STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Next, we'll meet a classically trained chef who did not find his true calling until he hit the streets of Los Angeles in a food truck.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Roy Choi helped usher in a food truck new wave here in LA, plus cities across America where the trend caught fire, making street fare edgier and tastier.
INSKEEP: Five years ago, he and a partner launched what would become a small fleet of trucks offering up a Korean-Mexican fusion.
MONTAGNE: It's called kogi, Korean for meat, and Roy Choi's signature creation, the short rib taco: warm tortillas, Korean barbecue beef, chopped cilantro, onion, and lime, topped with a spicy soy sauce. Mmm.
INSKEEP: I'm ready to go for that, yeah. They soon had a mass of frenzied followers, tracking kogi trucks through Twitter all over town.
MONTAGNE: Roy Choi was transformed into a culinary rock star, a Food & Wine Magazine best new chef. Now, he shares his journey in a memoir out today called, "LA Son: My Life, My City, My Food." He uses recipes to help tell his story, starting with kimchi, the pungent Korean condiment, made of fermented vegetables, often cabbage.
Everything I am, writes Roy Choi, comes from kimchi.
ROY CHOI: Kimchi is like a sour-dough starter. You're always evolving it and refreshing it and morphing it into something. So it's this long string that goes throughout your life.
MONTAGNE: When you were a little kid, and very little, you were a toddler when you're family came to Los Angeles from South Korea and your mother would make kimchi and sell it out of the family car. I mean, you described it as like the Avon lady, but instead of make-up it was kimchi calling. Why did she do that?
CHOI: I think many, many different reasons. In Korean life it's food everywhere all the time. It doesn't matter what time it is, where you are. The other part is being an immigrant, especially during the '70s, there were no jobs for us. So just surviving, straight hustle. Every penny counted. And it was just a natural thing, like, she didn't even think about it. It was just that maternal gangsta spirit. Just go out there, you know, make it all and go sell it, boom, boom, boom.
MONTAGNE: So your mother, actually in a way, she had this gangsta spirit.
CHOI: Yeah, this gangsta, yeah. She never took no for an answer. Still won't take no for an answer. It was a little bit of a social scar for me as a kid. Your mom's carrying around, like, trunk loads of stinky food and you're the one who has to carry it around and stuff.
MONTAGNE: Well, it must be said, to many people it would be considered smelly.
CHOI: It's supposed to be smelly. It's fermenting. It's changing its microbes and its molecular structure right in front of you, so.
MONTAGNE: Well, it does come out in the book, because so much of it is about your childhood, that in your home when you would open the refrigerator, you would see what?
CHOI: When you open my refrigerator there would be, like, whole fish, squids and octopus, intestines. It would almost look like a chemistry experiment gone bad. You open it, it would just all be, like, overflowing. And I loved it, man. I really loved it.
MONTAGNE: Yeah. There's an expression that you speak of about the experience of growing up with this food. Sometimes as a child, food would just be put in your mouth by all the adults around you. At other times, food would come right off the griddle. Son mash?
CHOI: Yeah, son mash. It means, like, flavor in the fingertips. That's my best translation of it. There's that moment in cooking where the food is so perfect. Chefs know what I'm talking about. When the sauce is (foreign language spoken) when you capture that moment and that moment, instead of patting yourself on the back, the culture that I grew up around was, here, try this, try that and then stuffing it in your mouth because you wanted other people to capture that as well.
MONTAGNE: Yeah, that must be like little birds in the nest.
CHOI: Yeah, constantly, yeah.
MONTAGNE: Giving bits. You know, you moved a lot as a kid because your parents were starting businesses. Nothing seemed to add up much financially for them. You've made a high-speed run through what happened. You got into drugs, you got in alcohol, and you had a gambling addiction.
CHOI: Yeah, I've always been a little bit rebellious and addictive as a kid, but I was a good kid. But I was left alone a lot. So I had time to create my own independence and my own resilience and also my own middle finger towards life. Just I went through all these different vices and then I hit gambling and gambling was the worst of them all.
MONTAGNE: But before you got yourself, you might say, clean from gambling, it did give you one thing. You had so much money to spend and you were a high-roller, you actually started going to fine restaurants.
CHOI: It was the beginning of my chef career. It was the beginning of my exposure to chefs. So the worst thing that happened in my life actually was the gateway to what I was supposed to do in life, you know.
MONTAGNE: Which then eventually things changed. You found your art with the humble food truck. What brought you to kogi, which is a mash up between Korean and Mexican?
CHOI: Yeah. The way kogi happened was I lost my job and I was reaching empty on the funds. You know, it was getting serious. You know, I was scared. I didn't know what was going to happen next. And then my friend called me, Mark, and he had this idea: let's put Korean barbecue in a taco and park outside the clubs. The next morning I couldn't get it out of my mind. I called him and I was like, yo, let's do this, Mark.
We went to the market and we started shopping, and then, it was almost like I was possessed. I didn't have a plan of what this taco was supposed to be. I was just cooking. It became everything. It became low-riding. It became growing up here in LA, all my addictions, the immigration, being a chef. All those came into this one taco and we made it and we ate it and we all just fell back. And like, whoa. And we went out to the streets and we just had to sell it; like my mom back when she made the kimchi, you know. You just had to get out there.
MONTAGNE: You had this extraordinary taco that was Los Angeles on a plate.
CHOI: In one bite.
MONTAGNE: And it was your life and it was all there. In the back of your book, you have a description of how to wash rice. This is the advice you're giving that means a lot to you.
CHOI: Yes. I'll read it and then I can talk on it. (Reading) Wash your rice to cleanse, not to clean. Run cold water through the rice and massage the grains, transferring all your energy to the rice as the rice transfers its own energy to you. Try to feel every single grain as you swirl the water. Drain the water and do it again. Get deeper with it. Turn off your phone. F' the world for a minute. Drain the water and do it again and again and again. Minimum three times or even more if you're feeling kinky about it.
MONTAGNE: So it's not just cleaning it.
CHOI: Yeah. It's not. The cooking technicality behind it, people say, oh you're washing off the starch. Cool. That's definitely true so it's not so sticky and gloopy, but it's more than that, man. Talk to any Asian person from Southeast Asia all the way up through Northern China. That rice is how you live. It's everything you are.
And it's also a little bit of that mystical philosophy: watching the water clear up. You know, 'cause when you first put water in rice, it's cloudy. But then, as you wash it, the water becomes clear. It's like cleansing your soul just for that moment. That small little moment every day.
MONTAGNE: Chef Roy Choi. His new book is called "LA Son: My Life, My City, My Food." Thank you very much for joining us.
CHOI: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: And you are hearing Roy Choi on Morning Edition from NPR News.