Shelf Life

‘On the Road’ to a food truck

Roy Choi Nov 22, 2011

Tess Vigeland: Here in Los Angeles you can see evidence of the entrepreneurial spirit pretty much every day at lunch and dinnertime. They’re called food trucks! Grilled cheese, cupcakes, lobster rolls. And most famously — Korean barbecue in a taco. The Kogi Barbecue food truck is generally credited with sparking the food truck explosion.

Roy Choi is one of the founders. And oddly enough the classic Jack Kerouac book “On The Road” played a big part of his career transition.

Roy Choi: I came into this world a transient soul. You name it, I’ve been there: San Francisco, Denver, Detroit, New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles and Mexico City. That’s probably why Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” found me at two critical points in life. Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty felt so fresh and alive and real, I felt like I’ve met them. In fact, I actually have.

In my partner at Kogi, Mark, I found Dean. And through him, I re-discovered the city I grew up in, Los Angeles, and that ability to color outside the lines of tradition and standard operating procedures.

I was Sal. And he first found me as Sal when I was the chef de cuisine at the Beverly Hilton. I was by no way the master of the dojo, but there, I gave orders and I took orders. I paid attention to the details of your progress as a cook, to your stomach as the diner.

Mark was the restaurant manager at the Beverly Hilton. But it wasn’t until we both left that we connected as men and not colleagues.

Mark encouraged me to meet more people. Get to know people. What they did. He pushed me to think about cooking my own way and starting my own thing. In some ways, like Kerouac writes, “I was beginning to get the bug like Dean. He was simply a youth tremendously excited with life, and though he was a conman, he was only conning because he wanted so much to live and to get involved with people who would otherwise pay no attention to him.”

I ended up talking with more people in the span of three weeks than I had in 10 years. Everything was a million miles a second. There really wasn’t even a space to think or even room to breathe. It was all instinctive impulse. “Let’s put Korean BBQ inside a taco, man. You can do it, Roy.”

And that was it. The keys were in my hand. All of a sudden the idea of going out on my own made sense. It didn’t seem impossible anymore. I could turn the key and be off into the night: 9 p.m., 12 a.m., 4 a.m., 6 a.m., asleep in the sunlight of day. These were the hours I saw at the beginning of Kogi.

Vigeland: Roy Choi is the co-founder and executive chef of Kogi Barbecue.

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