In Roy Choi's new memoir, L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food, the Kogi food truck impresario lovingly describes the role of food, traditions, taking risks, and exploring your city. Here are six lessons Choi learned on his way to becoming a leading chef on the streets.
1. Your city is a treasure map.
Until I found food, I always saw the world, especially the city, as a treasure map. Everyday I would go out there and explore it and find new things all the time. I was seeing some things in slow motion, some things sped up, some things enlarged, some things reflective—it would go all the way down to a wrinkle on a lady's face that would take me into a whole other dimension of what she went through to get to this country. It would just open up screens and layers of stories that I would feel but I had nowhere to dump it, until I found food. Before I found food, I always thought that if I was a tour guide then maybe I could drive people through those stories and we could experience them together like an amusement park. But weirdly I ended up running a truck that took me through the city feeding people and it almost became like being a tour guide. Your city is your treasure map and there are things within your city that you experience that you can bring into your workplace, into your design.
2. Cook with your soul.
Be vulnerable. Don’t show off. It’s kind of like what Bruce Lee talks about with water. Be vulnerable to finding out all of the insecurities and strengths and courage and fear that you have and put that into your food. Because if you do that, you’re transferring stories. It’s almost like stories over a campfire or over a drum, like a drum circle. You’re transferring the stories and the lives and the spirits through the food, which will then continue on and connect. To me food can become a conduit. So to cook with your soul is really to open up your spirit world. Instead of just focusing on the physical and the measurements and the process, use the process as a gateway to open up to another dimension.
3. Mix things up, there are no rules.
The rules are there to learn and then be broken. Because if you look at our lives, sometimes we get caught up with many things—what people say about us, what people expect from us. But then we also get caught up in thinking that the things that are around us have been there forever, or dictate the way we are supposed to be. Even though you’re born into it and it exists, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be changed. Because it’s all here because of change.
We sometimes compartmentalize our lives and by doing that we think we’re supposed to be a certain way at work, and a certain way at home, and a certain way in the bedroom, and a certain way on Facebook. But maybe if we blended those things and didn’t have to have rules in each zone, then we could come out with something special that’s different. And that’s what I do. And if you’re honest about it then they’re gonna know it’s not malicious. So even if you say “fuck” in a boardroom but it’s coming from a place where you’re searching for the answer to help the situation, then you’re not gonna get fired for it.
4. Sometimes, in the deepest moments, there are no words. There is only food.
Food is something that will always bind us. Especially in environments where you have difficult relationships with people, you may not be getting along with someone, or you may have difficult relationships with your parents. Or deep stuff, like getting out of jail or coming off being an addict, or failing—failing at school, failing at your job, getting laid off—not feeling like you’re worth anything in life. What are you gonna do? Wait for someone to tell you something? Or maybe there are no words to even describe or understand what you’re going through and it’s just gonna sound like the person is just disrespecting what you're going through. So maybe there are times where you don’t need words. And you can share your empathy or your criticisms or your disgust or your anger or your love for a person through the food. You just shut the fuck up and you just eat.
5. There’s always time for “dumpling time.”
No matter how busy you are in your life, or how much pressure you have, there’s always “dumping time.” There’s always an hour to sit down and take the apron off, or take the suit off, take the heavy burden off, and just talk shit. Let it go and make something. Be human. We get so caught up in our minds sometimes. The mind is so powerful that it drives us to always find the answers to things. But maybe there is no answer. Maybe we’re just like animals and we need to spend an hour picking the mosquitos out of our fur. Just help each other out. Maybe sometimes as humans we need to connect to just being animals once in a while and just sit like gorillas or orangutans and help each other pick the stuff out of our hair. There should always be time to not use your mind. Just be in the moment and make dumplings.
Even if we all do have some higher purpose in life, we don’t even fucking know it—even the most religious people in the world. Maybe we don’t have to always know all the time. And maybe we just do what we are doing, and just make dumplings. Then after the dumplings are done we can go back and beat ourselves up over the meaning of life.
6. Don’t let people tell you what you feel has no value.
You don’t have to live up to anyone else’s expectations. There is power in your gut feeling, in what you see—no matter what it is. The things that I enjoyed in life, lowriding, eating carne asada, hanging out on the streets, jumping on the bus and exploring—those are the things that I bring into Kogi and those things resonate. I was told those things are all useless, that they were a waste of time—but I always knew that those were the things that I was born to be a part of. But because I was told that those things were a waste of time, I put them on a shelf and tried to become someone else. And that’s when I failed, that’s when I destroyed myself, and found addiction, and fell down rabbit holes. But now that I’ve reached a better place of being able to just be myself and not listen to anybody, you have a taco truck that cruises through the city slinging tacos, pumping hip hop, and being itself—those are all the same things I was told were a waste of time, but now they’ve become a phenomenon that sparked a movement. If you feel something or you’re interested in something, don’t listen to anyone telling you that it’s not valid, or that it doesn’t have any value. It took me a long time to acknowledge it, but if you acknowledge it from an early age and cultivate it, it can be something really good.
Photo by Bobby Fisher