Chef Roy Choi is a rare breed. Part food celebrity, part everyman, he's celebrated for churning out seriously good, unpretentious food. We largely have him to thank for bringing food trucks to the masses. His Kogi BBQ trucks specialize in tacos, the most famous of which is filled with Korean barbecue short rib, heightened with salsa roja made from Mexican and Korean chilies, cilantro-onion-lime relish, and chili-soy slaw.
Now he can officially call himself a food consultant and coproducer with the release of Chef, a film written and directed by Jon Favreau. If it wasn't for Choi, Favreau might not look so convincing as a chef who loses his restaurant job and starts up a food truck with the hope of regaining his inspiration and family. Short Order spoke with Choi to reveal the ins and outs of cooking on film, food trucks, and his source of creativity.
Short Order: Have you ever been involved in a movie before? What made you want to work on Chef?
Roy Choi: Not at this level. I've been around the industry, living in L.A., and the Kogi food truck feeds people in the industry all the time. Of course the project itself was appealing, bringing a chef's life to film, but I really did the project because of Jon [Favreau]. His approach and philosophy of getting it right, really going in and understanding the culture, was reason enough.
What sort of skills or techniques did Jon want to learn about cooking?
He wanted to learn about everything. That's what made the film impactful -- he didn't want to learn just how to do it, like how to just chop an onion; he wanted to immerse himself in it and go through the process and journey of how to be one with the onion. He applied that thinking to every station he worked on.
Do you think there's a difference between being a cook and a chef?
I think they go hand in hand -- you can't be a chef without being a cook. Nowadays, especially with television, you see people who have never been cooks and call themselves chefs. With Jon, I told him to forget about being a chef and to first understand how to be a cook. The difference is that you become a manager and you have to lead other people to follow your vision and cook for an audience. As a chef, you step into a whole different realm of responsibility.
What sort of edits did you make on the Chef script? Was there anything you read that made you think, That would never happen?
Jon likes to joke and say I came into it completely naive and that I red-lined the whole script. But I only know how to approach things with honesty. I did red-line a lot of stuff; an example is the scene where Jon goes to a farmers' market in a chef's coat and starts smelling vegetables. We never do that. But the first script I read is really the same story you see now; I just added some nuances and color, like add the right cutting board or knives or towels. Out of the whole movie, I only added one scene, and that's when John Leguizamo's character uses a baguette as a phallic piece. In real life, we have to do that whenever a baguette or salami comes into the kitchen. We're a bunch of numbskulls.
How did the film represent real food truck life?
It was so beautiful watching it. In a way, I just stepped back. The lines and the beats and the movements, [the actors] dancing and fist-bumping was so natural. It was an energy that was real, and the space contributed to it. And we were really out there, out on South Beach, out in New Orleans, out in Austin.
Do you prefer cooking in a restaurant or cooking in a truck?
I love both. It's like how some actors do Broadway and film acting. When I'm in the truck, it's the only place I want to be, and the same goes for my restaurants. All that I really want to do is feed people, and for me it's all part of that.
Do you consider yourself the inventor of the Korean barbecue taco?
Kobi is a team; we're like a band. I don't know if we invented it, but we definitely improved it and blew it up. You can look back now and see that some people were writing about it on their blogs, but we didn't know about it. Invention is a relative term when you're in your own element.
Do you have any interest in acting or doing any sort of food documentaries after your experience with Chef?
Acting? I don't know. I'm cool with cameos. I do want to work on more creative stuff in TV and film. I grew up as a really shy kid, and it took me a long time to feel comfortable knowing that I have something to say. Right now I'm just trying to write a bunch of creative stuff and, like with everything, still keep it real. If I did a show, it'd have to be something where I can be myself and I'd like to showcase the music and the friends I have here [in L.A.].
Where did you eat when you shot the scenes in Miami?
We weren't there for very long. I did make it out to Khong River House. Besides that, we ate what we cooked on set.
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Chef premieres in theaters today, May 16.
Follow Dana De Greff on Twitter @DanaDeGreff