Chef Roy Choi has helped redefine what American food is. He’s challenged definitions, pushed boundaries, and turned his hustle into a brand. Choi is credited helping to set off the entire food truck movement from the back of his Kogi truck on the streets of Los Angeles. The fusion of Korean flavors with Mexican delivery systems (namely, the tortilla) was a shot across the bow of conformity in the food world.
Choi, a highly trained chef, was working in professional kitchens before he left it all behind to cook for regular folks on the streets of L.A. That decision would become the inciting incident in his origin story — he’s now known as the acclaimed chef who only cares about feeding the masses. This ethos led to him throwing his culinary weight behind Locol, which hired local people in struggling neighborhoods and gave them a chance to access healthier fast food at affordable price points. So it came as no surprise that when Choi announced a TV show social justice would be front and center in his new food TV show.
We got a chance to chat with Choi about his new series on Tastemade TV and KCET, Broken Bread. The series takes a look at how our food system is failing poor and disenfranchised communities across America and profiles people fighting for better access for all. Watching each episode unfold, it’s clear that Choi truly cares about his subject matter. Talking with the chef yesterday, that passion was on full display.
You’ve always been a chef with a social conscience. It’s been part of your MO. Going back beyond Locol, your truck, Kogi, was for people on the streets. Your new show feels like a natural evolution of your life’s work of fighting for the underdog.
I think it’s something that I’ve been working towards my whole life. Before I was a chef or a cook, I was always drawn to inequalities and injustice in life. I marched a lot when I was younger. I supported non-profit organizations. I worked and volunteered when I really had no direction or purpose. When Kogi happened, it crystallized everything for me and I really became the cook of the people on the street. That just continued to lead me more towards, in a way, my destiny.
It gave me a platform to speak about these things.
So, how did Broken Bread come about?
I’ve tried to pitch a lot of shows over the last 10 years. They all revolved somewhere within the atmosphere of social issues in food, but no one was really buying it. I almost gave up, to be honest, and that’s kind of when things really happened. It was at that point where Tastemade and KCET actually approached me with a fully fleshed out show concept that was built around me that dealt with these issues. It was meant to be.
I know this is a cliché, but this a perfect example of it’s always darkest before the dawn, man.
I’m telling you! It was all ready. It was just a matter of me saying “yes.” The show was exactly what I’d been looking for my whole life. They had already greenlit the show. It was exactly what I’d been working, so it was one of those things that was really meant to be.
Hearing that this was ready to go when you came on board, how much input did you have in each episode? What was the next step in actually fleshing out the show?
Once I said yes, we went into pre-production and they had me meet with a director, James Mann. James and I really clicked. We started our pre-production meetings really just using the templates they gave me. Then, what I did, was throw on a bunch of other topics.
Then we continued to stay mindful that people may not know about our broken systems or injustices within our food system, and how that affects a larger society with larger questions about ourselves, as humans. We wanted a show that inspires ourselves and other people. It had to show that even though these problems are huge, the solutions are actually closer and smaller then they might think.
Watching the first episode and trailer, it really feels like you’re trying to cast a wide net throughout differing, or maybe diverse is a better word, American food culture.
We’re just trying to show all humans. We spend so much time dividing each other and finding differences versus finding the similarities or putting ourselves in each other’s shoes.
Whether or not you lived with a community of color living in the inner city that has no access to food, that’s not your fault. But, if you can’t ever sympathize or put yourself in that position, that’s different. Some people have to acknowledge that they somehow got the luck of the draw, whether it was your skin color or what type of wealth you were born into. And it’s how would you react that matters. How would it feel to you if you were born into a life where they were stripping all resources? Or they were flooding your communities with, basically, poison? What would you do if you had no access to healthy food and you were being targeted and killed on these streets?