Some people were just born to do what they do. Chef Roy Choi is one of those people. If you are an Angeleno, chances are you’ve met or seen Roy around L.A. at some point. The dude is out there. He lives and breathes the city’s culture and has made it his own personal mission to bring good food to the people. His book, L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food has become wildly popular and chronicles Roy’s journey into becoming one of the most influential chefs in the food industry today. A former Chef de Cuisine at the prestigious Beverly Hilton, Choi actually made a name for himself when he created Kogi – a food truck that roamed the streets of Los Angeles fusing Mexican and Korean cuisine. Many credit Roy’s Kogi truck to being one of the key sparks that ignited the food truck movement, but for Roy, it was something deeper. “I wanted to bring good food to neighborhoods that just had fast food and liquor stores. We didn’t just serve Hollywood. I wanted people from all areas to be able to enjoy something good to eat,” says the proud Choi. His restaurants, Chego!, Sunny Spot, A-Frame, and POT all carry different cuisines and influences, and Choi has used his creativity to create a unique identity for each one, giving them cult-like status among So Cal foodies. What many don’t know about the very talented Roy Choi is that he is a huge advocate and participant in cannabis culture, debunking the myth that stoners can’t be hard workers and positive influences in their communities. “Parents know that smoking weed is a huge part of the ethos behind what I do but they’re very proud of me and will introduce me to their kids as a role model,” Choi says. “That really trips me out. That’s deep. They’ll say, “My son or daughter really looks up to you, please take a picture with them.” With a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy and an open mind, Choi’s drive comes from a keen sense of wanting to bring about social change through everything he does, and that includes his love for cannabis. “My goal is to be very open about marijuana and stoner culture. In my life, I let it be a part of who I am, but I let people into it as well, to take way the negative stigmas associated with it. I’m running one of the biggest food companies on the West Coast, but I smoke weed every day. I’m just really laying that out there to show that one thing isn’t just exclusive to the other,” says the chef. His mission seems to be working, as even Hollywood has taken notice. Jon Favreau’s latest cult-classic film, “Chef” is loosely based on Choi’s career and he also served as a technical advisor for the film. “I’m older now, I don’t need to smoke weed to show off or be cool. I’m all about just taking away stereotypes, whether its food culture, Asian culture, Latino culture, Hip-Hop, culture, cannabis culture, or whatever. Just because you’re into one thing, it doesn’t define me who you are. Can I talk openly about weed and smoke weed while running a successful business and provide jobs for over 400 people in my companies? Yes!
Would you say you’re a silently a symbol for successful stoners?
No. I’m not silent, but I’m not showboating, either. The culture is sophisticated enough and people are smart enough to get my jokes. I think I take weed culture a step further to where I’m not doing the same clichéd things and if you’re really a pot smoker, you get the innuendos. There’s depth and character behind everything. Like the front of our menu, there’s a lady smoking a huge spliff. It’s comedic but it’s a real picture. We know somebody who went to Burma and snapped that. It’s real. Weed life and cooking. That’s me just having fun with everything while taking away stereotypes.
How long have you been smoking pot for?
I first smoked when I was 13. I stopped for a while since I wasn’t the most productive stoner. I always tripped on my homies who could spit bars while they were lit or cats doing windmills, drawing shit and being creative. I was never that type of stoner. When I smoked, I was in a whole other place. I would literally smoke so much weed to the point where getting up to go to the mail was a chore. I would watch something spill and just think, should I get up and clean it?
Did you ever have to stop smoking for a career opportunity?
When I became a professional, I actually stopped for a long time because I had found a career in being a chef at the Hilton Group. They randomly drug tested and all that. I’m not one to really cheat, and I never wanted to smoke and have to hide it. People fail to realize that stoners, in general, don’t want to hide the fact they smoke because they don’t feel that they’re doing anything illegal. When I grew up and the opportunity to provide for my family came from a place that was a no drug culture, I stopped smoking weed for about ten years. To me, it was just the next chapter of my life, but I did miss out on the evolution of this culture. Up until ’95, it was all skunk. We didn’t talk about strains or anything like that, and the technology has just evolved so much. It’s like I missed the legalization and now I’m back in this whole new world and its great! Do you feel like it’s more enjoyable since you took a break and came back into it? Yeah, I got back into it when Kogi began, it became like oxygen to me. I would dip out real quick, toke, and get back to work prepping, cooking, and running the streets. I knew I had a little more control. I could take a couple tokes and go back to work. For someone who was a compulsive smoker and used to smoke until I couldn’t anymore, the fact that the weed is stronger now is cool. In the beginning, it would hit me a lot faster but being older, I could still focus on the face that I had shit to do. You were able to moderate using it more. Being able to control using marijuana as an adult has been instrumental. I enjoy it more now. I’m more of a connoisseur. I can enjoy it on a level where it works for me, and I can tap into a more creative level.
Do you feel you use pot more as a tool to enhance your creativity?
I think so. I use it to tap into places to find nuances that’ll make the food better, to make the experience better. I’ll come up with an idea and I’ll go smoke on it and let it marinate. It might be flavor, presentation, or even verbiage that I’m brainstorming on, but it’s great. I’ll work, and then smoke to relax and let the high take me where it wants me to go. I’ll reflect on what I’m thinking about and it’s just great.
You really integrated your marijuana use into your whole process. What do you get out of it?
I think more people should smoke or eat weed. It’s like dreaming. It takes you away from your frontal mind and allows you to tap into other dimensions and other feelings. There’s other information out there in this universe. Whether through weed, yoga, or meditation you can tap into information beyond the cerebral. Through your spirit. Weed is one way to get there. It’s a beautiful way to get there.
Do you have any specific times where it has shown in your works?
The proof is in the pudding. Look around. Take POT, for instance. Look at the whole restaurant. Look at the concept – the influence is there, from the detail to the graphics to the names and flavors. Those are all a result of my smoking. That project is organic and intuitive. Nothing’s forced, and it’s natural. Sunny Spot is another one of my favorites, out in Venice. My core concept was dancehall, Jamaican, reggae, Jah. I was just feeling the energy from those cultural aspects, and it was a concept I saw while dreaming and smoking. The designs and concepts were all based on my pure internal perception. I almost had second thoughts and bogged myself down with reasons why I shouldn’t have done it. I’m Korean, not Jamaican, after all, and all of a sudden – I’m second-guessing myself. The weed guided me in terms of creating it. You seem to draw on your diverse upbringing and cultural knowledge to bring things to fruition.
Would you say that is one of your strengths as a businessman?
It’s one thing I do well with both cannabis and life. I seem to be able to blur the lines. Like POT for instance–there’s a lady on the cover of my menu smoking a spliff but it still can be a family restaurant. The imagery doesn’t depict anything about crime or negativity; I’m artistically sending a statement. I think Kogi is another good example of blending the genres. It’s a fresh new way to connect with each other through food, and it can be what you need it to be as a family. It’s got respect from the homies down the street in LA to areas like Diamond Bar. I feel like when people see me smoke or talk about weed, something inside of them instinctively knows they can bring their kids inside this restaurant. Some people are just exploitative and not in a tasteful way. I don’t think people get that vibe or energy from me because I truly believe that weed brings people and families together. I’m a very family-oriented person, but I don’t think shielding your kids from cannabis is something good.
Given the success of your restaurants, have you gotten any negative backlash from your peers in the industry?
No, and I think it stems from the fact that I don’t exploit it. It’s just naturally who I am. Anybody knows me knows that I wake up every morning to do my best to feed the city. They know that weed is something I bring along with me – it’s not taken out of context if that makes sense. It’s just a part of my pantry like salt and pepper. [Getting mad at me for smoking] would be the equivalent of them getting mad at me for using basil or oregano. To me, it’s cool. The acceptance and positive energy is like one more bridge to helping humans progress.
How has your career influenced your mindset?
Kitchen culture is very loose and non-judgmental. It’s a great culture. If you’re in the kitchen, in most cases, you’re not worried about fucking up your public image. The only reason you’re in the kitchen is because nothing else in the fucking world worked out for you. Word is bond on that one! So when you get there, you find camaraderie amongst similar people. There’s nothing to hide. At what point did you realize that you were successful? On the streets with Kogi was when I knew something had sparked, no doubt. I’m from L.A. so I know how things work out here so to feel the instant positive energy from the people was big. I knew it was different when we pulled up to rough neighborhoods and hundreds of people, including some of the homies, were so appreciative we were there. It bonded people. That was that moment I knew this changed.
Since you have been a weed connoisseur for so long, what differences do you see now in terms of the way society views cannabis use?
I think there is absolutely a larger acceptance and less of a social stigma with weed now. People are less worried about it. The openness has changed. Even edibles have changed things. Vape culture has changed. People aren’t just stoned now, they are more responsible and they’re just walking through life just a little tilted now. We’re definitely communicating better as people. A lot more ladies are smoking now. It’s brought a feminine gangster touch to the culture. The ladies got their game tight – bongs, paper, vape, it’s just beautiful. I’d also say that Asian culture is definitely more heavily involved in the cannabis culture now. Back then, I was the only one out of my friends.
You’re doing your part in this whole lifestyle, promoting positivity through weed and food. What drives you?
I can’t front and be anything more than I am. I’m a chef. We’re a bunch of pirates back there in the ship. We’re reliable, we go to work and all we want to do is make you happy. That’s hospitality business. It’s the nature of who I am, so for me, I could never front. It would be wrong. I work a 14-hour shift, go home, relax, and smoke some weed. I do this is because I have become self-aware and realize I have a voice. Everybody here is working for me because they want to work with me. I can make this a very positive thing.
What did you think when you were offered to host your own television series?
It’s a digital series and I thought, “let’s roll!” It premiered on October 13, 2014, and some of my guests include Jon Favreau, Anthony Bourdain, Mike D, Tokimonsta & Dumbfounded aka Parker, Dilated Peoples, Sage Vaughn, and Michelle Phan. We’re also doing a special bonus episode with The Hundreds, Animal Restaurant, and Mariscos Jalisco.
As a culinary icon and visionary, where do you see the trends in gastronomic industry 2 years from now?
Pot should be legal all around soon, so marijuana cuisine might be big. Otherwise, eating less meat and not veggies is inevitable. Do you think culinary cannabis will evolve to a respected craft versus a gimmick? I think that as it becomes legal, it will have a place just like alcohol in restaurants. In the pantheon of weed culture, there are some pretty iconic figures.
Are there any who influence you or that you look up to?
For me, I’ve been a fan of so many different iconic figures in the weed industry. Like Cheech Marin. Now, I’m a friend of Cheech! It’s crazy to meet these people, like Dilated Peoples, and Alchemist, and now were friends. To me, they’re role model weed smokers. Creative, multifaceted, top of their game weed smokers who are very sharp and witty.
What do you want your legacy to be, when all is said and done?
It’s not about wealth or success. I was always a dreamer when I was younger, and having people look up to me, I would never have imagined that. I love what I do and that’s all that matters.
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