about food deserts?
Yeah. We got the world to talk about those things. We brought people to 103rd and Grape Street that would’ve never come there before. We got a lot of social services reinstated since bringing LocoL over, like street cleaning and parking enforcement. On top of that, there are children that we affected during the almost three years we stayed open. There were elementary school kids able to see their family members working in the facilities, having this as a memory point. These are all huge things.
Even the way we presented it, we said ‘We’re gonna take a different look at the retail side; LocoL is not closing, we’re going to start catering.’ And all of a sudden, all the headlines are ‘LocoL is a failure.’ ‘LocoL is closing.’ As soon as the announcement was made, reporters showed up for lunch and interviewed two people. Those people aren’t media savvy. They just said whatever was on their mind in the moment. On top of that, it was only two people. They took those two people’s statements as proof of why the community didn’t want LocoL there. They framed the whole thing as like this savior thing, and it was never that. We came from the inside out, not the outside in. And that bothered me. It didn’t bother me in the sense of armchair quarterback criticism: I can handle that. It bothered me because it perpetuated the narrative of poor black communities and crime. As though it couldn’t work. And that doesn’t do any good for anyone.
I feel the same way about this magazine. If we only do a handful of issues and stop, it won’t be a failure. It’s a success that we got a DIY enterprise off the ground and hopefully produced quality work. Nothing lasts forever.
I felt the Pete Wells thing was unfair [The New York Times restaurant critic gave the Oakland location of LocoL a zero stars review], not because I can’t take the shots. You wanna take me down, cool. But what bothered me was that he didn’t take the time to understand the context of what we were doing. He shot it down as if it’s no good and these people didn’t know how to execute. He didn’t understand. The only person who really understood was Jonathan. [Jonathan Gold named LocoL the L.A. Times 2017 Restaurant of the Year.]
Jonathan understood where we were coming from, what the current state of existence is, and how we’re all starting a new process together. I responded to [Wells] in this sense like, he came to a junior high school play and yelled ‘boo.’ You’re not understanding that these kids are just figuring it out.
The other thing that bothered me about the articles was that no one took into context all the different layers. It was just success or failure.
It’s inevitably a function of celebrity. Anything that is ‘less successful’ than Kogi is considered a failure. Do you feel like having that fame has made for a bigger target on your back?
Yeah. And I can take all of that for normal, for-profit restaurant work. If someone wants to give Best Friend a zero stars and say ‘He fucked up. He lost his touch,’ fine, whatever. It is what it is. The thing that stung with LocoL was that it wasn’t about Daniel Patterson or myself. It was about trying to come up with new ideas to talk about and bring to life the reality of poverty, the reality of food access. Him and I, we’re not looking to be heroes. It was a project.
It felt like an experiment and obviously experiments need to be refined.
It was tough because those articles from the New York Times and the headlines about failure, really hurt the movement. Who’s to say that the success was garnered upon the first wave of it? The first wave is where I could get the conversation across in this very binary, over-stimulated world. We’re in it for the long run.
This first wave was literally just to get it open, to get the conversation going. If I look back on it, that was a success. We got it open; we got people talking about it. We got more people going than had ever been before. People started to discuss the idea of food access. The 2.0 version could be what the next step is.
What would you do differently?
I’m very happy with the way it came out. The only thing I’d do differently is try to raise more money. We ran out of money after three years. Based upon the history and the impact of segregation and systematic inequality, all these things lead to disparity in this country. For this little hamburger shop, those first three years were about working through the weeds of that — trying to get up to sea level.
Even $6 million is nothing compared to most of these start-ups. Even if we had another $3 million, we would only be in a position to stretch our legs. We were given a chance to solve this equation in the first round. Because we didn’t solve this equation, all the funding dried up. I really wish we could’ve raised double what we did. It took that much money to get to the position where we could talk about the goals everyone wanted in the first place.
It’s also insanely difficult to alter the eating habits of generations of people who grew up eating fast food. You’re not just competing with McDonald’s or In-N-Out, you’re competing with deep taste bud memories of childhood.
There’s that saying that it takes about as long to unravel a problem as it does to create it. It’s unrealistic to expect to change overnight after a 50-year infiltration of fast food into these communities. Looking back, I realize how unrealistic that was. It’s going to take a little more time.
For some folks, there is the issue of habit. A lot of people don’t want to write about that or think about that. In the three years we survived as a retail outlet in Watts, the economic situation of the community didn’t really change. Even though we got all this press and attention, there still aren’t enough jobs in Watts. No restaurants opened up after us. There’s still no access or education in these fields.
Somehow it got turned into that Watts didn’t want LocoL. That’s the part that hurt me. How the fuck did they know what Watts wanted? Our employees were the ones living there. We’re the ones who spent three years there and we didn’t even know in full. We can’t even speak for the community.
Did you ever meet 03 Greedo during your time over in Watts?
Yeah, Greedo and his team were like family to us. He used to hang out in our parking lot…used to come up to the Oakland store. He had connects everywhere. We used to feed him. I love Wolf of Grape Street and Purple Summer 03.
What was your first introduction to rap?
Ironically, when I moved to Orange Country at 13. I went to my friend’s house, and he put the needle on the record to Run-DMC’s “It’s Like That,” and I was instantly like ‘Whoa, what the fuck is this?’
Around the same time, “Jam On It” came into my life. “Rapper’s Delight” came into my life. LL came into my life. Ice-T’s “6 in The Mornin'” came into my life. I was kind of fucking up at that time as well and got sent to military school in Long Beach. I saw Beat Street and Krush Groove, and it was on from there.
What were you listening to before that?
It started with my parents’ music: Delfonics, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Gladys Knight, Elvis.
Then during my rebellious period where I was moving from L.A. to Orange County, I became a metal kid. Suddenly, I was surrounded by almost entirely affluent white people. It was cool, but all deep suburban, and I looked different from everyone else. My parents were also going through a lot of ups and downs. They were starting to drink a lot more. So from like 13 to 15, I was really into Slayer, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Motorhead, Metallica.
What was your first concert?
I remember going to a lot of hippie concerts in the park and stuff like that with my parents. But my first real concert was KISS in like ‘78 or something like that. And then Missing Persons, X, and The Who in the early ‘80s. I’d go with friends, but this was the ‘70s, so our parents would just drop us off.
We’d be two 8-year-olds at a KISS concert and the venue would let us in. You can’t even imagine that right now. Even at a Taylor Swift show you’d have to have a chaperone. And then in high school, I started going to a lot of Dead shows.
Was there a specific thing that changed everything other than just hearing Run-DMC?
When I first got to high school, I’d get picked on [by] older jocks, who called me ‘chink’ and pushed me out of line. I wouldn’t take it. So I beat up this other kid and a crew of kids from Orange saw me and said ‘what’s up.’ I started hanging with them and got really introduced to hip-hop. Those kids were breaking, popping, DJing and writing graffiti. N.W.A. hadn’t come out, so we were still listening to World Class Wreckin’ Cru, buying mixtapes at the swap meets.
Did you ever make music?
Yeah, I did. My crew was called Legion of Doom — LOD. We had two rappers up front, a DJ and I was like a hype man. We made a few songs, but I was always kinda the homie dude. I’d help my DJ friend Carlos — bringing the records and rolling the joints. His record collection was really when I started getting into hip-hop like the Egyptian Lover and Rodney-O and Joe Cooley. It was that era that really kind of moved me from Slayer to hip-hop.
How did your parents react to all of this?
I was always trapped between my parents’ expectation and me being this free spirit. All my friends were getting laid. I didn’t get laid until I was 19. They were dancing, spray-painting, DJing, rapping, singing. Always getting girls. I was always part of that crew; I was in the mix, but couldn’t express myself. I was a real quiet kid, y’know? A stoner living a double life because I was Korean and raised to be studious. I was in the GATE Program, honors classes, AP classes. And I was having a lot of trouble and trying to figure it all out.
Did things change for you when N.W.A. came out?
I listened to them, but wasn’t a huge fan [at] first. It was really Public Enemy that got me into hardcore rap. I was working at the Montgomery Ward, and picked up my first Public Enemy album. From that point I really started to get serious with it. Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted was the one where I really started to get deep into gangsta rap.
I understood the anger and angst of everything that was going on with N.W.A., but for me, I was more of a quiet nerdy-type dude, and I was never really a violent guy, so those weren’t my problems at the time. I was angry at other shit. I was never militant in that respect, but I have been militant in how I approach my life.
Did you go to any of the early legendary L.A. rap shows?
I caught Public Enemy at the Palace and that was fucking great. Chuck D was just on the rise and I was right up in the front, so I remember that show vividly. I caught a bunch of small shows where World Class Wreckin’ Cru was playing, and when Cube was coming up. I can remember Cube hanging with Dre and freestyling in the parking lot.
I caught 2Pac before he was ‘Pac too. I went to a Digital Underground, Queen Latifah and Naughty by Nature show at the Palladium, and ‘Pac had just come out, with “Same Song,” and he was there just wildin’ out onstage with Digital Underground. So I was at that show. That was a great show. I saw Too Short early on, E-40, early Ice-T, Tha Alkaholiks, Del tha Funkee Homosapien.
Even if it’s not explicitly political, much of what you do is political in some respect. How do you feel the current political climate affects you?
I try to be political by never being political. I’m not afraid, but you won’t hear sound bites from me. I’m tackling these issues head on. I’m not tackling them in a way of battle, or winning by way of putting a person down. I’m not looking for debates, I’m looking for answers.
What’s an example of that?
Just look at the show Broken Bread. I’m taking topics like food access, food justice, food waste, homelessness, vegetarianism, veganism and people on the fringes. Instead of debating or expressing my political beliefs and saying you’re either with me or you’re not, I present the argument, and try to find or give solutions.
We’re doing an episode about criminalization of cannabis and the entire episode examines all areas of cannabis: the gentrification of it, the legalization, the beauty of the plant itself. We’re also focusing on those who were unfairly criminalized for it and serving sentences. We’re finding people on the ground trying to overturn those laws.
I look at it like a chef does. Where I get political is, I’ll say ‘Here’s the problem, here’s what I think of it and here’s my solution.’ It’s the same thing I do in the kitchen. There are 200 people to serve tonight. We have about three hours of work left. Here’s what we need to do. Forget about your arguing — what he or she did or didn’t do. Here’s the plan. I tend to do a lot of audibles. Let’s throw that old plan out—here’s the new plan. Let’s just get to the finish line.
What I see right now in social media and other forms of media is everyone is arguing the micro-concept of everything. Everyone wants an absolute answer or fix to these really complicated, large, multi-tentacle issues. What I try to do instead, with things like LocoL, is just pick off one thing and try to make it better.
What advice do you give to your teenage daughter about the world?
I tell her to always be kind and extremely aware. Be very giving, but be critical. Never assume anything and never take anything for granted. I tell her to listen and to try to have a lot of love and understanding. I try to prepare her to defend herself and be confident in situations. In a nutshell I guess, to be open-minded, say please and thank you. Don’t be afraid to offer your opinion and don’t be afraid to disagree, but don’t be hung up on your disagreement being the absolute truth.
Do you get caught up in obsessing over the latest daily insanity in the news?
I don’t. I know a lot of it is rhetoric. Whether it’s Trump or Kavanaugh, I believe that there’s someone behind them holding the puppet strings. I try not to get caught up in the rhetoric. I hear that type of shit every day because I’m a boss. I hear ‘so and so didn’t do this so that’s why we failed at that.’ ‘I gotta make up for his lack of execution that’s why I couldn’t do this.’ I’m always forced into situations where I have to look at every single thing and analyze what’s really going on here. Is something really burning on the stove or not?
It doesn’t bother me to be honest because I don’t take it personally and I’m out there trying to make small little changes. I’m better at mobilizing in the shadows. I’m better at internalizing everything going on, all the frequencies and algorithms, then putting up a piece on the wall that makes everyone think. That’s my role in life. If there’s a family fighting with each other, I’m the little kid that puts the needle on an Al Green record and gets everyone to just stop the feuding for a moment and to try to figure out a solution.
You employ a bunch of people. How does being a business owner affect the way you see complex situations that could potentially cut into your profits like minimum wage or health care?
I feel like America has to adopt some form of socialism. We’re unwilling to confront the issues of our past. I think that’s the biggest obstacle in our existence. We’re unwilling to confront what our country was built upon: the genocide of the Native Americans and the slavery of the black community. And we don’t want to admit that these things can’t be fixed unless we provide a pathway for them to be fixed. We’re going to be constantly arguing with each other until we say that everyone deserves a basic amount of rights and living standards. Those who have been marginalized deserve some form of reparation.
I’ve been with a lot of folks in the Watts community who say, ‘Let’s take $7 trillion dollars, give $1 trillion to each of the seven major inner cities of America, start there. No payback, just reparations. Let the community rebuild itself.’ I feel like that combined with healthcare, education, and certain living standards would get us to a point where we can talk about how to create some sort of healing between both parties.
Are you a religious or spiritual person?
I’m very spiritual. As I continue to get older and a little bit wiser, I’m in tune with the echoes and reverberations of what I feel is beyond our physical self. I’ve been heavily meditating for the last six years. Dreaming and seeing things. Feeling things. Leading with love. Those things have helped me to be able to search for one thing deeper than I normally can. I don’t know if I’m religious. I don’t believe in the stories as they are in the Bible. I can’t believe those, because of very specific facts that don’t line up. Then that fundamental detective quality comes out within me.
As a chef, I have to have that detective quality. You’re telling me you did all the prep work on a dish. My sixth sense is saying you didn’t. I have to go through and investigate. I realize you cut corners on the sauce. I say, ‘no you didn’t,’ and I can break it down to you. I also don’t understand how one type of people, whether it’s Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism or Islam can decide that they’re the only belief that can understand the relationship with God.
How much has doing psychedelics shaped your consciousness?
When I do take psychedelics, whether it be acid, ‘shrooms, even highly potent forms of THC—like in the crystallized sugar form—that’s where I believe in spirituality and a religion that goes beyond us. Even meditation to be honest is a form of psychedelic transformation. These things open the door.
Was there a formative psychedelic experience in your life?
I remember one experience where I was frying and listening to an R.E.M. tape at my friend’s house. The whole tape played through and started over again without rewinding in my head. But it really happened too. Things were also coming out. And actual beings were touching me. They were pulling me in and moving this whole thing.
Another experience was with my mom. There’s a whole other level of psychedelic experience, which concerns fortune telling in Asia. There are these half-human half transformative beings. Essentially, they’re shamans. I witnessed her transform into my ancestors and saw their ghosts coming out of their body. I saw that in a small little room in a hillside in Seoul, Korea.
On acid or sober?
Sober. There was a process to get to that point. The shaman starts chanting, sets the room, gets you going. I don’t know how to explain those two things.
This year has had a lot of tragedies within your orbit, particularly regarding the deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Jonathan Gold. Where are you in the grieving process?
I’m definitely still grieving both. Jonathan’s death really affected me. We were really friends. We were from different times, different upbringings and different styles, but we were homies, man. Over the past three months, I’ve been stricken with these waves of grief that come out of nowhere. I could be chilling with you like this, and it comes and hits me and rips me apart.
With Jonathan and Tony, I never really had the high-minded intellectual relationship with either one. I always had a relationship with Jonathan like kids in the room playing Sega together. We never talked that much, to be honest, not as much as people believed. But we could spend figuratively 48 hours playing Genesis together, not saying anything.
That’s actually what people have told me how Dilla and Madlib were. They barely spoke, just communicated almost telepathically and through a series of grunts and gestures.
That’s how J Gold and I were. I didn’t have to explain to him, he didn’t have to explain to me. We were just the Dilla and Madlib of the food world. He got it. He understood everything I was trying to translate. He was the guy able to put it all in ink. All the stuff he used to write about me, I never told him. He was the only guy able to get it right, just from being able to eat it.
What was your relationship like with Bourdain?
Tony felt like this iconic force. A Jimi Hendrix, a Janis Joplin. When I look at his shows now that he’s gone, it affects me the same way as when I think of people like ‘Pac or Hendrix or Cobain. They were here eternally even when they weren’t.
Who are your Top 5 favorite rappers?
We’re not doing this.
You can do a top 10. I’ll even include this caveat that, of course, you are going to leave people out and no one should complain.
Okay. Definitely A Tribe Called Quest, Rakim, early Public Enemy, Dilated Peoples, EPMD, early MC Lyte. A whole mix of Top Dawg between Ab-Soul, Schoolboy, and Kendrick. Mos Def. Okay, I got eight. [He later emails me to include Scarface, as one should]
What are you working on in the immediate future?
Broken Bread and Best Friend. What I’m trying to do with Best Friend is bring L.A. to Vegas. I want to bring everything we’re about and have been about, everything that I love. I want there to be a bit of nerdiness and smiles and wackiness. A greatest hits of sorts but with a bunch of new stuff too. I want to create our own lane and make it very L.A.—a platform for L.A. culture in Vegas where we can share that love with the Vegas audience.
In terms of L.A., what’s your next move?
I’d love to see where we take LocoL from here. I guess I’m Dre after Death Row right now. I have to look at what is the aftermath of everyone’s perception and misinformation about LocoL. Where do we go from here? I don’t need to open any more restaurants right now. I want to spend my energy in L.A. figuring out how to turn around LocoL and just keeping Kogi and Chego alive. I like being low-key.
I’m sure you’ve had tons of offers to franchise Kogi.
I know you asked me earlier about the price of fame, but if you really take a step back and look at the chessboard, I run taco trucks and a $10 rice bowl restaurant. You know what I mean? It’s what I do for the city. I know that it comes with a lot of baggage and hot air. It’s just something that comes with who I am. I don’t know why. I don’t know why people are so interested in distorting or amplifying what I’m about without actually looking at what I’m about. But maybe that doesn’t matter, I know those who fuck with me really understand what I’m about.