Q & A With Roy Choi: Slinging Tacos at Midnight, Calling Out Jamie Oliver + Choi's Vegetable Moment

Roy Choi outside Handsome Coffee Roasters
Roy Choi outside Handsome Coffee Roasters
A. Scattergood

On a bench outside Handsome Coffee Roasters in downtown Los Angeles' arts district, after the requisite coffee inside and under the (also requisite) California sun, Roy Choi sat down late last week to talk about, well, lots of things. He wanted a cigarette, or a few of them. He wanted to be close to the L.A. River. It had been a long few days, with a post Choi wrote on his blog Riding Shotgun generating a sudden media storm (Eater, The Huffington Post, even the New Yorker) of speculation that he was giving up meat, giving up Kogi, giving up cooking altogether.

All this left Choi (Kogi, Chego, A-Frame, Sunny Spot, the world), he said, humbled. It also seems to have left him a bit baffled. By the perceived controversy, but also -- and more interestingly -- by the level of emotion and influence he can generate in his hometown. Choi has become, for reasons that still escape him, a pivotal figure in Los Angeles, both in the food world and beyond. Most people date the current food-truck revolution to his Kogi BBQ truck, but it's more than that. He is, to quote Dana Goodyear, our David Chang. He has revitalized the industry, given voice -- and menu -- to a moment, and mobilized both literally and metaphorically the food culture in L.A.

All this has left him having what might be described as an existential crisis. Or maybe it's just a moment of clarity, the thinking man's necessary response to hitting critical mass. Maybe we should all sit down, get a cup of coffee and a cigarette -- or a Sriracha bar -- and think about what's going on more often than we do. Turn the page.

Roy Choi outside Handsome Coffee
Roy Choi outside Handsome Coffee
A. Scattergood

Squid Ink: So I hear you've become a vegetarian?

Roy Choi: Let's go back to my post, because it was really just a diary entry. I didn't realize that people cared that much. I've been doing Kogi for three years now and a lot of shit has blown up -- but food has been my voice. And people have been responding to it. I've just been myself. Everything you eat is everything I say and everything I am. So I feel like I've been talking to the public for a long time, even though I haven't been using words. I didn't know that it was going to get picked up, or that people even cared that much. But if you look at the post, I never used the word "vegetarian." And I never said I was quitting cooking. And those seem to have been the two focal points.

SI: Yep. Those were the two general assumptions.

RC: It's amazing how something can be interpreted. So instead of getting mad about it, over the week I started to think about a lot of things. Like what does it even matter -- it's just a personal thing. It just tripped me out how much, if I left, how much that would mean to people. And I thought, what if their assumptions were true: What if I just pulled it, like pulling a drain. What if I just pulled Kogi out of the universe. What if I just walked down another path. I realized that maybe Kogi is a part of L.A. -- it would almost be like the Dodgers not playing anymore.

SI. Your influence has been phenomenal.

RC: I guess we never thought about it collectively, as a city and as a community. And just brainstorming about it, thinking about a new path, it created almost an armageddon mentality. That tripped me out. But I never said I was a vegetarian. I'd been having some kind of Indian revelations.

SI: Indian in what way?

RC: Spiritual. Animals have been talking to me. And any shaman will say that that's not that weird. So they've been telling me to stop. One of my best friends told me: If animals are talking to you, you better fucking listen, dude. So I wrote that, and then I was thinking, well, if I can't cook with meat, then I gotta explore how I can cook. And I was just going to stop eating meat for a while. But I don't know how becoming a vegetarian and a vegan came from that.

SI: And if that's your choice -- if you just decide to have a Meatless Monday that lasts five years -- there's not necessarily a direct correlation between that choice and your restaurants. Unless you want there to be.

RC: I guess everything that happened since that Monday has put me in a little bit of a pickle. Because I didn't know my words carried any weight. And I sure as hell don't want to walk on eggshells about how I write or speak. But yeah, I never said I was going to be a vegetarian. But on the positive side, it opened up a whole other community to me. The communities I was already living within were putting headlines up, and friends of mine were asking me if I was OK, but then the vegetable community came out in force. They were so supportive. It was almost as if I came in from the cold. So if that's what it means to be vegetarian, then I'm down with that shit. But it was partly spiritual and partly because I'm searching for a new flavor.

SI: You know, one would hope that animals would talk to more chefs, if not literally, then metaphorically. You want people to have a responsibility to what they're cooking, especially in this era of whole-animal cuisine.

RC: Yeah. And you know, hunting, gathering, killing, it's all there -- but it's gotten to the point where it's not beautiful anymore, the way we kill animals. Right now, we're buying thousands of pounds of meat, between all the [restaurant] outlets. And if I continue to grow the business, that'll become tens of thousands of pounds of meat. The business is predicated upon giving the best quality for the cheapest price, so then if the businesses continue to grow at the pace they're growing, then I'm only going to be forced to make commodity decisions, which means I'll be forced in a way to give in to mass slaughter. Right now we deal with very good farms, but we're able to do that because we only sell so much. But if these businesses multiply throughout the States, how can I offer things at $2, $3, $4 without dipping into mass slaughter? I can't. So that was one question.

Another thing that sparked this was that I'm working on a co-op farm in Malibu and we were raising this pig and he was slaughtered and I ate the meat. Everything was done the correct way, but when I ate the meat it just tasted like flesh. Like human flesh. It was the first time that meat ever tasted that way. And that's after, well, I'm a Korean barbecue king, right? Ask anybody who eats with me at Park's BBQ.

So if you look at two posts before the one that sparked all this, I was starting to go through this transition. Then I experienced Gonjasufi during the MOCA event -- he was part of it -- and I was reading some of the things he was saying about breaking patterns that no longer serve you. The whole energy started to shake me as well. And meeting Mike D and being a part of the whole Beastie Boys family for three weeks. They never said anything to me directly, but being a part of that environment -- all of those things converged together. It was like a 2 a.m. little diary post. So that's the vegetarian part.

SI: What did it mean to find out that you're so important to this town? Is it a lot of pressure, or does it bother you?

RC: No, it's humbling. What has happened a lot in my life a lot in the last years, especially in the media, is that, you know, you have word counts. The thoughts have to be compressed. And sometimes people take it the wrong way. I'm really, really like a fucking sensitive fractured person sometimes. But I'm like a turtle: I have a really tough shell. I've scrapped with the best of them -- and I still scrap.

SI: You worked really hard to get here.

RC: I worked really hard, and I also have a lot of blood, sweat and tears all over this city.

SI: You grew up here.

RC: Yeah. Even outside of the food world, in the low-riding community, in the skate community, in the stoner-drug community. In the gang community, in the college community. I've been through a lot of things in my life. It's humbling. Because no one ever gave a shit about me before. So for people to give a shit about you, it's humbling and it means a lot. But I haven't changed my approach to things since the first day we rolled out Kogi. We're doing the exact same thing we did up on Ivar and Sunset, it's just that back then no one knew who we were. So the biggest challenge I'm having is to keep that energy and stay true to that; that's what's driving everything.

SI: That's what drives your food too: There's an authenticity and a creativity in that that you don't want to lose as a chef, not just as a businessman or whatever.

RC: Yeah, I don't really care about job security. Everything I do is like tough love, everything I put out there in the universe is me trying to feed you. I really care. One thing you can see with all the food that's been created the last few years, whether you like it or not, is that there hasn't been a problem with consistency. Our No. 1 philosophy is to make sure we're thinking of you as we cook.

SI: What do you mean by consistency?

RC: As far as the food going down in quality, or thinking that we've focused our energy somewhere else.

SI: Well, you're still there. You're still in the kitchens.

RC: Still there. They're [the restaurants] living, breathing entities. It's been trippy sometimes. I didn't know people cared that much.

SI: They do. And I think you touched some nerves. Not just you personally, but the meat issue, especially with foie gras in the news right now.

RC: Yeah, if you look at the post, it wasn't totally about meat. I'm not trying to make it profound or anything, but the title of the post was about who's going to do this. I'm not saying that I'm going to do this, but who's going to climb this beanstalk and figure this shit out? Not the whole equation, but who's going to figure out the next step.

SI: You're talking about a much larger picture.

RC: It reminded me of what I went through with taco trucks. I realized that when people heard the word -- created the word -- vegetarian, it was almost like it was part concern, part how-could-you, and also a little fear. It was like the issues of taco trucks and street food and trucks clogging up the streets, it was that same energy.

SI: Like when you started Kogi and people got really freaked out?

RC: Yeah, a little bit of that ruffling-of-the-feathers type thing. Or even before Kogi did what it did -- outside of the Latino community and construction workers and people working down here, where taco or catering trucks were truly a part of their lives and culture -- it was, like, "How can you eat off that truck; aren't you going to get sick; how can you trust them; do they wash their hands?" It's fear. I'm like, those are my brothers and sisters, of course they're washing their hands; they're feeding you the same thing they're feeding themselves; what the fuck, you know? But it was the same thing. So I kind of feel for the vegetable world -- the vegetarian world. It's almost as if people look at them like aliens or foreigners. They're just like us.

SI: I do think the foie gras issue intersects with a lot of those same emotions: Where is my food coming from, where is it going, where is my position in all of this. What do you think of the foie situation?

RC: I'm a chef and I've been cooking for 20 years and I'm a student and a disciple of the craft, so when I was in culinary school I studied the origins [of foie], from Gascony and the way the geese are raised and the culture. In Asia we have a similar cultural fixation about the fish egg sac as the French do toward the goose liver. I understand it and I appreciate it from a cultural level. So I believe it's just a soapbox. Because if you're going to target well-fed geese for their livers -- take a look at what they do to our cattle. These geese are taken care of and fed well. Yeah, they're force-fed, but it's a relative term. They're being manipulated through love and a true philosophy of raising this bird.

That seems to me minor compared to us picking up half-dead cattle with forklifts. And stuffing chickens in little boxes and killing baby cows for veal. And maybe target rich motherfuckers getting endangered meat for private dinners.

SI: Shark fins.

RC: Focus on that, or even just hunting for trophies. To me it seems -- I'm going to get in trouble with the NRA; I gotta move -- less sentimental to kill animals for glory than to actually raise them for delicacy. I don't know why people are tripping on it. If they have that much energy to stop something, they should take a look at what we're eating on a mass scale. Shift that energy over. You're picking on the small guy. If we have all that momentum, let's take on the real bully.

SI: Something that has a lot more effect than foie gras. Like maybe the beef industry.

RC: It's a very tiny percentage. Out of all the people I'm feeding right now, there's a whole other community I'm not feeding that I really care about: foster kids, kids from broken homes, people who can't get to the food. It's the same thing in the food world: Even with the new bubble of bloggers and this new thing of chefs being out there, we think our world is so huge. But this stuff is a very, very small speck of how others are eating out there.

SI: The people who actually need to be fed. We have such an inflated sense of our own importance.

RC: Even a great restaurant maybe only does 120 covers a night. That's not feeding a lot of people. It's OK for that to be a hobby or a profession or a craft, but it seems like our food world is pretty inflated, and I'm trying to punch a hole in that a little bit. I just want to be the ODB on this shit, because I don't care about the industry accepting me or nor, or me lighting fires or not. I'm very aware that it only continues to feed itself.

I love the whole new blogging community. Like when I got into cooking, there were no Asians in culinary school, and there were no Asians eating in restaurants. And now it's all young Asian guys and girls writing blogs and eating and tweeting. It's a whole community and it's great. But they get on these huge, beautiful, inflated roller-coaster rides, and they don't know anything about the craft of this industry. I don't know if any of them know about Fernand Point or Carême or the origins of Chinese food.

SI: I think for a lot of people these days, food knowledge starts with Anthony Bourdain. Much as we all love him.

RC: It happens in the hip-hop community, too; there'a a lot of that. And now everyone is being called "chef." I'm a little old-school in that I think there's some value in the classics and the steps of achieving a certain profession. If we start slanging the word "chef" on anybody and everybody who cooks, it takes away a lot.

SI: Well, it's not accurate. Chef is from the same word as "chief"; it means something very specific in the French kitchen brigade system.

RC: It doesn't make sense. I think we need to come up with another word. We're calling [all these cooks] chefs. I mean, I know people are going to trip, but chef is a specific title, like a doctor. There's no way to distinguish anymore and that's tough. Eric Ripert, Paul Bocuse -- they're chefs. They can do all the technical things and they also have a spiritual connection. How a turnip grows, how it's cooked. But then if you call someone who doesn't have that training a chef ... It's all kind of related to my foie gras thing. I feel like we're in a moment of inflation, of our own egos, of our own perception of what the food world is. And if I can do anything, I want to pop that a little bit so that we can look outside that bubble.

SI: It is a weird moment. We're reaching critical mass on a lot of things: hunger, obesity.

 

RC: For me it's very first-hand. It's not like I sat on a couch and tried to contemplate the world. It's powerful because it's a part of my life. I walk a lot of different worlds and communities. I'm here with you. I'm cooking a dinner for bloggers. I'm on the phone with The New York Times, I'm doing an event with Mike D. But also in my real life, my friends are skaters and rappers and young kids, and I know what they eat. I'm a part of that. That's where it gets convoluted, because on the one hand I'm doing a party for Bon Appetit, I'm at the Pebble Beach Food and Wine Festival, I'm doing all these things that any chef would be delighted to do, and then I'm realizing that the people I hang out with will never and maybe could never eat my food -- or any of the food we write or talk about.

SI: What do you do about that? What can you do about that?

RC: I started my Forrest Gump movement.

SI: Like, literally?

RC: Literally. I'm starting to run. I was sitting at MOCA and it came together: OK, we're feeding this many people but I'm not getting food to a certain part of the community, and what can I do about it. That's when I decided to break a pattern and start as if I was entering culinary school again -- completely blank slate -- and start learning the nonprofit world. I don't want to come in with a big brigade; I'm coming in as a volunteer, I want to learn everything from the inside out. Two organizations have reached out to me: A Place Called Home and United Friends for Children. I'm going to try and learn something new, and then figure out what I can do with whatever power or voice I have. The businesses will still grow and I'll still be a part of everything, but I figured the only way to start was to start myself.

SI: Sounds like you had an epiphany.

RC: I had a Gandhi epiphany. Yeah, I had an epiphany that I'm a fucking hypocrite, was my epiphany. I'm getting awards, making restaurants, doing all that stuff -- and no way am I rich, I'm running the daily grind -- but I'm receiving all these accolades. And a lot of people I care about I'm not feeding at all. I spend three days in South Central working with kids, I sponsor skateboard riders, and when I hang out with them -- they don't tell me this -- and I realize that I'm doing all this shit and believing all this shit and I'm hanging out with them, but the bottom line is that they're not eating my food. What I do for a living is not reaching them. So why the fuck am I here? If I realize this, then why don't I do something about it? So my first step is, like Kogi, street by street, taco by taco.

SI: You're already mobile. And the good side of being a public figure is that you can use that.

RC: Beyond the sensitive stuff, I realize that. I want to use that power and help the people I care about. But the only way I know how to do that is to do it by the underground. All I can give people is a burrito and a hug -- I can't buy this building and, like, set up a youth center or provide people jobs. I don't know how to talk to boardrooms.

When I made that decision a couple weeks ago, not just to think about it but to do it, it was the same approach as going to culinary school and starting Kogi. And those two things worked out pretty well. I don't know how long that'll take, but I'm starting. Another side of this was a battle cry to Jamie.

SI: Jamie Oliver?

RC: I don't know any other way to get to him, and I don't want to deal with his organization. I don't want to make it a political thing.

SI: What about him?

RC: We all seem to believe that he's the one carrying the torch. But his approach didn't work in this town. I don't know how to ask permission, but I knew that if my voice had any power I was going to test it. The only way I know how to get to somebody is to call them out.

SI: It's a lot more effective than going through his publicist. Especially if what you're interested in is a grassroots movement. Has he answered?

RC: I'm very close. My offer to him was very Usual Suspects style. Meet me on the end of Venice Pier. You and you only. I'll be there smoking a cigarette. That was my offer. I think it will happen. I just want to sit with him and see if we click, and if we click I want to get right to brass tacks and tell him that I can help. Because I can go where he can't. So I have a goal. If we click and if we decide to band forces, I believe we have different weapons in our arsenal. He has money. He has a bank that I can use. He has his image and fame. He has the ability to go on Oprah, you know, or whatever. He's a machine; he can talk to President Obama. He can talk to anybody.

What I can do is do it one street at a time, starting in L.A.: Build, whether it's a center or restaurant or cafe. The first dream is to build a restaurant in South Central that serves the community with the same approach as if we were building on Fairfax and Melrose. It's a little bit of a Magic Johnson approach: Employ everyone within the community, teach, get the food into people's bodies. Whether or not we agree that a certain part of the population can or will like our food, we don't know it because we're not eating it. I believe in the power of food.

I see it as another piece of hip-hop or underground: I want to make food a part of that. Some kids can't sing, so maybe they're really good at cooking.

SI: You're feeding them.

 

fried rice balls over green curry at Chego
fried rice balls over green curry at Chego
Anne Fishbein

RC: My idea right now is to use Jamie's bank and his power and his organization to help me open a restaurant in South Central and then use that as an incubator for Cleveland, Chicago, New York, whatever city. And I'm not talking about "troubled youth." Everyone thinks the 'hood is all about trouble.

SI: Trouble is relative, too.

RC: The neighborhood is the neighborhood; 90% of them aren't troublemakers, you know? All it takes is people who care. This is not a popular topic, but a lot of people in this city don't have access to things. Everything. But for me in my world, food specifically. It's also about consistency. You know what happens in the 'hood a lot? People come down and they say, "Oh I want to help you," and they're gone. Even if I can do it with one school or one place, I want to be consistent and follow through. If I share what I know, they'll have another outlet. Because right now they don't have any outlets. Hip-hop. Drawing. I just want to share it, to be honest; that's what it's about.

SI: It's an example; it's an object lesson. It's a way to go lateral.

RC: In any other form, that could be you who has not that many options. It's random. We are very fortunate; we went to college, we can make choices and go out to dinner. I just feel that we should share out.

SI: Isn't it a responsibility? Especially if you're in a profession that lends itself to it.

RC: That's exactly what I'm trying to achieve. And if people think I'm riding my own Kool-Aid wave, I don't really give a fuck. Because it's a really big deal. Food is so important. We in America want to make it so political. I come from a Korean family, and even though I'm an American, I was raised in a different type of home. I was raised in a home where you're eating all homemade food, with like 16 different vegetables, marinated pickles, all of those things are nutrients to fulfill your life. Here we're not providing those kids with any of the fuel to be able to use their minds correctly. Or that's my perspective.

I just want us to take a little bit of a left turn. Right now it seems like everything's on cruise control, it's working. That's how I'm viewing my restaurants. We're fine for the moment, so let's shift our energies to people who aren't that cool. So I'm just going to start running and I'm looking for a lot of talented people to start running with me.

SI: Well, you don't want to atrophy.

RC: I don't really care about career suicide. It's not that I don't care what Kogi means to you, but I'm not working to protect it. I know that's a little bit different, but that's who I am. It's like skateboarding: I'm jumping 20 stairs and if I break my legs I break my legs, but if I land it then I"m on to the next trick. I'm taking all of this stuff with me and trying to jump 20 stairs. And if we land it, then everything gets a push. From a business standpoint, it's a very deep thing. I'm still a partner in business with people. It's a really complicated thing for me now. When I started Kogi I didn't have anything. I had a plastic colander from my cupboard at home, I had a couple of wooden bowls, I had my knife bag, and that was it. Nothing else. We were all in it like playing a poker game: We just threw our chips in the middle. Now, there are ...

SI: ... A lot more chips.

RC: A lot more chips. Maybe 400 employees, partners, businesses, bills to be paid, all of these things, which comes from natural growth. I respect and care for those things but I don't know how to manage my own creativity within those responsibilities. I just try and go for it. No one's said, "Roy, don't fuck this up."

SI: Well, you're not fucking it up. It's not like you're cashing in and leaving. Can't you do both? Aren't you supposed to go forward? It's not an either-or proposition.

RC: Yeah, I play off the stoner attitude, but I'm a chef. I'm a corner-to-corner guy, I don't blow those things up. Who wants to know my to-do list? But that doesn't mean I don't have a to-do list. It's more fun to hear about me smoking weed than it is for you to hear about me opening the lock and cleaning the walk-in.

But somebody has to do it, somebody has to have that sort of freedom. If we're all just living hunched over and running the business, then who is driving the ship? Right now it seems like it's falling in my lap, but I don't care if it's someone else. What's happened to me is that no one else is doing it. I don't want to go from playing punk rock to playing love ballads, you know?

I think if you could summarize all this shit, it's that I don't know exactly what I'm trying to do, but I'm trying to honor what got me here: slinging tacos on the streets of Hollywood at midnight. That is not a polished, sedate, comfortable state of mind. That's not a place where things should be uniform and safe. It's a place where anything goes. It's aggressive but it's soulful, it's poetic but it's raw. It's putting everything out there knowing that anything can happen. Whether people think I've grown or not, I don't care because I'm coming from that place still, just a new version of that. I just don't want to come from that and then...

SI: End up singing love ballads.

RC: Yeah, be Top 40 or whatever. People think I have different responsibilities, but that is truly where I still am. If I let go of that, then it might fly away forever.

That's what I believe. It was a very special time for me -- because I did have a 9-to-5 before that, and I was a professional who had to answer to people. But the moment I went out on the streets, everything started to settle. All the streets that I used to cruise as a misfit became my navigation to figure out how to get the food out to people. All of those things that were detrimental became my assets. That was everything that got me here. Why would I let go of that? Those storms were actually tranquil compared to this.

SI: Just because it's an invisible storm doesn't make it less of a storm.

RC: Yeah, that's why I'm trying to hold onto it. When people think that I'm out of my mind, or they're ticked off -- to me it means that I'm exercising something that I'm destined to do. Because it's the same thing that people were feeling when we went out there with Kogi: Who are you? What are you? What is this? And I don't know why it was so deep. I've been part of something else, which kind of just passed through -- it was supposed to be a [Category] 7 hurricane and it just passed through -- which was the food truck movement. It caused a lot of chaos but it wasn't that threatening of a topic, just businesses fighting over things, city councilmen trying to realign jurisdictions, health department trying to catch up, and then it passed through. But this one really struck a chord.

SI: Maybe it intersected with so many things that are flashpoints. People are afraid of change.

RC: The whole genesis of this thing was change.

SI: Irony.

RC: It's the love song thing. The kernel of it all is that the thing they may be afraid of losing or having change was the thing that shook up everything to begin with. What we did in '08 changed, I believe, a lot of the way America eats. It brought food prices down. It forced a lot of chefs to open restaurants to meet the demands of a new dining public. Which happened simultaneously with the food blogging movement.

SI: And the recession.

RC: And the recession. I also call it the Wanting to Marry a Stripper Phase. Because you date the stripper for everything she brings to the table, right? But then you fall in love and all of a sudden you don't want her to be exactly what she is. That's kind of like me. My whole relationship with everybody has been: Here it is, I hope you love it, if not fuck you. But then that's kind of weird now.

SI: You can't have it both ways.

RC: That's where I am right now. How that relates to anyone else, I don't know. I know it relates to a lot of people who don't write and read public media. To bring it back around, a lot of kids within the community, they all get it. The kids get it. They're like, fuck it, dude, just go for it. Because they're young and excited. A lot of my thoughts do come from the perspective of cooking. A lot of us try and hold on to things, but for me as a chef, my whole life has been built around me creating something, you eating it, and it no longer being there. It's gone. If things no longer exist, it's not that big of a deal.

SI: Because they're not supposed to. The mark of a bad dish in a restaurant is when it doesn't disappear.

RC: What's different now is that I'm translating that into spaces outside the kitchen. But I'm doing it in the same way as if I were a cook. That's the growing pain right now, is me trying to figure out how to figure that out, and you being able to digest it and then make it disappear. That's what I want, that's what I'm trying to do. We'll see what happens.

SI: So you've used the term "career suicide" a couple times: Is that something you're really worried about?

RC: Well, the company I own is called "Meat." So there's that.

SI: But you're not talking about shutting down Kogi or banning meat.

RC: No, no, never. But it seems as though there's an invisible wall between vegetarianism and regular eating. From both sides. So that is the little bit of weirdness that I'm exploring. I've found a lot of warm souls and love from this community, and then I see my normal life and if I start to become friends with them...

SI: It seems like an either-or situation, at least to a lot of people.

RC: Yeah, and that's what's tripping me out. And that's what I'm trying to challenge. If I am forced to pick, I'd rather not pick either and try and knock down that wall -- even if I piss off everybody, even if I piss off the new friends. Our pattern is an inflated, advertising-driven, meat-centric point of view. I'm just trying to challenge that, in my own ghetto-driven way. Because if we don't, then we just keep it going, which is dangerous. I just want everybody to enjoy, but I don't want it to be simple.

And my favorite kitchen tool is a blender.


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