Several years ago, a cookbook editor friend called asking my advice on whether she should publish Jacques Pépin’s autobiography. Pepin is one of my heroes in food, I told her, but I’d pass on the book — all chef biographies tend to follow the same story arc, there’s not a lot new to be said.
Wisely she ignored me, and though “The Apprentice” turned out just as I predicted plot-wise, it was one of the bestselling cookbooks of the year. I learned two lessons from that incident: I’m a lot better off as a second-guessing journalist, and when it comes to these autobiographies, plot is secondary to character.
What brings this to mind is Roy Choi’s new book, “L.A. Son: My Life. My City. My Food.” On the surface, there is not much to connect Pépin and Choi. Pépin is the consummate old-school professional. Choi is the tattooed bad boy popularizer of the Korean taco and the food-truck craze, thanks to his Kogi truck.
But while Pepin’s autobiography was the epitome of the traditional chef’s life, it may be that Choi’s will be the same for the new generation — for those who choose a life in the kitchen (as an alternative to, say, joining a band) rather than being forced into it.
“L.A. Son,” co-written with Tien Nguyen and Natasha Phan, pops with Choi’s hip-hop verbal rhythms — and the boy does like his F-bombs, even in the recipes (there are 60, nicely chosen but they’re mainly footnotes to the main story).
There are the familiar chef autobiography milestones here — starting with a primal scene rooted in Mom’s cooking, which served as the family’s emotional anchor after they emigrated from Korea. In fact, the Chois ran a restaurant in Orange County for a time, and it is the afternoon break for family meal and the collective chore of stuffing dumplings that remains a touchstone for Choi throughout the book.
Writing about the difference between his mom’s kitchen and those of his friends in the gated Orange County community of Villa Park (where his family bought Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan’s house), Choi says: “Our house smelled like kimchi and sour soybean paste, not potpourri and potatoes. And that was okay by me: sometimes no matter how exciting a new trip can be, all you want to do is get back home, curl up with your own pillow, and sink into its comforting, familiar reality. Even if that reality consists of salted aged fish eggs and grilled pig intestines.”
But rather than apprenticing himself to a restaurant kitchen as the traditional model would have him do, Choi undertook an education of a different sort. As his parents scrambled from business to business, their hard work too often left him unsupervised, and the vacuum was filled by the predictable teenage temptations — drinking and drugging and gambling, the usual suburban bad-boy stuff told with the usual adolescent braggadocio.
Of course, when things got really bad, Choi could escape back to his family’s home in the mean cul-de-sacs of Coto de Caza. Because all of that scrambling did pay off, translating into a very comfortable parachute whenever he wound up in free fall.
It was during one of those periods that Choi experienced his culinary epiphany — via the Food Network. He woke up on the couch, foggy as usual and convinced that Emeril Lagasse was speaking directly to him.
“Emeril Lagasse wasn’t talking to the camera anymore. His eyes were looking straight at me like ----Mona Lisa. He was talking to me. … And bam, just like that, I knew. This was my destiny.”
Whatever, it worked. Choi started attending a local cooking school, impressing his parents enough that they sent him to the Culinary Institute of America — as he puts it “The Harvard of cooking schools.”
From there, his ascent was rapid. A formative externship at seafood temple Le Bernardin and then progressively better jobs working for hotel chains, until he wound up as chef de cuisine at the Beverly Hilton.
Perhaps his rise was too rapid, though — when he wound up running RockSugar, the pan-Asian fusion restaurant put together by the Cheesecake Factory gang, he just didn’t have the chops. He was fired and, desperate for work, agreed to help a friend with a harebrained experiment selling Korean tacos out of a food truck in 2009.
And there the story ends, which is frustrating but kind of typical. Throughout the book, Choi tends to cut out just when things begin to turn interesting — or maybe when they cease to fit with his image of thug-life.
It’s too bad because Kogi was more than just a new way of cooking — sloppy and exuberant and about as far from professionally polished as possible. It was also a fairly revolutionary, much cheaper way for chefs to get into the food business. And it used all of the new social media bells and whistles better than anyone else has, even today, to create a sense of a movable communal happening. It would be fascinating to understand the mix of calculation and happenstance that led to that.
Choi also leaves out his experience converting the Kogi popularity into traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants at Chego, A-Frame and Sunny Spot. What was the transition like from a one-truck operation to a multi-restaurant corporation?
And of course it would be good to know how Choi adapted. Sure, he still affects the K-Town homeboy persona, with tats, baggies and a slightly glazed presence, but the reality is that he’s a successful businessman, responsible for many employees. How does he reconcile the two?
But maybe those are subjects for the next book. After all, Choi is young, and a chef’s life is long.
Parsons is The Times’ food editor.
My Life. My City. My Food
Anthony Bourdain/Ecco: 352 pp., $29.99