The King of the Streets Moves Indoors
His Korean taco trucks took L.A. by storm. Now Roy Choi is tackling the restaurant business
By KATY MCLAUGHLIN
The Kogi taco, made with Korean-style beef.Chef Roy Choi is standing in front of the restaurant space he closed on a day ago. It's a 10-table, bare-bones dive, with the previous operators' pen-drawn signs for $4.95 entrees hanging in the windows in a small West Los Angeles strip mall. Mr. Choi says he plans to open in late February. He and his partners have decided not to redecorate. "Come back here in May," he says. "There will be pandemonium in this parking lot. Cars backed up 20 deep."From any other chef, the prediction would seem ludicrous. But Roy Choi has achieved unlikely success before: He turned "Korean tacos," served from a truck, into one of the most talked-about food trends of last year. Now, the 39-year-old, Tupac Shakur-quoting chef is aiming to prove that his street-food success was no fluke and that his unique culinary persona—part flavor-fusion visionary, part classically trained chef, part street rebel—can change the future of food.View Full Image Ethan Pines for The Wall Street Journal Roy Choi outside the location of his soon-to-open restaurant in West Los Angeles. Mr. Choi's company, Kogi, started in late 2008 as one mobile food truck that parked outside nightclubs on Sunset Boulevard late at night, selling Mexican tacos stuffed with Korean-style meat. Within three months, it began drawing crowds of hundreds and soon added more trucks. The company used Twitter to alert customers to trucks' locations.
Today Kogi, with four trucks and one outlet in an L.A.-area nightclub, has nearly 52,000 Twitter followers. Scion, a division of Toyota, recently paid $90,000 to custom-build Kogi a car outfitted with a grill, sink and refrigerator. Mr. Choi says he will use it to cook "amuse bouches," or hors d'oeuvres, for people waiting in line for Kogi.
The new, still unnamed restaurant won't use the Kogi name, Mr. Choi says, and he doesn't plan to serve the taco. Instead he will try to update the rice bowl. "I see bacon-fat-studded chestnuts and fresh herbs on braised lamb; steak with a soft-poached egg and hand-crushed sesame seeds; organic rice, braised pork-belly, fresh-water spinach in a beautiful broth with sesame leaves," he says, rattling off ideas. The food, he says, will be inexpensive enough that people who normally eat McDonald's can afford it.
"At first I was like, 'You're crazy,' " says Mark Manguera, 31, who along with his wife, Caroline Shin-Manguera, is Mr. Choi's business partner. "But Roy has taken us this far. He's a soul-searcher. This restaurant is his blank canvas."
Mr. Choi's signature taco is made with beef short ribs marinated in soy sauce, sugar, mashed pears and kiwi, and then wrapped in corn tortillas and topped with onions, cilantro, cabbage and a secret, 21-ingredient sauce. It costs $2.
Watch a promotional video of the custom car Scion designed for Roy Choi, the chef behind Kogi BBQ in Los Angeles.
Soon after Kogi's launch, Korean tacos began popping up everywhere. In June, the Baja Fresh chain, with about 280 units, put a "Baja Kogi taco" on a test menu after meeting with Mr. Choi and his partners several times to discuss a possible partnership. (The chain did not end up making a partnership deal with Kogi. In July, the chain changed the name of its menu item to "Baja Gogi." Baja Fresh didn't return calls seeking comment.)
Competitors' trucks called Bool, Bull Kogi and Calbi (bought this fall by Baja Fresh) that serve their own versions of Korean tacos now circulate around L.A., and Korean tacos have shown up in restaurants from San Francisco to Boston. Curious restaurateurs, including New York's Drew Nieporent, who helped create the Nobu empire, flew to L.A. to try the taco.
Mr. Choi waxes rhapsodic about the taco. "When you eat it, it tells the story about a city," he says. For $2, he adds, people who might not be able to afford fine dining get a taste of food made with expertise, creativity and, he says, love.
"There is something very Korean about Roy being Roy," says David Chang of New York's Momofuku restaurants, who is also of Korean heritage and who met Mr. Choi last spring. "It's about working your a— off, and not believing that you're any good."
Born in Seoul, Mr. Choi immigrated to America before he was 2 years old. His parents ran a variety of businesses throughout his childhood, from a dry
cleaner to a Korean restaurant to a jewelry company. They moved 12 times among Southern California neighborhoods that ranged from gritty to posh as their fortunes changed. At public school gifted programs, Mr. Choi earned A's, though until he was 12, he "felt guilty if it wasn't an A+," he says.
At age 13, he rebelled, running away from home several times. He began getting C's in school, started dabbling in drugs and hung out with a crowd of burgeoning criminals, he says. When he was 15, his parents sent him to Southern California Military School in Signal Hill, Calif., which has since closed. It was a good experience, he says, because "all of the kids at military school are screw-ups. It connected me to a lot of kindred spirits."
After high school, he spent a year teaching English in Korea, received a bachelor's degree in philosophy from California State University, Fullerton, and attended Western State University law school for a semester. But he viewed himself as a failure, outside the circle of Korean-Americans attending top schools, and he hated law school. He soon dropped out.
At 24, Mr. Choi says, he hit a dark period of drinking, brawling in nightclubs in L.A.'s Koreatown and living on friend's couches. By day, he ate Cheetos and watched television, particularly Emeril Lagasse's "Essence of Emeril" show. "Emeril saved my life," says Mr. Choi. With a new path in mind, he enrolled in a local culinary school.
"Korean parents hate to even think about a boy becoming a chef or working in a kitchen," says his father, Soo Myung Choi, 59. "We wanted him to become a medical doctor, lawyer or government official." Finally reckoning it would never happen, the elder Mr. Choi asked his son what the Harvard of culinary arts was, and suggested he attend.
In 1996, Mr. Choi transferred to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He maintained his rebellious stance, often annoying classmates by bossing them around and insisting on updating classic recipes with his own touches, says fellow student Peter Vaseas. Mr. Choi concurs: When he added peeled grapes to coq au vin, his teammates were furious—though the result was delicious, he says.
Mr. Choi's "externship," a work stint at a restaurant, was at the prestigious Le Bernardin in New York, where he cut tuna poorly, burned things and oversalted food so badly that he was ejected six times from the kitchen, he recalls. Mr. Choi says that although he has spent his life rebelling against what he perceives as a Korean-American demand for success, he still agonizes over the failure. Eric Ripert, Le Bernardin's executive chef, says the restaurant has had many interns over the years and that he doesn't remember Mr. Choi.
In 2001, Mr. Choi began working for Hilton Hotels, promoted through the ranks by Sandy Murphy, today general manager of the Beverly Hilton. In 2007, she made Mr. Choi chef de cuisine at the Beverly Hilton, the chain's flagship. Mr. Manguera, then a hotel food-and-beverage director, met Mr. Choi during a stint at the Hilton. Mr. Manguera brainstormed the idea of a "Korean taco" after a night on the town, and asked Mr. Choi to come up with a recipe. In the fall of 2008, Mr. Choi surprised Ms. Murphy with some news: He and the Mangueras would be launching a taco truck.
Mr. Choi's classical training shows through in his taco-truck business. "Chef Roy is very particular about cleanliness," says Isis Sanchez, a cook on one of the trucks. "And he makes us taste everything, every morning," she adds—standard operating procedure at fine-dining restaurants.
Walking the truck yard where the Kogi trucks park in downtown L.A., Mr. Choi also demonstrates how his forays into street life contribute to his management style. He greets his crew members with a loose handshake, then bumps half his chest against theirs. He describes a row of traditional trucks that serve construction crews as the "O.G.s," or "original gangsters," of the truck world. To some employees, he speaks Spanish—which is better than his Korean.
Mr. Choi says that in its first year of operation, Kogi grossed about $2 million from check averages of roughly $13 a person. Mr. Choi earns a $90,000 salary; a manager on each truck earns about $38,000. Profit margins are around 20%, which has enabled Mr. Choi and the Mangueras to put money aside for a restaurant.
The team decided to test the restaurant waters with the still-unnamed rice-bowl restaurant. (Over the past year they have met with several investors and restaurateurs to discuss opening a chain of Kogi restaurants, Mr. Manguera says, but so far, no deal has seemed right.) Though Mr. Manguera says he initially fantasized about a "glammed up" Hollywood location, they decided on the West Los Angeles spot because it was cheap and seemed to fit the "crazy lemonade stand" company style, Mr. Choi says.
News of the restaurant is already attracting buzz on food blogs and Web sites, from Eater.com to the Web site of Food & Wine magazine. Not everyone considers success a foregone conclusion for the restaurant, however. "The proof is in the pudding," says Mr. Nieporent, who considers the Kogi truck's success largely a function of L.A.'s good weather, which encourages lingering on the street.
Mr. Choi likes to start small and surprise potential skeptics. When he started Kogi, he didn't tell his parents. It was his 5-year-old daughter, Kaelyn, who first mentioned a "taco truck" to her grandfather.
"He still thinks he hasn't accomplished anything according to what my wife and I expecte
d," the elder Mr. Choi says. "But we are happy with what he is doing. We are a hundred percent behind him now."
Write to Katy McLaughlin at firstname.lastname@example.org