I used to be a chef.
That sounds funny, because I still cook. But the thing is, the moment I stepped out of those kitchen clogs, said goodbye to that part of the chef community and cooked from my soul is exactly the moment when I became more of a cook than when I actually was a chef. Heck, with all that's happened in the last three and a half years — feeding the streets, hearing boisterous laughter, seeing shivering smiles — it all seems a little hazy. But I look at the cadaver that once was a white chef coat with a toque and see a guy who studied food till his eyes got blurry, and realize, damn, I really knew nothing about food at all.
Cookbooks entered my life when I was 6 or 7 years old. We lived in West Hollywood at the time; my mom had the books around to learn how to cook “American” food, and I naturally gravitated toward them. She had Betty Crocker and Joy of Cooking, but I especially remember The Fannie Farmer Cookbook — its weight, and its drawings. By seeing sketches of fruits, vegetables and meats, I found myself thinking of food and constructing dishes, even then, in my young mind. I also found Fannie to be someone who really enjoyed eating and celebrating with friends, and I was just fascinated by the pages on table manners and old rituals of having a butter plate for butter or a linen doily for tea. That struck a huge chord with me: Our family life, with our own struggles, wasn't as proper as that. The book became an escape, a portal into a land of enchantment I wished I could enjoy.
In culinary school, my newfound kitchen skills combined with my attraction to cookbooks, and the love turned into a straight-up obsession.
I went to the Culinary Institute of America in New York, the CIA. The campus is an old Jesuit seminary on the banks of the Hudson River. It sits nestled among trees and hillsides below the old bicentennial town of Rhinebeck and the muddy footprints of Woodstock. It's a beautiful place where you can smell smoke from steam locomotives, trek through the woods and find morel mushrooms or happen upon a deer lapping a puddle of clear water from the Adirondacks.
I would've taken in the nature more if it weren't for the Conrad N. Hilton Library. This was filled with books only about food. Rows and rows, floors and floors, racks and racks. Kid in a candy shop, go.
I put a Walkman on and books flew off the shelves and into my hungry hands. I found old, obscure books on China, the Mediterranean, Africa, Native American tribes. Books on plant species and butchering. I was really in love with France at the time — I wanted to be a French chef — so I dove headfirst into books by Waverley Root, Patricia Wells and Richard Olney. Our feeble culinary-student minds were imprinted with the foundations of Escoffier; his book became a kaleidoscope for me, an ever-twisting pinball machine that showed me how to take a basic principle and switch that shit up into bar after bar of lyrical, twisting, freestyle flow.
After I graduated, I found my confidence, my rhythm, through cookbooks. My first job out of culinary school was in Borrego Springs, a small town south of Palm Springs, near the Salton Sea. After the golf season ended in late May and during the summer, I was by myself in the kitchen, without a chef to teach me much, and so I did a lot of the prep and practiced techniques on my own. Alone and lonely.
Luckily, I found Jacques Pepin's La Technique as I was cleaning out the storeroom one day, and I just got lost in this book. Chef Pepin helped me expound on my base knowledge, taught me to refine my techniques and understandings. Then I found La Methode in another box, and down another rabbit hole I went. This was the weirdest place at the weirdest time to have the big revelations of my cooking career, but that's how shit happens, right?
The most important moment came when I picked up The Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rodgers — a rock was thrown through my windowpane, letting in a voice that spoke to my restless soul, one that was courageous and knowledgeable. She had fundamental philosophies that challenged my understandings of what was considered the right way to cook. Judy taught me to love the essence of food and ingredients; it was as simple as her teaching me to let go of fundamental cooking rules such as skimming stocks and seasoning only right before searing meat.
Just take one look at her salting principles — try seasoning hours, even a day, in advance for the salt to penetrate the meat, for example — and you'll get a glimpse of what I'm talking about.
Fergus Henderson's Nose to Tail Eating also spoke to me, made me believe in my cooking. Forget measuring, just take a handful of this or that, he writes, or make sure your guests are in a good mood before serving spleen. He says it's done, probably, when you think it's done. This book is how cooks really cook: from the heart, cooking a heart, and with a little tongue-in-cheek while cooking tongue or braising cheeks.
After cooking for almost 15 years, cookbooks for me still hold stories and gifts, trapped like butterflies that flutter their thousand wings into your consciousness only when opened. It's going beyond the line-by-line to find what's hidden between the lines and absorbing a chef's or writer's philosophies to bring the essence of the recipes to life that inspires me to cook and find flavors.
I still am a cookbook whore, and I know I'm not the only one. Any cook worth his weight in gold will have two things: his own book collection and his knives. If I look at my bookshelf, I see books by Eric Ripert, Mario Batali, Harold McGee, Anthony Bourdain, Nobu, Ferran Adria, Thomas Keller, Marcus Samuelsson, Paula Wolfert, Joel Robuchon, even Martha Stewart. I get lost in the River Cottage books, A16, and that Michel Richard book is fucking great to look at. On my couch or in my glove compartment, there are books on the history of food and memoirs by luminaries Ruth Reichl and Patric Kuh. And I've deliberately got to end this rant with my homie Mr. Gold. There is no other who dances with words and ideas about food so well. If Kogi's tweet launched a thousand food trucks, then this man is responsible for every food blogger tumbling down their own rabbit hole into this wonderful culinary world.
Now it's my turn to take you down a rabbit hole of stories. I'm putting all my experiences throughout my travels through a meat grinder and embarking on a path to write a book. And this could only have happened here and now: It was only when I left that toque behind and reconnected with my own philosophies shaped by my own story — immigrant kid, raised in and by L.A. — that I knew something about food. I finally knew how to cook. And so the book won't have a bunch of 30-minute recipes. Just one 41-year-old recipe that took a lifetime to write.
Roy Choi is the executive chef and co-owner of A-Frame, Chego and Kogi BBQ and the executive chef of Sunny Spot and the Alibi Room. Spaghetti Junction: Riding Shotgun With an L.A. Chef, by Roy Choi with Tien Nguyen and Natasha Phan, will be released in 2013 by Anthony Bourdain Books, an imprint of Ecco Books. Follow their adventures at ridingshotgunla.com, on Twitter at @RidingShotgunLA, and on Facebook at facebook.com/RidingShotgunLA.