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American Story

Roy Choi talks Korean tacos, entrepreneurship and why he's not a fan of Thanksgiving


OUR BOY CHOI Roy Choi, father of the Korean taco, appears at Flavor Napa Valley this week in St. Helena.
  • OUR BOY CHOI Roy Choi, father of the Korean taco, appears at Flavor Napa Valley this week in St. Helena.

"Sometimes in the food world, we only talk about the pretty things," says restaurateur Roy Choi, discussing his new cookbook that topped both the Asian and Mexican cookbook lists on Amazon last week. "I wanted to create a book that felt like Milpitas."

Choi, most famous for inventing the Korean taco and igniting the food truck movement with his Kogi food-truck fleet in Los Angeles, is now shaking up the food publishing scene with a new memoir-cookbook, L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food, the first release from Anthony Bourdain's new publishing imprint. Choi appears in St. Helena as part of Flavor! Napa Valley on Nov. 23.

For L.A. Son, Choi kept three goals in mind: make it affordable, truly tell the story of L.A. immigrant life and keep it rated R. He succeeds at all three. In addition, his own personal narrative details struggles with adversity, addiction and finding his calling in life.

Choi moved from South Korea to Koreatown in Los Angeles as an infant. His parents failed at liquor store and restaurant businesses before striking gold with a jewelry business. As their wealth grew (they eventually moved into Nolan Ryan's former Orange County house), Choi struggled with his identity in SoCal's bleach-blonde suburbs.

He turned to the streets, disappearing alone for days and bumming around Hollywood, becoming the only Asian member of a Latino lowrider club and running with a crew called the Grove Street Mob. He flirted with alcohol and crack before falling to the soft touch of green felt on Indian casino card tables.

Amid Choi's troubles, there was food, recipes of which are peppered throughout the pages of L.A. Son: carne asada with the lowriders, pho and pork fried rice from casinos and some of the healing dishes from his mother's kitchen after his parents finally staged an intervention for his gambling addiction.

Choi says he wrote most of L.A. Son's personal stories between midnight and 6am, "because I had to tap into a place that was blocked off. I couldn't write about those things when other people were awake, because I would consciously think people were looking at it or concerned about it," he says. "Even if you haven't read in a while, you can read this book because it's alive. It just feels like me talking to you, right here."

This week, Choi talks at Flavor! Napa Valley, a three-day festival featuring local chefs Cindy Pawlcyn, Dario Di Conti, Tyler Rodde, Michael Chiarello and Christopher Kostow alongside high-profile visitors like Todd English, Scott Conant, Mario Carbone and Masaharu Morimoto. And while he won't be prepping for Thanksgiving dinner ("I don't believe in the lies that holiday represents," he says), he's all but guaranteed to inspire attendees with his own unique recipes—and his life story.

"I think the great part of it now, in that arc, is that it's moving further and further away from having to define it as a Korean guy doing this, and it's just becoming a story that inspires others," Choi says. "It doesn't matter where you come from or what color you are—it's just an American story."

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