Roy Choi, the chef, restaurateur, author of the newly-released cookbook/memoir L.A. Son, and flagship member of the macho bad-boy chef club that's captured the public imagination of late, is sitting in a Little Italy bakery discussing his, ahem, feminine side.
"The emotional spine of the book is that for me, it was a saving grace. It was therapy. I have a tough side that a lot of people see, but I also have a feminine spirit, a nurturing side, that I hope comes out in the book," he says. "Because when you get right down to it, every day I wake up thinking about how many people I can feed well."
It's a surprise to hear Choi talk this, to say the least. But after racing through Son, the year's most compulsively readable food book, it makes total sense.
The first paragraph is remarkably revealing: "Hello, I'm Roy. Get in. We're going for a ride. I had to write this book. To tell the story of my journey from immigrant to latchkey kid to lowrider to misfit to gambler to a chef answering his calling. To tell a story of Los Angeles and the people who live there. And to preserve it all on wax. All you have to do is sit back and trust."
By the time you've finished Choi's remarkable story of coming of age through food, you'll know that he's lived through more than most.
Choi is the product of smart-as-hell (and tough-as-nails) hard-drinking Korean immigrant parents. His father was a graduate of Korea's most prestigious college-turned restaurateur-turned gem dealer; his mother a legendary Korean home cook who toiled in the kitchen from 4-6 a.m. before heading to work at the family's Korean restaurant in Anaheim, CA.
Roy was a latchkey kid who found himself channeling his normal adolescent angst —magnified by an ongoing identity crisis (am I Korean? American? Korean-American?) —into unhealthy pursuits that could have landed him in jail or dead. He ran with a literally fast crowd of low-riders before descending even further into a post-adolescent hell of compulsive gambling that got so bad he stole goods, money, and credit cards from his parents' house to feed his habit. He dabbled in crack, couldn't hold a job, and though smart as a whip, couldn't make it through college.
All the while, Choi was trying to fit in the way his parents wanted him to —not as a Korean-American, but as a Korean-born child who was supposed to become an American. His parents instituted a no-Korean-spoken-at-home rule to help his assimilation along, and would administer corporal punishment when he broke it. "Truth is, I didn't know what was right or wrong. The English-only rule was supposed to turn me into an American, but that alone didn't spell out how to actually be American," he writes in the book. "I still ate kimchi and porridge but got a beatdown if I spoke Korean, so, fuck, I didn't even know how to be Korean either. Everything was all a jumble."
From the very first page it was clear that eating and cooking food was so important to Choi and his family that there was no doubt it would play a significant role in his salvation. No matter what kind of self-destructive behavior Choi is relating in the book (he's doing nasty shit on virtually every page until he goes to culinary school), every page also has a reference to the pleasure and joy Choi got from all kinds of food, most assuredly not just Korean. Roy grew up loving every part of the ethnic food culture of Los Angeles, from tacos to schwarma to Tommy's burgers, though kimchi and other Korean staples were a constant in his life and in the book as well.
Choi doesn't crave the attention and accouterments of stardom. Writing the book was not part of a master marketing plan to make him rich and famous. In fact, it involved working through a lot of the pain and rage he experienced growing up.
"I could only write the book from midnight to 6 a.m., in the dark, when I was alone, confronting my feelings and trying to understand what I had gone through to get to the place I'm at now," he told me. "I didn't write this as a cautionary tale—I wrote it to articulate my experiences as an immigrant's son. If my book can help someone with a problem that I've gone through feel better for a moment or an hour or an evening, then I know I did something right. If the book is a clear window into the lives of immigrants that people wouldn't get to see otherwise, then it's worthwhile," Choi says.
"My parents still can't read it, but I think they're proud of me, even if they have a hard time expressing it. I love them dearly—they're the heroes of the book. I'm not sure they know and understand that now, but hopefully they will someday."
In a way, Choi wrote the book to affirm —to himself —that he's accomplished something great. Writing the book has changed him, but he's reluctant to make sweeping statements about the experience. And that's what makes the book so impressive — Choi doesn't sensationalize anything. He's uncompromisingly honest. This is a book about being saved by craft. Though the book is threaded with anger, it's also woven with love and respect for the craft of cooking and a desire to move the food world forward.
Choi has to been to hell and back, eating, cooking, and learning as he works up quite a sweat from the intense heat that has characterized his entire life. And my guess is that there's a lot more coming — Choi has already said a lot, but I have a feeling he's only just getting started. I, for one can't wait--as Choi proved in L.A. Son, when he offers you the chance as a reader to come along for the ride, it's a journey well worth taking.
About the author: Ed Levine is the founder of Serious Eats.