Roy Choi is just getting started. The L.A. native exploded onto the national dining scene with the late 2008 launch of Kogi BBQ with business partners Mark Manguera and Caroline Shin-Manguera, featuring a mash-up of Korean and Mexican food. They built on that success with “chillax peasant food from the soul” in Palms at Chego!. Choi, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, then joined forces with David Reiss, adding A-Frame’s “modern picnic” fare and Caribbean-inspired Sunny Spot to his culinary repertoire. On April 14, we spoke at Pebble Beach Food & Wine in between his two cooking appearances at the prestigious festival, and he shared several insights that hint at why he’s been so successful.
What was your very first night like cooking at a restaurant, and where was it?
Well, it wasn’t really a restaurant. I started going to night school. It was a culinary school called Epicurean. I was waiting to get into CIA and flew out to New York and started staging at a bunch of places in the Village. I worked at a lot of short order grills during college, and was a prep cook and dishwasher during high school, so I’ve always been around restaurants my whole life.
What’s your favorite part about owning restaurants?
The people. Feeding people and I don’t really focus too much on numbers or anything. It’s really brought me freedom to really take care of people. I really love taking care of people, providing a place where others can enjoy, is my thing. I take a lot of fun, vicariously, in other people having a great time.
How much more can you take on, how many other projects?
I don’t know. For me, I feel like I’m just getting started. Maybe like – it depends on how they come out, and how we build them – right now what I’m very lucky for is I have a lot of people that are running them for me and believe in my philosophy, and they are translating for me, so I’m able to be a little bit free and think of new things. But I would say, I could take as many as possible, but it would take one at a time. But I could do 10, 20 more right now, most definitely.
What’s your top selling selling dish at A-Frame, at Chego…
Chego is chubby pork belly. A-Frame is beer can chicken. Kogi is the short rib taco. And Sunny Spot is the wings or the burger, either one.
Does that surprise you at all, that those are your top sellers?
No, not at all, man, they’re delicious. All of them.
What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work in one of your kitchens?
I look for them to be humble, keep their mouth fucking shut, be ready to work and hustle. And open their mind. I can’t fill your spirit and your life with anything if you come in already thinking you know everything. It’s just going to spill over. Forget about what you know, and how good you think you are, or whatever, come in and learn and then teach me. I look for someone who’s very humble. For me, that’s how I still approach things. When I meet other chefs, or I approach things outside the chef world or the cooking world, or even silly things like this new Twitter account that I just started out for myself, I approach it with full velocity. It’s not on the side burner for me. I engross myself in it, all the way, until I get to the other side of it and have traveled through it. I feel like that time travel is very important in someone looking for a job. Come to me and be willing to come all the way through it with me, almost as if you were just soft masa, just plain masa. Just be the masa, let me steam it and let me mold it.
Do you listen to any music while you’re cooking?
Yeah, we listen to Latin music, usually Latin love songs or Latin rock, and sometimes reggaeton, because my whole kitchen’s Latino. It’s not even a choice, it’s just the way we live. I live in many different worlds, it’s not by accident that I’m able to speak English and be here with you, but my soul is also with all my cooks as well. It’s not even like a cool thing or a conscious thing, it’s just 100% of my life in the kitchen is Latino, so the music we listen to is the music we listen to. It’s a part of our life.
What would you say to a chef who didn’t want to be on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram at this point?
I don’t know. I can’t speak for anyone else. I wasn’t on it for three and a half years. My company was, but I wasn’t. The reasons I had for it was I was scared of it. I was scared of the direct relationship. I have a lot of insecurities and anxieties about things. I like my freedom of people not knowing where I am, and then me not knowing how to communicate my thoughts directly. Food was my language. Things have evolved for me, where food is still my language, but I’m a lot more comfortable being able to express myself. I went through a lot of shit. I kept to myself for a long period of time in my life. As far as other chefs go, I don’t know. One thing I do hate is anyone who would look at it like, “Oh, you can’t be a chef and do Twitter or Facebook because then you’re taking yourself away from the kitchen.” No, you can multi-task.
Do you see signature dishes as a positive?
A lot of times we as cooks or chefs don’t create those signature dishes. You as the diner and you as the person who eats it naturally kind of create that by ordering it all the time, and everyone talking about it. Whether we like it or not, we can’t control it anyway. You’ve got to understand something about cooks or chefs. We don’t cook thinking the same way that you do as a reporter. Do you know what I mean? We don’t cook like, “Okay, let me step back and see what the impact of this will be,” because we’re on the inside. We’re just letting things out and twisting. It’s almost like a seven-year-old kid putting together Legos. We’re just putting it together, but we’re not looking at it – at least I’m not – like, “Oh, how do I feel about this becoming popular?” We’re just doing it.
What would you want to be known for as a chef?
I don’t know, man. I’ve kind of grown away from being a chef. As a chef, I don’t know.
What would you call yourself then, at this point?
I don’t know. I’m going through a metamorphosis right now, I really am. I know a lot of people are going to hear this and throw the haterade around, and call me whatever they’re going to call me, but I don’t know what I’m going through right now. I cooked for 20 years, I was a chef, I still cook, but I’m going through something else right now. I’m feeding more people now than when I was ever a chef. So I don’t want to be known for anything I haven’t even traveled through yet. I guess my answer to that is, I don’t want to define it because I’m actually going through it right now.