Newsmakers

Chef Roy Choi: ‘Emeril’s Show Saved a Knucklehead’s Life’

Newsmakers

Roy Choi credits two events as turning points in his life.

The Los Angeles-based chef, best known for his gourmet taco truck, Kogi BBQ, traveled a bumpy road to his culinary career. In his mid-20s, poor decisions and “a lot of addictions” burned pretty much every bridge. Then, one day, he was lying on the couch watching “Essence of Emeril” on TV, featuring chef Emeril Lagasse.

“It was one of those epiphany moments,” Roy, 43, recalled. “I felt he was talking to me. I didn’t have a purpose in life. I didn’t have a way to channel what I was feeling inside. The moment I saw that show, I felt like this is something I want to do.”

The epiphany is one moment he writes about in his new book -- part memoir, part cookbook -- called “L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food.” Long after that transformative moment in front of the television propelled him to the Culinary Institute of America and a series of restaurant jobs, including one at New York’s famed Le Bernardin, Choi got the chance to tell Lagasse about the experience while they were both guest starring in an episode of Bravo's “Top Chef.”

“I told him the story about how his show saved my life, how it saved a knucklehead’s life, and brought him back from the brink,” said Choi. “I think it hit him like a ton of bricks.”

That Choi would find his calling as a chef perhaps surprised him more than anyone. Growing up in a Korean-American family, he had “food all around my life, wherever I was.” His mother, a legendary cook among family and friends, would stay up all night cooking, then give away or sell the food at parties. His parents even opened a restaurant. But Choi never thought it could be his profession.

Once he had the classical training and experience, Choi’s next epiphany in the culinary world was a phone call from a friend that “opened the doorway for me.” That doorway was the idea of a taco truck. He called it Kogi BBQ.

“I wasn’t just a punk kid anymore,” said Choi. “I actually had a craft to give back. Everything was fresh, and we were breaking ground and not adhering to any old patterns.”

Kogi BBQ has traveled to “every nook and cranny” of Los Angeles and Orange counties since it began about five years ago. It was the first to use Twitter to let hungry patrons know at which parking lot or street corner to line up for a taco. Tax increases aside, the price of a taco has remained steady at $2 and change.

Most importantly, Kogi allowed Choi to pay homage to his hometown and to the history of the L.A. taco truck.

“It wasn’t a gimmick,” said Choi. “A lot of society was looking at trucks and saying they were dirty. It was a racial thing. [The trucks] were coming from the Latino community because they were feeding construction workers. It got an unfair label: roach coach. But all those things are in the mind and fallacies created through stereotyping.”

Choi continued: “Kogi was free and loose, and stripped away some of those perceptions, but we never changed the core value and soul of what a truck is. We never changed anything about the culture of Latino taco trucks in Los Angeles. We rep and we roll with every other truck. In 5 years, it’s basically a societal shift. They’re now called gourmet trucks. You no longer hear the racial slurs.”

Though he helped popularize a new way of dining out, Choi does not see himself as cutting-edge. He believes his evolution as a chef is directly connected to the streets, feeding off others.

“I’m not yearning to get awards or pack the seats,” he said. “I’m just trying to cook good food and I’m not afraid to do whatever I need to do to keep the food evolving.”

The next evolution for Choi is developing new restaurants. He already runs the brick-and-mortar restaurants A-Frame, Sunny Spot and Chego in various parts of Los Angeles. One new venture, in L.A.'s Koreatown, is based in a greenhouse with cuisine that’s all vegetable- and fruit-based. It’s inspired by a change in Choi’s own diet when he decided to become a vegetarian (but don’t call him that as he “doesn’t live in labels”).

“I care about all aspects of our city and there are certain areas that don’t get great food,” explained Choi. “So I focused more on vegetables and fruits. I wanted to find some new answers on how to feed food deserts. But I couldn’t find the right answers, maybe because we’re all stuck in a pattern.”

Choi won't give up. He believes his inspiration comes from his connection to the streets and perhaps that's where the answer will one day reveal itself.

ABC News' Maria Nikias, Brian Fudge and Henry Gretzinger contributed to this episode.

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