The Choi of cooking

Food truck pioneer gives ‘Chef’ actors crash course

  • Chef-Roy-Choi-is-considered-the-father-of-th

    Chef Roy Choi is considered the father of the food truck movement.

  • Chef Roy Choi is considered the father of the food truck movement.
    Chef Roy Choi is considered the father of the food truck movement.

    Chef is Jon Favreau‘s new movie about a man, Carl Casper, who comes into his own after escaping the constraints of a restaurant. He finds freedom, ironically, in the confined space of a food truck as he embarks on a road trip and a trip of re-discovery along with his best friend and his son.

    Roy Choi, considered the father of the current food truck craze, was a consultant on the film. Mr. Choi taught the actors — Mr. Favreau, John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, and Emjay Anthony — how to work and move as though they’d been cooking in professional kitchens for decades, how to navigate the narrow space of the truck as a choreographed team.

    “My part was easy,“ Mr. Choi said in a recent phone interview. ”What Jon had to go through, he had to learn all of that and act and direct and keep the set all in one piece.”

    The movie was mostly filmed chronologically; as Mr. Choi said, it was “almost real, their learning how to cook.” He travelled along with the cast and crew to Miami, to New Orleans, and back to California, watching as his proteges grew and developed. ”Emjay, Jon, and John — all three of them were cooking, really cooking.”

    Mr. Choi hadn’t realized that the decadently tempting food in the movie might only “need to look good.” So, he expected everyone to cook “as though it was a restaurant.” Eating the abundance of food that was prepared, then, “changed the feeling on the set a little bit,” as the cast and crew built a community, a family of sorts, over their meals. The actors shared “a little bit of longing for their home towns,” Mr. Choi said. And “Scarlett (Johanssen) loved the pasta we cooked for her ... so that made me happy.”

    Chef Roy Choi, right, with the cast of ‘Chef’ — from left, Gary  Clark, Jr., John Leguizamo, Emjay Anthony, Jon Favreau, and Oliver Platt — at the premiere of the movie, directed by Favreau.
    Chef Roy Choi, right, with the cast of ‘Chef’ — from left, Gary Clark, Jr., John Leguizamo, Emjay Anthony, Jon Favreau, and Oliver Platt — at the premiere of the movie, directed by Favreau.

    There is one scene in Chef which is particularly poignant, when Carl -- who feels lost and frustrated after leaving his job, being ridiculed in a restaurant review, and having grown somewhat distant from his son -- cooks an elaborate meal, alone, in his apartment.

    A small but significant portion of the dessert, a boiled sugar brittle, is “a metaphor,” says Mr. Choi. Carl cooks a syrup, pours it out onto a tray, lets it harden, shatters it, and then sifts this dust over berries and freshly whipped cream. The character is not only passionate about the details of his work (how much easier would it have been to simply sprinkle a coarse sugar over the fruit?), but he has literally reached a breaking point in his life.

    But from those broken shards one could rebuild, making something new and beautiful and delicious.‍

    “To me, that’s the scene where he finds himself again,” Mr. Choi said. “He was working through his demons ... like a boxer punching a wall.” And Carl “came back with a roaring force,” rekindling relationships, creativity, and his own joy. 

    Contact Mary Bilyeu at or 419-724-6155 or on Twitter @foodfloozie.



    When I asked Mr. Choi for recipes to share, he said: “Pick something that speaks to you from my book“ (L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food, 2013). So I chose recipes from his autobiography that seem most emblematic of his journey and influences: Korean immigrant raised in multicultural Los Angeles; in recovery from multiple addictions; graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America after earning a degree in philosophy; founder of the food truck craze; someone who has challenged chefs to do more to address hunger issues; and a man who recommends that people ”Read more poetry.“


    Kimchi Stew

    • 8 ounces pork baby back ribs
    • 8 ounces pork belly
    • 2 tablespoons Asian sesame oil
    • 2 cups kimchi, chopped
    • 2 teaspoons minced garlic
    • 1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions
    • 3 cups pork stock, beef stock, or water
    • 1 cup water
    • half of an 8-ounce package firm tofu, cut into medium-size cubes
    • 1 cup shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and discarded
    • kosher salt

    I grew up on kimchi jjigae, or kimchi stew, and to this day it’s what gives me strength .... I hope it gives you strength, too.

    Slice the mushroom caps in half and set aside. Score the ribs with a knife and cut the pork belly into small cubes.

    Heat a large pot over high heat and add the sesame oil. Toss in the kimchi, the pork ribs, and the pork belly and caramelize them just a touch, about 3 minutes. Then add the garlic and scallions and stir just until they start to release their aroma, about 1 minute.

    Add the stock and the water. Bring everything to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer for 20 minutes. Add the tofu and shiitake mushrooms and simmer for about 10 minutes more. Season with salt to taste. Eat with rice immediately.

    Serves 4.

    Source: L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food


    My Milk Shake

    • 3 cups premium vanilla ice cream
    • 1 banana, chopped‍‍
    • 1 cup shaved ice, made by putting ice cubes in a resealable storage bag and crushing them with a can of soup or any other heavy object
    • 3 tablespoons sugar
    • microscopic pinch of Maldon sea salt (or other sea salt)
    • 2 cups whole milk
    • Frosted Flakes, crushed, and caramel sauce (optional) for garnish

    If I’m anal-retentive‍ about anything, it’s milk shakes .... I would hop the California-Nevada border late at night and hit the twenty-four-hour coffee shops in the casinos, just for a milk shake. I couldn’t wait for that frosty metal tin and dripping fluted glass.

    Pack the ice cream down into a blender. Add the banana, ice, sugar, and salt. Pour 1 cup of the milk over the top. Cover and blend everything until it’s nice and creamy.

    With the blender still going, open the top and gently add more milk until the shake gets to your desired thickness. Mine is thick but viscous and drinkable with the ice shavings as a backdrop.

    Pour the milk shake into a frozen glass and garnish with crushed Frosted Flakes and a drizzle of caramel, if you wish.

    Note: Put everything in the freezer to keep it ice cold, including the blender, blender top, and the blades, the milk, and the glass.

    Serves 4 to 6.

    Source: L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food\