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By Lisa Baertlein
Los Angeles chef Roy Choi sparked a nationwide food movement with his Kogi BBQ food trucks that peddle short rib tacos, kimchi quesadillas and other Korean/Mexican mash-ups and turned Americans’ view of the “roach coach” on its head.
Choi, 44, spent his youth wandering and eating his way through L.A.’s ethnic neighborhoods. Classical training at the Culinary Institute of America in New York ended a streak of partying and gambling. Success came quickly, with stints in kitchens from New York’s celebrated Le Bernardin to the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles.
When he was fired from a new corporate concept restaurant as the global economy went into a deep swoon, it opened the door to Kogi.
A friend came up with the idea to put Korean BBQ meat into a taco. Choi wrote in his book “L.A. Son” that working on the project showed him that he had inherited sohn-maash, or “flavors in their fingertips,” from his mother’s family.
Choi spoke with Reuters about working with inner-city youth, getting kids to eat vegetables and his ideas for ending so-called “food deserts,” which are generally areas, often in the inner city, that lack fresh and healthy food.
Q: Why did you start working with kids?
A: Kogi was a beast. This whole fame monster thing took a little bit of a toll on me. I wasn’t ready for it. I just tried to find another place for myself, so I started working in South Central (Los Angeles).
I grew up in a family where food was a central part of our lives. We had a restaurant. We had a very up and down life. We were immigrants. The one thing that always remained constant was food.
Q: What have you learned from the kids?
A: Everything that is commonplace for us as professional adults seems so far away for them. There is a real sense of existential despair that there’s nothing out there, no one cares about them, there are no resources, there are no jobs, there’s no direction.
Sometimes we don’t want to hear that. We want to place the burden back on them. They should get up and do their own thing, get up and overachieve.
The majorities in the inner cities are families and youth, who have every ability to be impressed upon. But what’s being impressed upon them is a lack of choices.
Q: You’ve said you believe food deserts don’t have to exist, how could we make that happen?
A: If you’re working (a well-paying job), going and buying a meal doesn’t seem really out of place. If you’re in the inner cities, it is impossible sometimes.
We have to really be sensitive to the fact that what we may think is real and accessible is not the same for everyone. Once we can understand that, then maybe we can start to tackle the problem.
Look what happened with food trucks. We started with one street, with one taco, with no money. It was a cash business. We didn’t ask for permission.
That same model is what I see for food deserts. If the best chefs in the world, or even not the best chefs, set up a cart, if you set up something so delicious and you start selling it and create a buzz, that buzz can help you get a storefront or a little stand. Those ripple effects will affect change.
Q: What’s the reaction you get when you feed kids vegetables?
A: They love it because I’m not lecturing them. I give them food the way they want to eat. It’s in a package they’re interested in. It’s smooshed, it’s smashed, it’s filled with flavor.
Why don’t we take the adult out of the equation for a minute. Let’s market it and produce it the same way we would an iPhone or a Red Bull.
One 14-ounce can coconut milk, shaken
¼ cup agave nectar
Juice of ¼ lime
½ cup each fresh or frozen strawberries, mango, peach and pineapple
¼ cup sliced fresh or frozen banana
23 ounces canned pineapple juice, shaken
Crushed ice (optional)
In a large bowl or pitcher, mix the coconut milk, agave nectar and lime juice.
Place the fruit in a blender and add 1 cup of the pineapple juice and 1 cup of the coconut milk mixture. Blend until smooth, adding more pineapple juice or more coconut milk until it meets your desired consistency and taste.
Add crushed ice, if you prefer.