Travis Jensen

The groundbreaking L.A. chef opens up about the next phase of his career and why New Yorkers could have a Choi restaurant in the not-so-distant future. 

Maria Yagoda
July 25, 2018

In November, Roy Choi will open his first non-Los Angeles, out-of-state restaurant venture at the Park MGM in Las Vegas. The new "multifaceted, multisensory experience” restaurant, inspired by L.A.'s Koreatown, is a test for Choi, who has long been reluctant to open a project he couldn't visit every day. If it goes well? New Yorkers, you'll reap the benefits. 

"Vegas is a baby step," Choi tells Food & Wine. He figures that since Vegas is only a 45-minute plane ride from L.A., he can visit once a month and take day trips, when necessary. Choi marvels at the chefs who have restaurants around the world that they can only visit a few times a year. 

"How do you create concepts that you only visit once a month? They're creating concepts [that] are not these personal poems, diary posts ... they’re actual businesses," says Choi. "In order for me to do New York, I have to create a restaurant like that, where it doesn’t require every bit of my DNA. There’s a formula to it to some extent."

For years, Choi, who says he's never written a business plan or "thought of being an entrepreneur," has channeled all of his energy into L.A., working on deeply personal projects like Kogi and LocoL that would be difficult to scale. Difficult, but not impossible. Choi has grand aspirations of bringing his food to people around the country. In this way, he likens himself to a jam band. (Hear him out.) 

"I’ve always wanted to cook in New York," says Choi. "I’ve always wanted to cook in Michigan for some reason; I don’t know why. And I’ve always wanted to cook along the East Coast and in the Pacific Northwest. I see when people eat my food. I'm not the best technical chef in the world. I'm like a jam band. I have true fans. Like Phish or Widespread Panic. I know when I cook what it does to everyone who eats it. And I want to share that with students in Michigan, with you guys here in New York ... I see it over and over again what it does to L.A."

We know that wherever Choi opens, he'll bring that L.A. energy.

"I want to pay homage to Los Angeles," Choi said of his Vegas restaurant. "I want people who are from L.A. to walk by and think, 'This restaurant is for me,' to feel like someone has thought of them. I want it to feel like you’re truly in L.A., with the people and the food and the style the ideas."

Choi, who lived in New York in the late-'90s (at 96th and 2nd), has a soft spot for the city; he visits five or six times a year, and packs in a lot of eating. He was recently in the city to talk about his new partnership with KeVita, the kombucha brand. Whenever he visits, he makes a point of going "deep into the neighborhoods" (this past weekend he hit up Astoria and Flushing), returning to staple places that aren't chef-driven (say, in Koreatown), and then visiting a few hotspots (he recently checked out Shuko, Cote, and Una Pizzeria Napoletana.) 

But don't be offended if he doesn't text you when he's visiting. It's not personal. 

"Usually I try to come to New York lowkey," he says. "Sometimes my trips are three days and–I’m not bragging—there’s too many people that want to meet up."