‘The Chef Show’ star Roy Choi says as a child, his immigrant family 'cooked to bring back memories and battle homesickness'

·5 min read
Chef Roy Choi immigrated from Korea to the U.S. as a young child and says growing up in Latin communities in Los Angeles helped shape his love of Korean-Mexican fusion. (Photo: Stella Artois; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Chef Roy Choi immigrated from Korea to the U.S. as a young child and says growing up in Latin communities in Los Angeles helped shape his love of Korean-Mexican fusion. (Photo: Stella Artois; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

Because food connects us all, Yahoo Life is serving up a heaping plateful of table-talk with people who are passionate about what's on their menu in Deglazed, a series about food.

Celebrity chef Roy Choi is all about food that feels like home: simple delicious dishes that are the best in their class. Choi, who stars alongside actor Jon Favreau in The Chef Show and is credited with being one of the fathers of American food truck cuisine, believes food should be intentionally crafted and memorable, and the notion began for him practically at birth.

"Food has been an integral part of my life — my whole life — ever since I was born," the 52-year-old founder of Kogi Korean BBQ, a fleet of Korean-Mexican fusion-serving food trucks, tells Yahoo Life. "I don't think I ever even had baby food growing up. I always had aunties in my house — my house was just always in motion, whether it was pickling or fermenting or slow cooking or roasting — it never stopped."

"My whole house was like a sourdough starter, always bubbling and evolving," he adds. "I guess for me, things are always in progress or in motion, whether that's a metaphor for life or my cooking itself."

As a young child, Choi and his family immigrated to the U.S. from Korea, an experience that wasn't always easy for him. Growing up, he says fitting in was difficult, but food helped his family form bonds with others.

"Being early immigrants in this country — and for new immigrants today — it's hard sometimes to fit in," Choi shares. "You have to navigate your whole existence while being ostracized and facing racism, prejudice, misunderstandings and language barriers ... so you endure the week to get through life and pay the bills. But outside of work, you can have the weekend to be your silly self, your family self."

Choi recalls as a child, it was this silly family time revolving around food that helped him feel at home and find a true sense of belonging and community.

"One of our traditions we created here in America was going to the park every weekend to have our own little potluck picnics," he recalls. "It was a chance to be with others going through the same shared experiences and cook foods that reminded you of home."

"A lot of people think immigrants don't miss where they immigrated from, but that's not true," he continues. "So for us, we cooked to bring back those memories and battle that homesickness for where we came from. That was one thing we would always do: cook for each other."

Today, it's easy to see Choi's unique background — a Korean immigrant living in Latinx communities in Los Angeles, Calif. — has helped shape his journey as a chef.

"The taco is basically a yearbook portrait of my life," Choi says. "Korean and Mexican food were a natural expression and evolution of my immigration, because we moved to LA which is basically a Latino neighborhood. I was influenced by what was around me and mashed them together."

Choi still finds inspiration from the restaurants he grew up visiting. "My favorite restaurants growing up were not as we traditionally think of restaurants, but trucks and stands and shops within markets, or stands within markets," he shares. "Tacos, soups, stews, Koreatown, old-school hamburger joints: There's a very specific style of LA food — late night food, little 'mom and pop' restaurants, Korean restaurants, taco trucks — all melding at an intersection of foods that represent what I try to cook in my own food today."

The food Choi craves food is not necessarily elegant or complicated, but food you truly want to eat where every element is as thoughtfully prepared as it can be — a concept he's bringing to his latest project.

Choi recently partnered with Stella Artois for
Choi recently partnered with Stella Artois for "Frites Artois," a collaboration celebrating the beloved French Fry. (Photo: Stella Artois)

The Stella Artois "Frites Artois" program is a collaboration between Choi and his favorite beer. It's also a celebration of a simple-but-classic culinary delight: the beloved French fry.

"This program is perfect for me because we're talking about simple foods that I love," he says. "I love French fries. I can't eat them everyday, so when I do, I try to make sure to get the best fries I possibly can. I don't like to ruin that one moment I have with a certain food I've been craving."

To elevate the standard fry for the campaign, Choi looked to what he believes are the best of the best — fries from Belgium and France — for inspiration. The result? A immersive traveling food truck experience featuring music, art, cold beer and dressed up fries topped with everything from "spicy creamy yummy sauce" to sweet and sour sauce made with fresh Thai basil.

"I was thinking OK, if someone could only have one, single French fry, what would I want that fry to feel like? To represent?" Choi says, adding that the Stella Artois "Frites Artois" program will head to different cities around the country, each with their own unique and locally inspired take on the humble French fry.

This project is just the latest in Choi's portfolio of food experiences that aim to share his love of food through memories, culture and comfort.

"I try to cook comfort food," he says. "I like to cook food I would want to eat at a certain moment or hour of the day," he says, "or that brings back a certain feeling."

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