Roy Choi Talks 'Personal' New TV Show, Social Justice, and Facing His Critics
We sat down with the legendary Kogi chef, whose new public-television show, Broken Bread, tells brutal stories as it discusses the redemptive power of food.
The Los Angeles that’s portrayed in the first episode of Kogi chef Roy Choi’s new Broken Bread television show has a strikingly bleak side. Broken Bread is about how food can be a catalyst for societal change, and there are many inspiring stories, but there’s also darkness, grittiness, and ugliness here.
“L.A. is an imperfect paradise,” mayor Eric Garcetti says at the beginning of the first episode. “We have highs that seem higher than anywhere else in the world, but we know there’s some people that are left behind.”
Broken Bread, which will premiere May 15 on KCET in Southern California and also on the Tastemade TV streaming channel, wants to shine a light on those who can’t shine a light on themselves. So you see housing projects and homeless camps. The first episode is titled “Transformation,” but it’s also a reminder that redemption always comes with the possibility of relapse. There’s a powerful scene in which pizza-shop owner Mar Diego talks to a strung-out, perhaps suicidal employee. Later, Choi asks Diego, an ex-con who hires at-risk youth at Dough Girl in Lake Balboa, if she’s ever lost any of her employees.
“Yeah,” she replies matter-of-factly. “Died on drugs? Yeah.”
Last week, I talked to Choi, who’s battled addiction to drugs, alcohol, and gambling himself, about the six-episode Broken Bread. He spoke provocatively about his battles for those on the margins, but he never raised his voice, even when he discussed things that upset him. He spoke calmly and took time to work through his answers. He was at Tastemade to do press for his show, so he introduced me to Diego as well as Jose Mejia of The Vegan Hooligans, a pop-up restaurant that will be featured in the May 29 episode about plant-based dining and climate change. Choi mentioned that he enjoys eating meat-free food for many of his meals, but he doesn’t like to put boundaries around anything. When the moment is right, he’s still a man who will gnaw on a galbi bone.
Choi knows that life is about complexity and contradictions. So I started by asking him why he wanted to show unglamorous elements of the city he loves so much. Below are highlights of our conversation, which included a deep discussion about Locol, Choi’s restaurant in Watts that will be featured in a June 19 episode. That restaurant closed after running out of money, but, as Choi is here to tell you, Locol is a movement that’s still breathing.
Food & Wine: A lot of what’s in the first episode is ugly. Why did you want to show these things?
Choi: I don’t think it was to show it for shock value. What was important for Broken Bread to do was show real life. A lot of times in television, you don’t get the opportunity to show real life because we’re brainwashed to believe the propaganda that these things aren’t marketable, that these things don’t sell.
So Broken Bread … I want to put this to you right, Andy, because it is really fucking hard to get a television show in this world. And I don’t take what I’m going through right now lightly because I don’t know if I’ll ever get that chance again. I don’t even know if there’s going to be a second season. I don’t know if I’ll have more opportunities in TV. I’ve sat in so many pitch rooms where they love Kogi, they love me. They’re the ones that called me in, and they don’t buy the show, because it doesn’t fit into the metrics …
They probably have a character in mind and they find out that it’s not the same as ...
Yeah. So the thing is, right now I do have a TV show. Not only a TV show, but I have a TV show with public television, which I fucking love, which is to me the North Star of who we are as humans. And with a global platform, a media company like Tastemade, where I can speak to the world like I did with Kogi on Twitter. And so with that opportunity, it was like, you know what, let’s tell the truth.
Let’s go and find people on the ground that are doing something, that are trying to make a difference in the world. Let’s just hear their voice. A lot of time we don’t get to hear their point of view because they’re muffled by the larger media corporations that don’t tell the whole 360-degree story.
Episode 1 is called “Transformation.” But it’s also about relapse and how people can fall back in.
This episode was very personal for me, and I think that’s why it ultimately became the first episode, because it’s something that I went through in my life. You know, I’m an addict. But I’ve been one of the lucky ones that got spit out on the other end of addiction and has been able to find a way to funnel my addiction into something that produces nourishment.
What we try to show in “Transformation” is that things aren’t a light switch. Even if you do come out of it, you could relapse. And the systems and the society we have don’t allow any room for any failure. That shouldn’t be the case, man.
You live with the knowledge. Lots of people do. You can have a fucked-up day and walk back into the Hustler Casino and have ten bad minutes that ruin your life or at least your week. That’s still the reality of life.
It’s still the reality of life because there are not many safety nets for those that either get gobbled up by addiction or that don’t fit into what society has deemed normal. It’s not just the addiction side. You look at incarceration and our inability to truly rehabilitate people that end up falling through a system that may be designed on purpose to destroy their lives. So we cover that a little bit in the first segment of the episode with Father Boyle [of Homeboy Industries, which employs former gang members]: Maybe we got it all wrong. What if we shifted it toward an idea of love? Maybe we could start to scratch the surface at the moral arc of the universe, that maybe there’s a better way.
What you’re trying to do with Broken Bread is show how food can change the conversation a little bit.
Because it’s hard to talk about this stuff. You need some sort of lubricant, you know what I mean. [laughs] No one wants to talk about this stuff. You don’t bring this up at a party. It’s not like you go a Dodger game and turn over to the guy sitting next to you and say, “How do you feel about the unlawful criminalization of African-American young males within our community?”
Even if you’re at the most opulent buffet, you’re not talking about food waste. It’s more like, yo, I want crab legs.
We’re not set up right now to be able to have those conversations because of the propaganda and of the hierarchy that we’ve been born into. We’re made to believe that those things aren’t as bad as they are. What Broken Bread is doing is peeling away a little bit of that veil and saying, you know what, they are as bad as you were led not to believe.
But it’s OK to talk about it.
And let’s talk about it in a little bit of a poetic way. If I could be a little bit loose, in a way that Kendrick is able to talk about very deep issues but make it the hottest song in America. I’m not saying we’re going to be a Kendrick Lamar album. I’m just saying that maybe there’s a way that we can make an entertaining show that becomes very popular but that talks about really important shit.
You were filming Robert Egger at L.A. Kitchen, and then L.A. Kitchen closed.
That was a tough episode.
Usually, something like this just gets written out of a TV show. But you decided to go forward with it.
Because it’s important to tell the story. I’ve lived through it where I was the media darling of all you fucking guys when we opened Locol and then I was the butt of everyone’s jokes when we had to transition. And so, it was really important for us at Broken Bread to talk about how the world isn’t just the fucking glorification of things, that there are trials and tribulations. And whether you want to admit to those things or not, whether you want to paint the delusions of grandeur … I’m speaking rhetorically, not to Andy Wang.
You want to create the delusions of grandeur of this food world. You want to take the picture. You’re so fucking woke and conscious, but you want to take the picture of the double-double from In-N-Out and put it on on your Instagram. But you have no idea the impact of what that burger does to the world.
The Robert Egger L.A. Kitchen story arc is very true to what we’re trying to show in Broken Bread.
Let’s talk semantics. I understand why you were upset when people said Locol closed in Watts. I also see how the media saw the fact that this restaurant was open on Thursday or whatever, and now it’s not open on Saturday. Technically, it’s closed. I understand why the media reported it was closed. Why did you want to make a big deal of it?
Because that shit’s racist … Locol is a movement. It was always a movement. You guys wrote about it as a movement. The extension of that movement as a retail fast-food counter was one facet of the movement. But the movement keeps moving. Just because the first facet didn’t reach its full potential after two-and-a-half, almost three years ... we scraped and clawed and pushed our way into surviving that long in an economy and an environment that didn’t change around us.
Not one person came in and invested in Watts. No one provided jobs. The economy didn’t change for the neighborhood. We just couldn’t self-sustain the retail element of the movement. So we said, listen, we’re going to take a step back, we don’t have money left in our account. We’re not going to lie to you. I thought we were all in this together, so we’re being very transparent. We could have easily sugar-coated everything, but we’re going to tell you and give you updates every step of the way. We’re going to try to transition into some form of catering and then eventually rethink this whole model because our goal still is to provide jobs, knowledge, training, and access to the community,
And then what happened the moment we opened our mouth and tried to be transparent, all it was was, “Locol failed. Here’s why Locol failed.” What you’re doing is creating a narrative about people that don’t have access to the keyboard that you do. And you’re making an ultimate overarching decision about what is right and what is wrong. “Locol failed because of this.” No, let me rephrase the sentiment that was going around at the time: “This is why Locol failed. I have all the answers. Because I’m an educated white journalist, I have all the fucking answers to the world. This is why it failed. It’s kaput. Let’s move on.”
I don’t remember everybody that you and Daniel [Patterson] got annoyed with …
I wasn’t mad at everyone. [laughs]
I know, but there were some media who just wrote that your restaurant closed. What was wrong with that? I know that people read headlines and tweets and don’t click on the story. Why did it bother you so much when media said, “Locol in Watts closed”? Literally just those words.
Just those words. Because it hurts the momentum and the public perception of something that is already behind the eight ball to begin with. So even when it’s as docile and pedestrian as those words, you have to still understand context. You have to understand that you’re not just writing about a closed business. You’re writing about a community that has been stereotyped and pigeonholed within our public consciousness, that we’re criminals, inmates, and drug addicts, right?
You don’t think it’s ungraceful to push back at media who are just saying a restaurant closed?
All you new food media. I’ve been in the food business for 30 years, man. I’m not saying I’m an old-school guy. I’m not a get-off-my-lawn guy. I embrace the new generation. That’s all about what Kogi is ... I’ve been a part of this shit since the beginning of food blogs, man. I adapt and move.
But you guys all forget that we’re chefs. We are leaders. We call bullshit. We check your mise en place containers. We sift through the lies and the excuses and the bullshit to find out the truth. Did you really prep that? Did you really taste that? And that’s what we do. So no, I’m not ashamed.
I didn’t ask if you were ashamed. I asked if you think that it was ungraceful.
I don’t find it ungraceful because that’s the chef side of me. My graceful side, you see every single day. It’s the stuff you see when you wrote that beautiful piece on me back at Whole Foods in El Segundo and see how I take care of people. That’s the graceful side. There are many facets to the quote-unquote graceful side of me. Just because I’m a hardass and I call bullshit when I see it and I’m very direct doesn’t mean I’m ungraceful.
I’m not fighting for me. You can call me a piece of shit as much as you want. You can call me a hack. You can call me a charlatan, a one-trick-pony chef. But when you’re talking about communities that you know nothing about and that your words can hurt, that’s when I call bullshit.
I didn’t mean to turn this into a long discussion about the media. We’re talking about Locol, so I wanted to ask: You put Locol in Broken Bread because you wanted to show the quote-unquote failure but also the quote-unquote afterlife. You could have just let Locol go. Why tell the story?
Because it’s public television, because I can do it. I have the opportunity to do it. If you’re not going to do it, then why have this opportunity? I remember hearing from my good friend Evidence, the hip-hop musician, and him hearing from Atmosphere: “You’re an independent artist. If you can’t say what you need to say being an independent artist, then why be an independent artist?”
That’s why I want to show every part of every story within Broken Bread. As an independent artist within a public-television platform ... if I can’t talk about this stuff here, then I’m the fucking asshole for not taking the advantage of this opportunity, I mean I’m going to go out on a limb, for the sake of humanity.
A lot of people who’ve seen you pushing back on Twitter might think you’re the type of guy who doesn’t want to talk about failure and is deluded about it. But you discuss failure a lot. You’ve often brought it up to me in the past before I’ve asked about it. Explain the difference between how you talk about it and this other thing that upsets you.
People think that I’m being standoffish, or I don’t want to confront the truth, and I just want it to be the manicured version of what’s going on. If you’re only going off the headlines or the social-media banter, of course you’re only going to see one side of me. You’re going to see an edited, manipulated side of me.
If you’re only going to go off that or my reaction to how people write about Locol, I don’t know what to say to you. But if you’re willing to go past that, then what I can say to you is just go through all the facts, all the articles. Listen to all the things that I really say, and you’ll see that I’m not in denial. I’m actually the opposite. I’m facing reality as closely as I can every day. I’m actually talking about, not the manicured dream of what we think life is, but the reality of how things rise and fall.
I don’t know, maybe it’s so easy for me to understand that because I’m an immigrant. My parents and friends, they’re PhDs that worked as custodians, that owned their own businesses, that went bankrupt, that moved seven times, that sent their kid to Harvard, that don’t have any money for retirement. Highs and lows of life. I don’t know if it’s so easy to understand those highs and lows because I’ve been through them, or if it’s that nobody’s fucking listening to me.
This interview has been condensed.