Why you should care
Because he started a culinary revolution and is still shaking things up.
The Town Square stage at OZY Fest 2018 is suffused with the tantalizing aroma of Korean BBQ. “I like to make food like you make a margarita,” jokes celebrity chef Roy Choi. The crowd roars, and Choi is clearly in command, and in his element. But for Choi, a prominent chef who started with Kogi, a single taco truck, in 2008 before amassing a fleet of trucks and five restaurants — plus a television show currently in production — his remark is equal parts humorous aside and overriding principle. Eating well, he maintains, should be fun, unfussy and deeply satisfying for everyone.
“A lot of the population tries to find ways into healthy eating, and we chefs make it more difficult for them,” Choi laments. To simplify the experience, he says that the future of food should be about looking to the past — preparing dishes that are easy to cook and that take advantage of all available resources. For Choi, this also means thinking about food prep as an integral part of a “360 life cycle” that exalts and honors the process. “We’re such a disposable society, we don’t enjoy the process,” he says as he describes how washing rice five times can be a form of spiritual cleansing. “Sometimes finding self-awareness and cleansing your soul is not a huge thing,” he observes with a wink. Even so, it should be an essential component of good eating.
I didn’t find food till I had already failed several times.
At the same time that the culinary pioneer is helping to evolve how we eat and enjoy food, he is blunt and unequivocal about the extent to which the restaurant industry needs to change in response to the #MeToo movement. “The food industry: I equate it to a nightclub,” he says. “People snorting coke and fucking in the bathroom. … It’s a male-dominated world where all the lights were out, and no one was looking at the blemishes. But like a club when you turn the lights on, it looks like shit.”
In 2017, celebrity chef Mario Batali stepped down from running his restaurant empire after four women accused him of sexual misconduct. But the culture of sexism and harassment in the industry, according to Choi, is much bigger and more insidious than one individual. “The restaurant industry was controlled by very predatory, vindictive and powerful men,” he says. “There was some dirty shit that was going on, and it wasn’t right. It wasn’t right at all.”
What to do about an industry mired in “dirty shit”? For starters, Choi’s call to embrace cooking as a spiritually cleansing activity seems particularly apt. “I didn’t find food till I had already failed several times,” Choi tells the audience, implying that he knows something about making mistakes and trying to do better. He also knows a thing or two about kick-starting a culinary revolution.