Roy Choi Talks ‘Broken Bread,’ His Dreams For The Food Space, & His Biggest Contribution To Food Culture

If you’re in need of a fix for a smart food show between episodes of Padma Lakshmi’s excellent Taste The Nation you’ll be pleased to know that Roy Choi’s equally excellent series Broken Bread is back! The Emmy and James Beard Award-winning series’ second season kicked off last week on Tastemade and KCET and continues Choi’s fun but deep exploration of the people making big and important changes in the current food landscape.

Throughout the show, Choi follows the template laid out by the previous season and tackles issues specific to his hometown of Los Angeles, California. He explores the rich Latinx food scene, faces the realities of Chinatown gentrification, and traces the fight to preserve a neighborhood in Leimert Park. In the process, he also widens the scope a bit from last season — giving viewers an on-the-ground look at the street food and vibrant nightlife of Tijuana, Mexico.

Our favorite moment of the new season comes when Choi puts himself under the microscope. We’ve written often about his lofty place in the LA food scene and watching him explore the ramifications of opening a successful restaurant in a welcoming but vulnerable community is deeply intriguing. It’s an interesting self-analysis and a real testament to the show’s ability to go deep without getting so in the weeds it takes all the fun out of watching a food show.

This week, we linked up with Choi to talk about the latest season of Broken Bread as well as the importance of storytelling in the food space, and what he ultimately hopes his legacy to food culture will be. Check out the interview below and be sure to catch new episodes of Broken Bread on Tuesday nights at 8 p.m. PT on KCET and Tastemade.

How does the new season of Broken Bread differ from the last season? It seems a bit like the net has been cast wider here, the first season primarily focused on LA and while that’s still the focus it seems like you’ve zoomed out and are talking about bigger subjects now.

Yeah, absolutely. The first season was a very regional show. It was based only in LA and Orange County and really focused on the communities and the people and the organizations that were directly in my own city. In season two, we start with LA but we go up the state all throughout California and we go down to Tijuana, Mexico.

Just physically, it’s a bigger show cinematically and music-wise, and with all of the new producers and writers we brought on board. We really invested in trying to make the show bigger and better but the through-line of the show and the mission statement of the show is still the same. Finding good people doing great things against all odds and always remembering to bring things back to food because we don’t want this to be a political show. Or a show that divides people, we actually want to be a show that brings people together and hopefully can inspire people and we show that there are solutions to the problems.

We’re always going to have problems, but, I don’t know, in our world we’re like a moth to a flame. We’re so attracted to the negativity of life and proving who is right and who is wrong. Broken Bread has no sides, we’re just presenting the facts of what is happening and showing people on the ground doing something about it.

Hopefully, we can find a world and a place where we can move beyond these things. It’s a very idealistic show.

I love that aspect of it because food is such a communal celebratory practice, you don’t want to take that out of it.

Not at all, and that’s a part of the character of the show, to first set the table. First, use food as a through-line, it’s almost like checking ourselves, if we get too far off the road, food brings us back. To remember who we are, to remember that we aren’t trying to make a point, we’re not trying to be right, we’re just trying to share information and find solutions together. Food helps us do that. If things get too difficult or if the topic we’re covering is a little bit heavy, we have the food and the people who make the food or are involved in the food, and myself who works in kitchens, can bring that sense of humor into play, we can bring some light to the situation a little bit.

Speaking of checking ourselves, in addition to zooming out, this season also zoomed in and you looked inward. I’m thinking specifically about the opening of your Chinatown spot, Chego. Shout out to the Far East Plaza. This season you really grappled with the reality of what opening that food spot did to the community. Was it hard to self-analyze, was it uncomfortable or was it something you were ready for?

I think it was something I was ready for. I’ve been through a lot… even my pre-Kogi life and my post-Kogi life, I’ve been through a lot man, I’ve got my battle scars. I’ve worked — not only physically in the outside world but internally and psychologically — I’ve worked through a lot of things in my life to the point where I’m not afraid to confront things. I don’t have anything I’m trying to protect, I’m not trying to put my ego into everything and shelter it from criticism. I’m an open book, for me, I’m all about being a team player in anything and everything I’m involved with. When it comes to the show it’s always about what will make a better episode. How can we make this episode more personal, more human, more sensitive, how can we be better storytellers, how can we make the points feel more tangible to the viewers? As we were going through the process in the pre-production I just offered up my own personal story.

The way that episode started, the episode was originally concerned with the question: can you still be a gentrifier if you’re from that neighborhood? That was the first iteration of that episode. We wanted to look at this idea of gentrification and then within the communities that are being gentrified — if you’re from there can you still be a gentrifier? That was like a philosophical question. It wasn’t enough to fill an episode so we just went further and further and then I realized from that premise I have the perfect example, Chego in Chinatown.

I come from the Chinatown and Koreatown communities, I grew up there, I was raised in it. I was welcomed into the community later as an adult to open the restaurant, I went in with only good intentions. It’s a small place so it wasn’t like this grand diabolical scheme like Gru in Minions to take over the world, but it did affect the neighborhood. At first I thought I was doing something good for the neighborhood, and the result of it was the media for a couple of years had a lot of fodder and ammunition to write about these things that people love to read about. The hottest new neighborhood in town, foodie destination spot, etc and it opened the door for a lot of twenty and thirty-year-olds to start their own business. But even as someone that is connected so deeply to the streets and the struggle every single day in my life, I didn’t think that opening Chego displaced anyone, I don’t know why, those are the things I’m trying to confront in the show.

You still have barriers within your own mind, it’s really a self meditative exploration as well as a community endeavor. It’s also me just trying to show that the struggle never ends to constantly evolve and get out of your own self, even when you get to a point where you think you’ve reached a level of serenity and righteousness. You can still make mistakes, so that episode was partly selfish in the self-discovery aspect, but it was also to show how can we use that to try and find solutions for the future because the growth is not going to stop.

I unleashed a beast and now developers are coming in and building condos. It’s not going to stop because now landlords can get triple the rent but I think that it doesn’t have to continue exactly the way it has continued. Mistakes happen but can you go back and fix those and fess up to them and confront them and I think throughout the episode we found some solutions especially speaking to Sissy Trinh, and really understanding who was displaced how were they displaced and what’s continued to go on right now that’s not being covered and just to find some empathy behind it. All of that is balanced with the new vendors that are being blamed for this and hearing their stories. They’re just trying to make rent too, just trying to make everyone understand each other’s fight and then at the same time find a solution like a surcharge or an oversight committee, or a certain special tax that goes into marginalized neighborhoods that are being bulldozed or taken over. Not everything is the same in life and to me ultimately that’s what that episode is trying to say.

Not everything is the same, you can’t just go into somewhere that has history and has culture and has people and just treat it like a warehouse district that has no one. There are consequences.

Broken Bread Interview

I think that’s so important because it’s such a special area. Being someone who also grew up in LA, going over there to a place like Chego or Howlin Rays introduces you to this community where you can get so much. Fresh produce, fresh meats, fresh tea, that doesn’t really exist throughout the city as much as you’d think, certainly not in the more gentrified areas like Echo Park.

And those were the intentions back in 2013 when we opened Chego. We thought all boats can rise through this because by people flocking to Chego, maybe on their way out they can grab boba tea, or a bag of gai lan or choy sum and get some almond cookies and everyone benefits a little bit. But there were consequences. So I think that what we tried to show was that you can still have this trickle effect but you can’t just do it without considering certain pieces in-between that help the community.

We tried to create a template that can use used not just in Chinatown but Boyle heights, any community of color that is on the threat, Leimert Park, you can go to the east coast and find any equivalent neighborhood you want, any neighborhood that is in the crosshairs of development or gentrification. We’re just trying to show that it’s not just this or that, it’s not just binary, how can we find holistic solutions where growth can still happen but at the same time keep people and culture protected?

Do you have any advice for people opening restaurants? As you alluded to, a lot of time these neighborhoods are chosen because rent is cheaper and the space is easier to afford.

The thing that we tried to get to in the episode and that I still believe in is that I think the burden falls on the customer. I think the idea of having the surcharge is a first step solution, this way if you and I go to any neighborhood that is historically and culturally a community of color or a marginalized community that is on the threat of being gentrified, with people who have been there for generations in the crosshairs of being pushed out, we as customers can’t just go there because it’s the cheapest and hottest place. We have to go as customers and face is a surcharge that is added that goes to an oversight committee of fund that acts as a mediary between growth and preservation.

It’ll be community funded, everyone is involved and has skin in the game, customer, merchant, developer, organization, we’re all working together to make sure that at the stake of growth people aren’t being displaced unlawfully. If we buy a cappuccino we pay an extra dollar, or we go and get hot chicken and we pay an extra two dollars, something reasonable that could add up and be substantial. That was my first idea.

You asked what I’d say to young vendors — people will follow whatever becomes popular and whatever is right. If you have the courage or strength to do that as the hottest vendor in that neighborhood, you in your own way are going to affect change because if you stay true to it and hold the line on it people will eventually follow into that and it’ll mushroom and a create a domino effect.

Broken Bread Interview

That brings up a lot in my mind and it reminds me of the parallels between Chinese food and Mexican food in this country. Both require a lot of craft and preparation. Sometimes tacos can use braised cuts of meat, fresh tortilla, the good beans are slow-cooked, similarly Chinese food is prepared fresh and more complex than typical fast food. This food is labor and yet both are sold and expected to be cheap. A selling point for a lot of taco joints is, “how many tacos can you get for $5?” At Chinese spots it’s how much food can I get in this tray? Can you explain for people who don’t get it, why thinking these foods should be cheap is ridiculous?

Well, there is a double reason for that, one is because there is a way that Western societies view minorities. It’s been supported and written by the people that are telling stories through the English language and through a very Western or European lens. These are Columbus-sized discoveries for a lot of writers and they get written about in the context of “hey this is so exotic and amazing that I can get it for $5” never taking into considering the people who are making it, or their lives or the struggle that they had to get there.

The other part is that the people that are making this food, a lot of us come from families or neighborhoods where this is the only way we can survive. A lot of it is survival-based pricing and tactics. Again that is dictated by what the larger society is willing to pay or willing to deem our humanity at because you’ve got to consider is that these are real things that happened throughout the 70s, 80s,90s, and 2000s.

Of course, these chow mein shops or taco shops would love to charge $5 for a taco or $15-$20 for a plate of chow mein but the moment you do people stop showing up. You may have your philosophical ideas of what you think is right, but at the same time being an immigrant or from a minority family there is no safety net for you so you have to succumb to the pressures of who is coming in and you have to resort to. For a lot of people that is the $1 taco or the $4.99 chow mein. A lot of parents and our elders didn’t have the luxury of having English as a first language in many cases, and so what happens is they can’t stick up for themselves or make a case for why this should cost this much they just have to absorb all the pressure and all of the pain of it and try to make it out alive by just scraping through, just enough so they don’t lose.

Then you have other food that has the luxury of storytelling. I believe that the most powerful thing is storytelling and that’s what we’re trying to do now. My dream is that 30 years from now these items won’t be called ‘cheap eats’ anymore because a second generation is able to add the storytelling so that people can understand how much work goes into it. In order for it to be cheap, there has to be a compromise and something is always compromised, either the pay to the employee is comprised or the ingredients have to be compromised.

I don’t know if we’ll ever get to the point where Italian pasta is at, where you can charge $42 for something that costs $1 to make, and that’s all based on storytelling. ‘Handmade Nonna’s fingertips kissed from the sun on the hills of Umbria.’ Even the semantics of things like ‘first pressed olive oil,’ you can just add $10 once you say that. We don’t have that, ‘first pressed soy sauce’ storytelling. We’re trying to do that now with masa, that’s the movement in the last few years, people really understanding commodity tortillas versus heirloom corn tortillas. It still hasn’t broken through though, getting people to understand the value of that stone-ground heirloom masa vs let’s say the dried pasta that comes from Umbria that you go to Italy for and it costs like $17 bucks for a box and you turn it around on the back and it has a story that reads like a fantasy novel.

There is value in that, and I applaud the Italians for that, this is not hate at all, I’m not throwing any shade. I applaud the Italians for loving their food and loving their culture so much and having the ability to express that so that the value can come in, so they aren’t just scraping by and can actually thrive. We haven’t gotten there yet as Latinos and Asians and Ethiopians and Jamaicans, we’re still in the categories of cheap eats.

One of your greatest legacies is that you retaught foodies that low brow and high brow food can really merge to beautiful results. What would you say is your biggest contribution to food culture, what do you it to be?

That’s part of it, I think it’s all intertwined — everything that I’m trying to do. I’m not perfect but I try to make conscious decisions on what to do. I still gotta pay the bills and survive but sometimes I’ll use certain endeavors to make sure they fund things I really care about. Kogi local, Broken Bread, it’s all about access. I just want to be known as a chef that fed as many people as he could while he was here on the planet. I just want to make sure everyone can have access to delicious and nutritious affordable food and there are no barriers for them to get it.

Within that comes the merging of cultures and providing storytelling to make sure people understand, that we can’t treat our culture this way, you can’t just put us in this box, you don’t have to separate one from the other. We are all human, you can have a taco truck at your wedding, at the Emmys, but you can also do fine dining in Watts. It’s all intertwined, I just try to break down the walls we have between each other.

Broken Bread Interview