Roy Choi is nervous. He’s about to launch his first ever television show, Broken Bread, on KCET and Tastemade…and he doesn’t know how it will be received.
“Are people going to get on that bandwagon of like, Who is he to cover these topics?,” Choi wonders aloud. “What’s his resume? Does he have the right to talk about these social issues? Or are people going to really care? I’m really curious to see.”
First off, if you’ve been hiding under a culinary rock, Mr. Choi‘s resume is definitely not the problem. It’s grown exponentially since he first drove onto the scene in 2008 as owner of Kogi, the L.A.-based Korean taco truck that, arguably, launched a whole new era of food truck culture. Since then, he’s opened several other immobile restaurants: A-Frame, Chego, Locol, and (the former) Pot Cafe and Commissary at the Line Hotel, all in Los Angeles. Just last month his new restaurant Best Friend opened to critical acclaim in the new Park MGM in Las Vegas, coinciding with Lady Gaga’s residence there (how’s that for catching the zeitgeist?).
Indeed, the stars are most certainly shining upon him, as well as beside him, as he has successfully taken his rightful place on the Strip’s glittering celeb chef row. Television, naturally, had to follow.
But, speaking to the other side of Choi’s CV – as an activist and regular volunteer for local non-profits – this will not be your average celeb-chef show. More Parts Unknown than Top Chef, there will be no hard-won competitions, no battles over how to ingeniously incorporate cilantro into a dish or masterfully serve a hungry crowd from a food truck (all of which Choi has done, by the way). Broken Bread is just Choi, chef, entrepreneur, activist, moving through the streets of his city, exploring issues that are meaningful to him, and putting a well-deserved spotlight on people making a real impact in their communities.
“We don’t glorify people on the ground doing this really, really hard work,” says Choi, “I wanted to really explore that and what motivates them. How do they get up every day when there is no camera and nobody is paying attention except for the people they take care of? To put that on mainstream television and not have it sanitized, and be able to be myself and speak to the world about it – I couldn’t turn that down.”
In Broken Bread’s premiere episode, Choi speaks to Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries, and Mar Diego who runs Dough Girl pizza shop in Van Nuys. Vega hires teens struggling to get off the streets and has spent her own resources to put up several of her young employees in an apartment, so they have a safe place to live.
“We really made a point to get the kids’ voices on there too,” says Choi of talking with Diego. “These kids are struggling, but they’re just kids. You’re letting them basically live on the streets and get addicted to these opioids. We wanted to show that if you do care about people, if you do care and love and want to be a part of it, that it can be done. Even with no resources and no backing and no media spotlight, Mar is out there every single day doing it.”
Choi is no stranger to this kind of advocacy. In fact, he’s been giving a voice – and jobs – to the voiceless for a long time. Despite rising to culinary fame, he keeps his feet firmly planted on the ground. It really started with Kogi.
“I wouldn’t be able to be the same person before Kogi that I am now,” he says. “I was thrown into that environment where I had to face thousands of people on the street every night, and this energy and this love that was being transferred definitely changed me. That’s how I live my life now. I never look at it like ‘I’m The One.’ I just try to contribute how I can. Maybe I can’t be a Mar, but I can be a guy with a TV show that can [shine a light on] Mar.”
When KCET and Tastemade approached Choi with a skeleton of an idea for Broken Bread – putting a spotlight on social issues through the lens of food – it felt like the right fit, Choi says. Not only because of his commitment to giving back, but because restaurants, and specifically the kitchen, seem to be a natural springboard for second chances. The food industry has long been a place for those without hope, or for the just plain rebellious, to find a home.
“It’s probably one of the purest places as far as not discriminating or judging people,” Choi explains of working in a kitchen. “It’s like a martial arts dojo. It’s based on what you put in. A lot of us are rebellious, and a lot of us are like ‘fuck you’ to the world; but cooking is cool because for the most hard-headed of us it gives us a goal to accomplish everyday. There are a hundred pounds of onions that have to be peeled, and you can’t run away from it, you can’t shortcut it. You have to face it head-on, and that becomes like a metaphor for coping with life in many ways. The kitchen is great therapy for that.”
In true Choi fashion, Broken Bread covers a wide spectrum of topics near and dear to him, from food deserts and rehabilitation to pot politics. In another episode, Choi talks to the connoisseur of weed himself, Cheech Marin, about the origins of L.A.’s marijuana culture and how, contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t just growing on trees back in the day.
He enthuses, “To hear it from Cheech about how it really was, and what they had to do to get high…you know, that was fun.”
Find out what else Broken Bread has in store on May 15, when it premieres on KCET and Tastemade, and will be available for streaming.