The Austin Chronicle

L.A. Chef Roy Choi Shares a Wild Tale

By Mick Vann, March 17, 2014, 3:40pm, On the Range

Roy Choi wastes no time establishing the mission of his memoir, spelling it out on page one of the intro: “I had to…tell the story of my journey from immigrant to latchkey kid to lowrider to misfit to gambler to a chef answering his calling.”

L.A. Son: My Life. My City. My Food

Roy Choi, with Tien Nguyen, Natasha Phan

Harper/Bourdain-Ecco, 352 pp, $29.99 HB

In this memoir with recipes, Choi tell of the wild, balls-to-the-wall, ride through the back streets of L.A. and New York in his rise to become an innovative, award-winning chef-restaurateur. Through that ride he ate comfort food at every turn, and his mother’s food was always there to restore him when he reached the bottom.

Choi immigrated to L.A. at the age of two, the son of a tough, well-educated dad and a mother blessed with a culinary magic touch: sohn-mash, literally “flavor in the fingertips.” As his parents found their financial footing in their new country, he was losing his in a vortex of drugs and booze as a high-stakes gambler in secretive casinos; an obnoxious, drunken street brawler; and an (almost) crack addict. Waking up half-drunk and high on a friend’s couch one night, he locked eyes with chef Emeril Legasse on the Food Network, who telepathically convinced him he needed to be a chef. He went back to work, took cooking lessons at night, got into the CIA at Hyde Park, and had a long run in some great kitchens in New York and Los Angeles before getting fired at the economic downturn.

A chance meeting with an old Hilton chef buddy created the magic that would become the Kogi food truck, originator of the West Coast Korean taco craze. From a wasted life of self-abuse and self pity, Choi’s resurrection led to critical praise and a restaurant empire. His telling of the story, however, is irreverent, visually descriptive, profanity-lace, and funny as hell.

It’s like a Bourdain-esque re-make of a culinary Fast and Furious, filled with drunken, tattooed, doped-up Asians and cholos, with killer food at every entertaining turn. Choi’s 85 delicious recipes represent those twist and turns, from each chapter of his life, ranging from ramen soup with cheese and ketchup fried rice, to beef cheek tacos and kim chee-pork belly pupusas. Choi’s life makes a great read, and his recipes make the ideal side dish. This book’s a keeper.

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