This time around, chef Roy Choi is actively fomenting revolution.
“I was just cooking tacos with my friends, and we were posting it on Twitter,” when he started his now-famous Korean taco truck, Kogi, in 2008. “But we became a part of a revolution,” he said, one that’s brought gourmet food trucks (and a fair number of Korean-taco knockoffs) to the streets of cities across the country.
Now he’s trying do something similar for fast food with his new chain, Loco’l (pronounced “local”). It promises to be both a love letter to the drive-through and a delicious effort to subvert the cheap, low-quality hamburger’s dominance of the American diet.
“We have a hunger crisis in Los Angeles,” Choi told a packed room in Copenhagen last year. His audience included some of the best chefs in the world, who had descended on the global culinary capital for the cooking symposium MAD. “In many parts of our city, this is how we supply our neighborhoods: liquor store, liquor store, liquor store.”
He might have said, “Fast-food restaurant, fast-food restaurant, fast-food restaurant.”
Choi suggested that to combat the problem, chefs should leverage their investors so that “for every fancy restaurant that we build, it would be a requirement to build a restaurant in the hood too.” Now he and Daniel Patterson are scouting San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, along with Crenshaw, West Adams, and Inglewood in Los Angeles, for the first two Loco’l locations, both set to open in 2015.
“I guess it’s just one of those things about projection in a way, about putting things out in the universe,” Choi said after returning from this year’s MAD. “There was no plan when I did that speech; I just had to say it.” He figured the talk would either blacklist him in the cooking world or potentially spark something. Three months later, Patterson, the chef-owner of San Francisco’s high-end Coi, called him up.
Choi and Patterson announced plans for the chain last month in Copenhagen. Loco’l “aims to supplant the fast-food chains and convenience stores that separate our youth from the taste of real food,” according to the MADFeed blog. Though Choi’s 2013 speech stood out at the Copenhagen event as a lone moment of social commentary, T Magazine called this year’s gathering “a rallying cry for social change.” Once again, Choi’s impulse—to advertise the location of his Korean taco truck on Twitter, to use his platform as a chef to address social issues—has become the zeitgeist.
It’s a nice, neat story: Chefs tackle the problems of the fast-food industry, turning their attention from white tablecloths to underserved neighborhoods, bringing critically lauded cooking to food deserts. Except that isn’t Choi’s story—or Loco’l’s. Though, when we spoke, he repeatedly referred to what’s served at fast-food restaurants as poison, it’s clear that he has a deep love and respect for burgers, fries, chicken nuggets, and shakes.
“The core of Loco’l has to strike the same nerve that Burger King, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and KFC strike, which is affordability, youthfulness, addictiveness, cultural relevance,” he said, “because the only people talking smack about fast food, a lot of times, is the people who have the privilege to not have to eat it every day.”
That tendency to lecture, he maintained, further entrenches the problem, which has more to do with marginalizing certain communities than a love of the cheeseburger. “The problem to me is not the fact that fast food is bad. It is bad in some ways, but it’s good in some ways because it’s f-----g delicious and addicting,” he said. “It’s OK to have junk food. It’s OK to do whatever—it’s OK to have a one-night stand once in a while if you want it.”
“The problem right now is that’s the only choice we have in some neighborhoods,” he continued. “It’s not OK if that’s the only choice.”
So while there will be a hamburger loaded with tofu and whole grains on the menu, those healthful ingredients are included as much to reduce costs—Choi says Loco’l will compete with chains like McDonald’s on prices—as to make a drive-through meal more nutritious.
“We can’t ever let the consumer be burdened by that,” Choi said of the tofu-y burger, a dish that’s emblematic of the still-developing menu. “That’s the real difficult kind of balance right now that we have to achieve—we aren’t trying to build a chef-driven fast-food restaurant. We’re trying to build a fast-food restaurant.” It is a restaurant where a polyglot pantry of flavors will be at Choi and Patterson’s disposal, an array of chiles, herbs, fermented ingredients, and spices layering on top of each other to make food that’s as cheap and addictive as a Quarter Pounder or McNuggets with barbecue sauce.
“I’m asking everyone to be a part of a revolution,” Choi said. “We sometimes think that revolutions are things that happen in generations before us, and it’s hard to be aware of it when it’s happening. But we are aware of it. Because I see it.” In just a short few weeks, chefs such as Ming Tsai, René Redzepi, and Tartine’s Chad Robertson (who is helping with the Loco’l hamburger bun), have said they want to get involved, and he expects the list to grow. With the world’s best chefs on board, he’s convinced that they can change fast food.
“If we can’t figure it out, then who can?” Choi asked.