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Learning in reverse brought Kogi chef Roy Choi to the top

At the L.A. Times Festival of Books, Kogi food truck owner Roy Choi talks about his new book, an ode to the city he's thrived in.

April 12, 2014|By Corina Knoll
  • Roy Choi, of Kogi truck fame, talks to the crowd at the L.A. Times Festival of Books. Choi has always insisted he is a cook for the people and that his trucks offer up his ode to Los Angeles.
Roy Choi, of Kogi truck fame, talks to the crowd at the L.A. Times Festival… (Tom Politeo / For The Times )

All roads lead back to the Kogi truck.

"It's like my 'Sweet Caroline' and I'm Neil Diamond," Roy Choi said. "I'll never be able to outlive Kogi. Kogi is a beast."

The chef was attempting to articulate what spawning that marvel of Korean barbecued ribs enveloped in tortillas has meant to him in front of a crowd at the 19th-annual L.A. Times Festival of Books. The sprawling two-day event at USC features readings, screenings, musical performances and cooking demonstrations.

Under an unforgiving sun, hundreds listened as Choi conversed with Times food critic Jonathan Gold about the journey touched upon in his book "L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food."

Successful restaurants, worldwide praise, celebrity persona — Choi has always insisted that he is a cook for the people and that his trucks offer up his ode to Los Angeles.

"I don't know if I'll ever be as good as I was when I started Kogi, but I strive for that," he said.

A reluctant student growing up, Choi entered the Culinary Institute of America at 26 and found it "fit like a glove."

He became the scholar he once mocked — the kid in the front of class eagerly raising his hand. Still, Choi said he felt unprepared when he accepted an internship at the famed French restaurant Le Bernardin in New York.

Afterward, his trajectory shifted and he went on to work at hotels, creating banquet meals while his peers earned accolades at exclusive eateries.

The jobs were humbling, but forced him to perfect and reinvent American classics like pot roast and chicken a la king. He didn't know it at the time, but the experience would give him an edge when it came to mass production.

"My life has never been normal, so in a way I think it was meant for me to learn in a reverse way so I could come back and make Kogi," Choi said.

The son of Korean immigrants, Choi has long championed his roots and his passion for a city that helped launch the movement that popularized meals on wheels. In turn, he has received much love from locals who see him as a tangible version of an accomplished chef — one who rocks camouflage pants, a maze of tattoos on his arms and, of course, a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball cap. Choi speaks from the heart and when he slipped in the occasional expletive, the audience — a range of races and ages — couldn't help but laugh.

"He's a really crucial part of L.A. culture," said Nelson Ng, who stood in a long line to have Choi sign a copy of his book. "An Asian man making it big in the culinary world is huge. He's really inspiring. "

The 44-year-old attorney has been a longtime fan of Choi's and said he came to the festival specifically "to see the real genuine article." He, like many in attendance, had eaten Choi's food and seen him on television, but was curious about the chef up close and personal.

Choi did not appear to disappoint as he swapped memories with Gold about the first time they met (in a Rosemead parking lot just before the Kogi truck ran out of food) and their culinary trip along Oahu's North Shore, where they choked down an unsavory version of Korean tacos.

The chat closed with Choi talking about his latest foray, a highly personal endeavor in the heart of Koreatown called Pot. For the chef whose family once lived near Olympic Boulevard and Vermont Avenue, it feels as if things have come full circle.

"It's like a therapy restaurant," he said. "I'm playing out my whole life to you."

corina.knoll@latimes.com

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