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Truck vs. Church and State: Kogi Bites Back 

Wednesday, Dec 16 2009
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Kogi Beatdown!
Wow! Little did our Squid Ink food blog editor, Amy Scattergood, know what she was getting into when she asked Church and State chef Walter Manzke a simple question, “Is there anything you won’t eat?” Manzke answered thusly and in the process set off a mini commentary storm: “Anything off a truck. L.A. seems to get caught up in these trends, when one person has great success with something and then no one can come up with anything new so they just copy it. And the most ridiculous one seems to be the truck. I mean, it was maybe cool when the first person did it, and it fits the economy because it’s cheap to operate and all that, but I think it’s everything that takes away from the purpose, the enjoyment and the passion of eating.”

That brought this retort from Papi, Kogi Familia, the Streets of L.A., who writes: “There is a profound place for fine dining, technique and ingredients. I know, I have been there in those kitchens for many years. But where do you get the balls to go off on street food, trucks and spontaneous eating like you are some friggin saint?

“I’ve eaten at your place twice and I wanted to give you props for working in the kitchen during service, but your food ain’t THAT good for you to be talking smack!

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“I come from the streets, yet I’ve cooked for kings and queens. But in the streets, there is a code. When you talk smack, be ready for the beatdown!

“The food you talk about and try to cook is extremely secular and exclusive. I got homies that will never be able to eat squid ink or sea salt, does that mean they are not entitled to eat great food? Does food have to be only in the context of European-laced aristocratic thinking?

“Come down to the Kogi truck and let me show you a little magic and change your opinion on things a bit. Or maybe I’ll just park my ride right in front of Church and State and say whassup!

To Walter’s rescue comes David Haskell, and we’ll just get out of the way here: “First off, Walter is one of the classiest guys in the world. Now, in terms of chefs he is one of the most dedicated and best in the city. To attack him is just classless. He didn’t say your tacos suck or you suck ... he stated that he thinks it’s a bad fad. You picked a fight with a guy who actually gave you a compliment. He said the first trucks were innovative. Saying you will give him a beatdown and you are from the streets ... Okay, tough guy ... relax. No drive-bys with that crazy truck of yours.”

Lizzie tries to mediate: “Kogi rides again! I was going to say to Walter that, although I adore your food at Bastide in the past and now at Church and State, there are many ways to enjoy and share food. One of my most pleasurable evenings of the year was sharing Kogi at Golden Gopher with about 10 people, all hunched over our food and cocktails, everyone taking a bite of someone else’s food. Naturally, that was when I was still willing to patronize Kogi.

“One of the things I love about L.A. is the access to amazing food, high- and low-end culinary approaches. And the gastrotrucks give people who would never have the funds to finance a restaurant a chance to get out there and show their chops. I love your food, man. But don’t be so elitist.”

Maddy, meanwhile, hits Papi with some good old-fashioned smackback: “Instead of trying to “lay the smack down” on one of L.A.’s nicest and most talented chefs, why don’t you worry about yourself and start serving good food. I’ve given you two chances and my hard-earned cash. So I’m going to put it out there: Kogi. Is. NOT. GOOD.

“Your waits are excruciating. Thirty minutes the first time, one hour the second. This would be fine if I were getting the best taco of my life. Instead I get some dried out pork in soggy tortillas topped with “kimchi” (not really) and a “Pac-man” burger with a burnt (read: BLACK) bun.

“I respect you for being an innovator in the biz. But if you feel you have to attack others to defend your food, and not let your food speak for itself, well I certainly have no problem calling you out on your flaws.”

Finally, it all comes back around to Papi, who offers a little balance: “That’s enough ... I said some things out of passion in response to Walter using strong words like hate for taco trucks. Our soul at Kogi is to feed the streets at the cheapest price. We are not perfect. I just couldn’t figure out how food could be hated or classified when it was doing good for people trying to make a living and nourishing people after a hard day of making a living.

“There is no race issue. There is no violence. There is no beatdown. I just broke down what I know about food after 12 years in professional kitchens and tried to find some answers as to why a chef would bad-mouth honest people trying to spread love across city blocks.

“There is no hood or gangsta facade, my response was just an impulse from my upbringing here in L.A., if you bite me I bite back ... that’s all.

“Walter, hopefully you can rethink your comments toward food trucks and maybe I can rethink mine toward your food.

“To the rest of you, hopefully the food world can handle more disruption of old-guard ways without such protective guards.

“I’m not a good writer and I am just a mediocre chef, but I do see hundreds of happy faces on the streets enjoying street food every night and although this has changed the culinary landscape, I have to believe change is good ...

“How can we play it safe in an industry that demands development and a hunger that refuses to be stagnant?

“Hopefully those of you who hate me for my comments can look into the content of the words and not the tone of my first response above, because I still stand behind the words and the culture of street food.

“If not, then that’s cool.”

Phew! A Walter-Papi summit, anyone?

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