Classically trained chef Roy Choi is a culinary street revolutionary. He brings together the high and the low – deliciously, passionately, and socially. He breaks down boundaries that separate chefs from hungry people. He creates businesses that thrive on the energy of their staff and their fans, on a mission of flavor and honesty and social creativity. He feeds people, body and soul. While his pedigree includes Le Bernardin and the Beverly Hilton, his fame rose with one amazing taco that tastes like L.A. – and nearly single-handedly created the gourmet food truck movement with his partners on the wings of Twitter.
Before hitting the streets with his popular food truck Kogi BBQ, Choi executed classical techniques in professional kitchens and banquet halls for twelve years in New York, San Francisco, Portland, and Lake Tahoe. Then came the Great Recession. Laid off, having lost everything, with a family to support, Choi had to get creative: He said yes to a friend who rented a truck and co-founded Kogi BBQ. With his Korean-Mexican tacos as the marquee star, Choi found a way to develop and carry out the vision that drives him to this day. Choi serves top quality food at a great price to all people: Angelenos, the kids and neighborhood people Choi grew up with on the streets of K-town and southern California. Because of the mobile nature of the venue, the biggest challenge they faced was their fans’ ability to locate the truck. Choi and his team took to the web to let fans knows where they would be serving. Choi admits that “without Twitter, it wouldn’t be anything,” and Newsweek later dubbed Kogi “the first viral eatery.” Choi was hailed as a pioneer, and the Kogi model has often been duplicated.
Building on his success (including television appearances and major buzz in local, national, and worldwide press), Choi provided yet another source of culinary revelation for his Angeleno clientele with his first sit-down restaurant, Chego in Palms, in April of 2010, followed by A-Frame in the same year, and Sunny Spot just east of Venice Beach in 2011. His newest restaurant venture, featuring the tastes of Korea translated through an L.A. state of mind, will open at the new hotel, The Line, in L.A. in late 2013. Choi’s first book, L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food, will be published in the Fall of 2013 under Anthony Bourdain’s new imprint at Ecco.
Suggested Speaking Topics
The Twitter Taco and the Digital Handshake: Leveraging Social Media for Authentic Success
When Roy Choi launched his food truck Kogi BBQ, he and his partners had no money for marketing or advertising. Because of the mobile nature of the restaurant as the truck roamed the city, Kogi’s whole enterprise was dependent on customers being able to find the truck. So his team turned to the powerful reach of social media. Sending tweets of the truck’s location allowed customers to descend on it en masse, creating a party atmosphere that Roy felt was key to the experience. Kogi grossed more than $2 million its first year on the street and has built a Twitter following of more than 100,000, leading Newsweek to call it “America’s first viral restaurant.” In this talk based on Kogi’s rise to success, Roy will take audiences through their approach to the strategic nature of social media – how to translate social reach into customers who are loyal and engaged in an ongoing conversation, and through that into dollars and profit. Roy debunks the social media mystique, explaining that when you look closer, modern marketing in many ways is bringing back the methods of the past, where you might have reached out to each customer with a handshake. Today, that “handshake” can be digital. “You need to inhabit the digital space,” says Roy Choi. “We didn’t just create it as a tool – we lived and breathed it. You can almost smell the food on Twitter, someone back there in the kitchen bringing the thing to life.”
Riding Shotgun with an L.A. Chef: An Evening with Roy Choi
“Come with me and ride shotgun, because I’m driving,” writes Roy Choi. “It’s a long ride but I’ve got a full tank.” How did this amazing culinary shape shifter evolve? How does he come up with these new yet ancient-rooted flavors? In this entertaining talk, Roy Choi, whose book Riding Shotgun with an L.A. Chef will be published in the fall of 2013 by Anthony Bourdain Books at Ecco Press, reveals that his own experience is the secret ingredient in his recipes. Growing up, he moved from one part of the city to another, and later went from the renowned Le Bernardin to cooking at a country club for retirees in the California desert to creating a street food truck social revolution. Evolution tells us that adaptation is crucial to survival, and Roy’s success is a result of an awakening about the disconnection between the obsessive celebrity food culture and those getting by with two or three jobs. Realizing that he could feed 10,000 hungry people each day with delicious real food they had never experienced was an epiphany, on many levels. By observing and listening to the community, then modifying his menu accordingly, he tapped into a whole new marketplace and delivered results that were profitable because they were true to the palate – and budgets – of Angelenos. Says Roy, “I want to break down the difference between being a chef and actually feeding people.”
Leadership on a Shoestring: Caring as a Concept
“Call me Papi.” There are no rules on the street beyond moral codes, and by respecting these, Roy Choi was able to build an archetype and structure of leadership. He doesn’t have much to offer employees beyond hard work, miles of travel on the road, and not so high wages in a low-margin business that delivers great value to the consumer. Yet employee morale is high. “Most people try to motivate through money or power; what I do is motivate through honesty,” Roy says. It’s almost like martial arts. It takes a lot of unlearning for a chef to learn the Kogi method, but Roy’s staff have acclimated to it: One does not bring preconceived notions to the dojo; instead one absorbs what the sensei has to offer. With very low turnover in his operation, it might seem surprising that he admittedly “hasn’t much to offer but knowledge.” Then again, with an apt instructor at the helm, it’s an easy task to hold the attention of the students in dojo. In this inspiring talk, Roy will demonstrate ways anyone in a leadership position can inspire staff –and he’ll touch on his amazing volunteer work teaching brightest young people in the deepest urban cores of Los Angeles to become food entrepreneurs in their own right.
More about Roy Choi:
Roy Choi often is considered the Godfather of the food truck movement, but he’s no puppet master pulling strings: he just channeled his soul into a taco, a taco that tastes an awful lot like Los Angeles. And that taste sated a hunger that a city, then a nation, didn’t know it had.
Born in 1970 in Seoul, Roy moved to Los Angeles with his family as a two-year-old, part of a wave of Korean immigrants that would transform one 3-square mile block in the heart of L.A. into the home of the largest population of Koreans outside of Seoul. Throughout his childhood, he moved from one part of Los Angeles to the next, giving him a chance to intimately connect with the enormously diverse foods and cultures of the city. After dabbling in drugs and street gangs and the like, he graduated from California State University at Fullerton with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy then enrolled in the Western University College of Law. Luckily for us, he dropped out after a year, whetted his appetite at the Epicurean Culinary School of Los Angeles in 1996, then went all in at The Culinary Institute of America later that year. He was a student intern at a few of New York’s finest restaurants, including Aureole, then completed an externship as a line cook in Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin. He graduated CIA in 1998, the speaker of his class.
Roy then began a decade-long professional career in the hospitality industry. He ran the kitchen as Chef de Partie and Junior Sous Chef at La Casa del Zorro, a Four Star and Four Diamond Luxury Resort in the desert of Borrego Springs, California, before moving on to helm the De Anza Country Club as its Executive Chef.
In 2001, Roy became the Executive Chef of the flagship property for the Embassy Suites brand, part of the Hilton family of hotels, in Lake Tahoe. There, he launched the hotel’s Echo Restaurant and Lounge, earning “Best New Chef – Lake Tahoe” distinctions in 2002 and 2003. In 2004, Roy became Embassy Suites’ Corporate Executive Chef of Research and Development and the Regional Executive Chef for Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. Even as he took on managerial responsibilities – he oversaw 10 properties with an average $4 million in total food and beverages and developed the brand’s signature omelet bar and breakfast program for 200 hotels – he still remained as deft as ever in the kitchen: at the Embassy Suites Sacramento Riverfront Promenade restaurant, he was praised by the Sacramento Bee for turning Bistro 100 “into the city’s most adventurous and surprising waterfront restaurant,” with credit given to his “keen artistic temperament with an appreciation for where he is.”
The importance of place was no more significant than at the Beverly Hilton, where, in 2007, he became its Chef de Cuisine for the hotel and Executive Chef of its restaurant, Trader Vic’s. At the Beverly Hilton, he personally cooked for a number of highly publicized events, including the Golden Globes and the Billboard Music Awards. He also cooked for a huge range of notable guests, some national (then-senator Barack Obama), some international (the King of Morocco, the royal family of Dubai), and some out of this world (Madonna, Tom Hanks).
In 2008, Roy moved out of the hotels and into restaurants, helming David Overton’s $17 million dollar Rock Sugar Pan Asian Kitchen as its Chef de Cuisine. He helped open the restaurant and served so-called Asian “fusion” dishes to approximately 1000 covers a day with projected revenues of $10 million a year.
In late 2008, Roy took everything he knew, re-discovered his roots as an Angeleno, and expressed it all in one deceptively simple taco. Layering one flavor of L.A. on another – Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, Mexican – Roy and the team behind the Kogi Korean BBQ food truck created the taco that would launch a thousand tweets: sliced shortribs smacked in marinade and topped with a sesame-chili salsa roja, a cilantro-green onion-lime relish, crushed sesame seeds and sea salt, neatly placed in a warm tortilla for immediate, curbside consumption.
From there, Roy and his team opened a decidedly more stationary operation, Chego! For this not-your-typical-rice-bowl joint, Roy created a menu as Los Angeles as the 405 freeway: Chubby Pork Belly, glazed pork belly thrown in with pickled watermelon-sliced radishes, water spinach, cotija, and fried egg on rice; Buttered Kimchi Chow, kimchi-spiked rice with chili’d tofu, edamame, chicharrones, garlic soy jus, and a fried egg.
In 2010, he opened A-Frame, a restaurant that is as close to a modern day picnic as you can get, where patrons plunk down on communal tables, eat with their hands, and share with their friends. The food, as always, remains distinctly Roy: heaping bowls of kettle corn sprinkled with furikake, Beer Can Chicken that comes full circle with a 1000-year old egg plus kimchi and two salsas – verde and roja – on the side.
Along the way, he’s received numerous accolades and distinctions: Food & Wine named him the Best New Chef of 2010; the James Beard Foundation selected A-Frame as a semi-finalist for the Best New Restaurant of 2011; and L.A. Weekly’s Jonathan Gold hailed his Buttered Kimchi Chow as one of the 10 Best Dishes of 2010.
He most recently opened his fourth project in November 2011, Sunny Spot, which greets the Venice Beach crowd as warmly as that Los Angeles sunshine.