So how's this for an L.A. story? A young couple and their two-year-old son leave South Korea for Los Angeles, where they open a restaurant. It fails, but they refuse to quit — working their family connections to enter the jewelry business. There they achieve such staggering success they're able to move on up to Orange County, right into Nolan Ryan's old house. Their son, meanwhile, battles addictions to drugs and gambling, fighting off the lure of thug life to become one of the city's best restaurateurs, changing L.A.'s dining scene forever by reinventing the food truck for foodies.
That's Roy Choi's story. And, yes, it's a doozy. As Choi tells it in L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food, his new cookbook autobiography written with Natasha Phan and L.A. Weekly Senior Food Writer Tien Nguyen, his destiny as a great chef was far from assured. Choi studied political science at Cal State Fullerton, then philosophy. He even dabbled in theatre for a time. After he finished school (the book isn't clear on whether he graduated), there was a week lost to crack, a year and a half lost to gambling, and countless days lost to a soul-killing job selling mutual funds.
And yet …
And yet through it all there was food. The dumplings his parents served at their Korean restaurant in Anaheim, the shawarma he devoured while his parents hustled diamonds in downtown L.A., the chorizo he gobbled at IHOP — all of it is remembered so lovingly, and described so evocatively, that Choi's future seems inevitable. Of course, you think: This man was meant to be a chef.
The book is a quick, easy read thanks to Choi's singular voice: smart, funny and well-versed in what Tom Wolfe dubbed the “fuck patois.” Perhaps it helps that we know the ending — to us, Choi's success is always assured.
But it also helps that he tells his story so winningly, with such good humor. Choi's a badass chef in the mold of Anthony Bourdain, whose imprint has published L.A. Son, but he's gloriously unintimidating, less the bad boy adventurer and more the class clown who, as it turns out, is actually smart as hell.
Which, as a description of the teenaged Choi, may not have been so far off the mark. As an Asian kid transplanted from a shabby apartment in West Hollywood to the blindingly white suburban splendor of Villa Park, he struggled to fit in. Running with the bad kids was part coping mechanism, part declaration of independence.
They put me in honors classes with all the smart kids, and I don't know if that was my mom up to her old tricks or if that's where all the Asians just automatically went. Because that's where I saw all the Asian kids in the school. All three of them. They were quiet and smart and kept to themselves in their own little group. But that wasn't for me. I didn't want to be another weird Asian kid in an all-white school, a furry new pet orangutan to look at and poke. So I went on the offense first: I became the class clown. I played down and cracked jokes in class. And it worked.
The kids in class thought I was hilarious. Oh shit, did you really just say that!? Yeah, shit, I really did just say that. I was sent to the principal's office a lot as a result of just saying this and that, but I always exited the classroom to a standing ovation. I was laying tracks in this new town, and I sure as hell was going to make sure everyone could hear my beat.
His voice is boastful, yes, but jubilantly so. It's not at all surprising to read that, as a kid, Choi's hero was the Fonz (and that a meeting with Henry Winkler was a big moment in his young life). Like that Happy Days character, Choi relishes his bad-boy pose. That's perhaps one reason why even when the story turns dark, he never wallows; he owns his choices in all their chaos and glory.
This jubilance extends to the recipes that follow every chapter. Choi's food is a blast to eat because it freely appropriates the best of everything in Southern California: Korean flavors, Mexican ingenuity, Caribbean seasonings, even the greasy, sloppy, all-American fun of ketchup-fried rice.
Reading this book, you understand how honest all that appropriation was; in this giant melting pot of a city, an adventurous kid couldn't help but taste the entire world, his eyes wide open, his appetite never less than ravenous.
If there's a flaw to the book, it's that it ends too soon; Choi takes the reader right up to the founding of Kogi BBQ, the food truck that would establish him as a superstar, only to halt his story abruptly without explaining how the truck became a sensation — or what happened next. There's no mention of the brick-and-mortar restaurants that now pack in food lovers, no elucidation of how Kogi used social media to revolutionize the food truck business.
Yes, Choi is more than Kogi, but some readers may feel disappointed nevertheless. Perhaps, as Choi has said, he didn't feel that the Kogi story was only his to tell. But what story is? It seems more likely he knew there was another book in there.
No matter. The tale Choi does tell is a winner — a great only-in-L.A. story that will almost certainly leave you hungry for more: more stories, and more of that wonderful only-in-L.A. cooking. Hey, there are recipes for that. If readers are craving more, they need only head to the kitchen.