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  • Aaron Salcido

    Chef Roy Choi created the Kogi taco.

Joe Mathews: Class in fusion required for California

Published: Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014 - 12:00 am

Californians have fallen in love with the recipes of Los Angeles chef Roy Choi, the man best known for creating the Korean barbecue taco.

But does California have a recipe to cook up more Roy Chois?

It’s an urgent question. Choi probably comes closer than any living Californian to embodying the skills needed by our state today. Like Steve Jobs, who could combine existing technologies to create something new and irresistible (and that you could hold in your hand), Choi has stitched together unlikely ingredients to create the iPhone of food: the Kogi taco. Such skill is sometimes called invention, but the more accurate name for it is fusion. And California runs on it.

But how to teach fusion? Ordinary schooling doesn’t do it; it breaks the world into distinct subjects. Fusion is only supposed to come up during physics class. The good news is that Choi has written a book – a combination of autobiography and cookbook – that offers some great answers. At first glance, “L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food” seems like chef self-promotion, with tons of recipes, too many expletives, and a stomach-turning tale of how he and a colleague murdered a goat in the Coachella Valley (and then transported its remains over the border to be eaten, deliciously, in Mexicali).

But, without ever acknowledging a higher purpose, the book is also the most vivid portrait of today’s California on the shelves, and it’s a handy guidebook for anyone who wants to understand what it takes to prosper here.

California often feels vast and indefinable, but Choi, who had an itinerant upbringing, understands that each town and place is distinct and rich in flavor. He is the son of two charismatic Korean immigrant hustlers who met in Los Angeles, returned briefly to Korea (where Choi was born), and came back to try whatever they could to make money. This included running a failed liquor store in Los Angeles, opening a failed restaurant in Anaheim and selling jewelry door to door. Choi’s family lived in eight places before he was 13 years old, and they spent considerable time in the car in search of fresh ingredients for his mother’s cooking (Santa Barbara for abalone, Goleta for the dandelion greens, Indio for bean sprouts and Newport piers for rock cod).

Choi went to Cal State Fullerton to study philosophy but ended up a gambling addict, a regular at the Bicycle Club and the Commerce Casino, thereby learning to multi-task. “I could talk to four different people, eat my chow fun, watch the highlights of the Dodgers game and flirt with the petite Vietnamese dealer with the big breasts,” he recalls. He learned to see himself in everyone, and the different became familiar. “I’ve always had this thing for Italians,” he writes, in a typical formulation. “And in a way, they’ve had their thing for me, too.”

The book has a great “Come to Jesus” scene (TV chef Emeril plays the role of savior), during which Choi realizes that his future lies in food, the one thing that holds his life together. And soon he is heading off to New York to study at the Culinary Institute of America, and train at Le Bernardin.

Once back in California, he cooks at a Borrego Springs resort near the Salton Sea, at an Embassy Suites in Lake Tahoe, at Hilton in Sacramento – and becomes a top chef at the Beverly Hilton. But he clashes with another chef and quits. He gets fired from a new restaurant. It’s 2008. But then a friend suggests a move into street food, and Choi creates a taco that will make him famous.

In California, when we talk about building a more prosperous future, we talk about raising test scores and whether the tax rates will discourage rich people from investing here. Choi’s story reminds us that preserving the diversity and distinctiveness of our communities and keeping this an attractive place for hustlers (like Choi’s parents) are more important goals.

I found Choi’s description of the creation of the Kogi taco to be surprisingly moving. As Choi layered ingredients in a Koreatown apartment, all the places of his life “bubbled up and started flowing through me like a tidal wave.” And then: “There it was. Los Angeles on a plate. Maybe it wasn’t everyone’s L.A., but it was mine. It was Koreatown to Melrose to Alvarado to Venice to Crenshaw crumpled into one flavor and bundled up like a gift.”

If only we all knew how to combine ingredients like that. Maybe the state could offer, as a check on the dreary Common Core State Standards Initiative, a required high school class in fusion. Roy Choi has given us the textbook.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zocalo Public Square (

Read more articles by Joe Mathews

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