Chef Roy Choi is having a busy 2019. The godfather of food trucks has not one but two new shows on TV. In Broken Bread on KCET, Choi travels across America talking with people on the frontlines of food as a social movement, political protest, and hard-fought livelihood. Over on Netflix, the iconic chef is keeping things much lighter — cooking with his pal, director and actor Jon Favreau, and a smattering of celebrities in the The Chef Show.
Both are essential viewing for much different reasons. Both have moments of pathos, learning, and surprising levity.
For years, Choi has been working hard to make food both accessible and executable for the average person (me and you!). In The Chef Show, he and Favreau bullshit, host friends, cook with stars, make mistakes, try again, and generally have a great time doing it all. The show isn’t afraid to be itself — that is, two really close friends going on a journey with a lot of great food and solid camaraderie and not a hell of a lot of structure. It’s a strange sort of alchemy, but it clearly works.
We caught up with Choi to talk about what The Chef Show means to him. We also ended up talking about the subtle nuances of a great bowl of fried rice and where he’d like to travel next with his dude Favreau. Let’s jump in!
Can you walk us through how you and Jon began cooking together and how that became the format for the show?
I think there really wasn’t any format. It was just ‘turn the camera on’ and see what we get. That’s really how it all developed. We just started cooking. Sometimes you don’t plan it out ahead of the time. Sometimes you just gotta jump in and do it, and that’s really how this whole show started.
We always cooked together and we wanted to pick it back up. It was just the right moment. Jon [Favreau] was doing a lot of stuff in Atlanta for Marvel and he’s like “why don’t you come out here and let me see if I just put a camera up and we go out and cook and meet with some of the cast and friends and let’s see if there’s anything there.” And that’s really how it all started. Then the more and more we filmed, the more and more we reached out to a strong caliber of guests.
How did it work with choosing the guests and how did you decide what to cook with each person?
We didn’t really have to do much. The recipe and idea were there. Each guest confirmed what we would cook and then it was just a natural conversation. Of course, the guests are extremely magnetic and in their own right. Then it just became kind of a jam session.
Jam session is a really good way to put it. I loved the camaraderie between you and Jon and how easy you guys flowed in the kitchen with rhythm and ease. How long did that take for you guys to get in that groove?
We built that while making Chef. I think from the moment we met we became very good friends. Then as we filmed the movie, we became even better friends. And then after the movie ended, I think we became life-long friends. We kind of had that spark in the relationship from the very beginning. Sometimes you’re lucky like that.
That spark comes through in the show so well. You guys are so chill with each other. I also dug how you guys show trial and error in the show when you’re making the first batch of beignets and they’re stale. It’s so rare for a food show to show trial and error or failure even.
I’m sure there are a lot of things in food shows that don’t turn out right but they either don’t make it to the screen or maybe they’ll make it in some sort of outtake or something. But that just shows the character of the show right there. They’re not really mistakes. It’s about just not being perfect or messing up or putting to much water in or this or that. That’s all just a part of cooking.
I have to ask you a personal question because I’m pretty ride-or-die for fried rice. Who’s idea was it to do a fried rice cook-off with David Chang?
That episode actually turned out really funny because it was kind of like Dave and I going down memory lane. At that time Jon wasn’t eating too much starch. So he was making a lot of cauliflower fried rice. He kind of perfected these two or three recipes which were the kimchi fried rice from my book and then this kind of salsa verde for tacos. Then he kind of combined them to make this cauliflower fried rice and wanted to show me. So we used the show as an opportunity for him to show me his cauliflower fried rice. I make the same thing with regular rice and Dave came in and made his dish.
Are there any tips you can give someone making fried rice for the first time?
As far as tips for fried rice, always use day old rice if you can and then be patient with the pan. Get the pan medium to high heat and really toast that rice.
Sometimes want you can do is treat the rice separately from the ingredients. Toast the rice and then take it out. Then start your ingredients and then put that toasted rice back in. That will really help keep it crunchy.
Once the rice is almost done and where you want it, lower your flame, add a little bit more oil or butter, and then really pat it down. Then, kinda like with paella, let the bottom really crisp up. Not burn, but crisp. Then mix that all together again. That’ll give you crispy bits all throughout your fried rice.
I always wondered about using butter in fried rice. It feels a little out of place but necessary? When I was growing up, my family always used oil and butter.
I think we stop ourselves from cooking, especially with home cooking, because we convince ourselves, “Oh, am I suppose to do that or? Maybe I’m not supposed to add butter? I only learned how to do it this way or that way…” But what we wanted to show in the show is that there are not enough people cooking in this country and you should just jump right into it and make mistakes. Put butter when there’s not supposed to be butter. Use oil when you’re supposed to use butter. Whatever, use both!
I dig that.
And keep adding stuff. That’s how you find out what tastes good. The thing is though, I see in a lot of home cooks who look for kind of affirmation or advice on something. But really what cooking comes down to is what you think is good. That’s how most chefs develop. Yes, we have a certain amount of training but, really, we just want to cook what tastes good to us too.
What cooking really is, is what’s good to you, should be good to others, hopefully. Have confidence in how wacky or crazy you may want to do it.
Right on. As much as I love talking fried rice, let’s get back to the show. Was there anywhere that you guys didn’t get to go that you wanted to go?
We didn’t go to New York City. I remember when we were originally talking, I wanted to go to New York with Jon because he grew up in New York and I’ve never been to New York with Jon.
I imagine he’d be a good guide for the Jewish delis and things like that.
Yeah! And he has an Italian side of his family from the Bronx. I’d love to do Chicago with Jon too because he spent a lot of time in Chicago when he was coming up in improv comedy. It’d be cool to get into that whole world of Second City, meet a bunch of funny people, see what they’re eating, and cook with them. So, yeah, I think Chicago and New York would be great to go to with Jon.
You can binge ‘The Chef Show’ on Netflix. Related: Jon Favreau And Roy Choi’s ‘The Chef Show’ Deftly Captures The Joy Of Friends Cooking Together