Los Angeles has great weather, beautiful beaches, amazing mountains, and Hollywood glitz to spare. “We should just be happy as clams,” says Roy Choi, the chef behind the food truck Kogi. But that’s only one side of the city he calls home. Clicking through a series of slides, he explains, “In many parts of our city, this is how we supply our neighborhoods: liquor store, liquor store, liquor store.”
Choi took on an unlikely topic at this year’s MAD Symposium, a conference organized by the people behind Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant that many consider to be the best in the world. Instead of addressing the environmental impact of restaurants, cooking technology, or food waste, as others at the Danish event did, Choi had the guts to call on a crowd concerned with feeding the few to address the needs of the many.
“We have a hunger crisis in Los Angeles—straight up hunger crisis,” Choi says in his talk, “A Gateway to Feed Hunger: The Promise of Street Food.” Citing poverty rates in South L.A.—44 percent of children live in poverty, 17 percent in extreme poverty—the chef highlights the necessity of feeding the less fortunate, too.
“What if every high-caliber chef, all of us in here, told our investors as we were building restaurants, that we leveraged it, for every restaurant we would build, every fancy restaurant that we build, it would be a requirement to build a restaurant in the hood too?,” he asks.
More concretely, he tells the story of how he went from serving foodies Korean tacos to developing a restaurant called 3 Worlds Cafe at a low-performing South L.A. high school. Created with the help of students from Jefferson High School, Choi says the project is a “Living, breathing café in South Central serving fresh fruit and smoothies next to liquor stores.”
Choi’s beaten the odds before. Prior to 2008, when Kogi opened, no one was fervently seeking out food trucks. “It was a subculture for Latinos,” Choi says, noting that many people disparagingly called them “roach coaches.” But Kogi helped spawn the food truck movement, changing the way people find food (via Twitter) and eat food—restaurant-quality cooking served on the curb.
With that same providence, Choi wants to harness the potential of the fine dining community to help solve the hunger problem, so that in five years, “food deserts, just like roach coaches, will become a distant memory.”