Chef Roy Choi needs no introduction, but here goes: Choi’s famed Kogi BBQ truck opened in 2008, fusing Korean and Mexican culinary traditions into a patois of American foodstyle that has spawned a thousand imitators, but never equaled. Think dishes like kimchi quesadillas, short rib sliders, and spicy pork tacos. Choi helped revolutionize American food and accelerated the growth of food truck culture in North America, inspiring a generation of chefs to go small and mobile in the process. Countless accolades have followed, including Food & Wine Magazine’s “Best New Chef” honors in 2010.
Choi has since built a culinary empire throughout Los Angeles, with multiple restaurants and a menu collaboration with chefs Wolfgang Puck and David Chang at the Hotel Bel-Air. He’s presented at Noma chef Rene Redzepi’s MAD Food symposium in Denmark; he’s been interviewed by everyone from NPR to The New York Times; and he’s the inspiration behind Jon Favreau’s new film, Chef. Roy Choi is, quite simply, one of America’s most important chefs.
He’s also a legitimately chill dude, as Sprudge Los Angeles bureau chief Julie Wolfson found out when she sat down with Choi at CaFe, his first-ever coffee bar in The Line Hotel, a hip community hub in LA’s Koreatown neighborhood. From smoking weed to eating red bean buns to drinking emulsified sweet grain lattes, Choi lives up to his reputation as a wild and fascinating conversationalist. When Roy Choi flips off the camera, he’s flipping off convention–we think. Or maybe he’s just ready for another coffee.
What was the most fun part about the planning for CaFe at The Line?
The idea of bringing all the things I love together in one environment. I’m a freak for red bean buns, shave ice, and cappuccinos. I grew up on supermarket cakes and custard buns. I love fresh squeezed orange juice and aguas frescas. And because I’m a stoner, how can I open a bakery and not highlight the French bread pizza? I’ve always been fascinated by the energy I found in food courts in Seoul, Taiwanese bakeries in the 626, and panaderias here in LA, so it was a chance to bring them to life under one roof. The most fun though was putting the team together and watching it grow through them and our baker, Marian Mar. That’s where I find my most joy, in watching others succeed.
How did you come up with the menu of coffee drinks with pastries, pizza, hot dogs, and birthday cake?
It’s my life. I trained in French cuisine, but I was raised on this stuff in America. It’s the intersection of all my worlds: upbringing and technique.
Are there other cafes you have been to that inspired what you wanted to create with caFe?
The bottom floor of Lotte Department Center in Seoul.
The bottom floor of Mitsukoshi Department Store in Tokyo.
How did you coordinate what you are doing with caFe with the rest of the food & beverage at the Hotel?
It is actually the hub. POT restaurant gets so much attention because, shit, the name is POT. It struck a nerve. It’s the lead singer. But caFe is the drums. It keeps the beat. We imagined the whole lobby to be like a train station flow. caFe is the place you first see when you walk in and it’s the place you stare at when you’re in the hotel. It’s open almost 24 hours a day. It’s everything.
What was the process for developing the coffee drink part of the menu?
To try and give Asian flavors and baking and coffee culture the same respect that we place upon European coffee culture, baking, patisserie.
What is your personal favorite coffee drink on the menu?
Iced Misugaru Latte. It’s a latte emulsified with sweet grain powder. I feel we nailed it thanks to our work with Lamill, our partner in the coffee program.
Are you planning to add new items to the coffee or food menu?
We already do. Can’t stop, won’t stop.
Where else do you like to drink coffee in LA?
Do you think the experience of creating caFe will encourage you to open more coffee shops?
I love coffee. Actually I love cappuccinos. caFe was a necessity because it was for the hotel, so I went deep into my creative and this came up. I’m not trained in coffee, so it’s hard for me to say if I’ll do more. I do know how to create environments though. So maybe if I find the right relationships then I will. I’ve been trying to find the right way to bring to life a cafe that Evidence and Alchemist [a.k.a. the rappers behind Step Brothers] brought to me. Everyone loves breakfast. When cannabis becomes legal you can bet I’ll make a dope ass weed coffee shop for sure tho.