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Roy Choi is having a moment eating fiery Soondubu, on CNN’s “Parts Unknown,” appearing live with Anthony Bourdain at the Pantages Theatre, releasing the cover of his upcoming memoir, “L.A. Son.” He’s already beloved by Angelenos for his Kogi BBQ truck, and the restaurants Chego, A-Frame, and Sunny Spot.
So a new chef enters the machinery of fame. Maybe he’ll succumb to its poison allure. But maybe, just maybe, he’ll sail through. It’s not just his rough roots, his street smarts, his attitude, his culinary eclecticism, his populism, his Dadaist tweets, his skills, and not even his way through and around flavors, that inspires hope. It’s the way he’s using food to think and feel in new ways about culture, high and low.
Good food with a bad boy image
Full disclosure: I was introduced to Choi because I was asked to write a bio of him for speaking engagements at ZPZ Live. But we talked about many things that don’t fit into a bio. It was oddly inspiring. “People are fascinated by the nature of who I am, but they haven’t gone all the way,” Choi said. “There’s the bad-boy image, but they’re not listening to what I’m saying all the way through. I cross worlds, and I don’t pass judgment on anyone.”
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His fame arrived through his Kogi BBQ truck, selling $2 Korean barbecue tacos, marketing via Twitter ( “the first viral eatery,” said Newsweek). At the Pantages event, when Bourdain remarked that he’d turn away a homeless person from a restaurant he ran, Choi countered that he’d proudly serve anyone “whose money was green,” according to LA Weekly. “Skaters and rappers and homeless and jobless” is how he described the young people he’s teaching to cook when he volunteers at A Place Called Home in South Central Los Angeles. The goal: Empowering them to open their own local food-based businesses.
He’s not taking them out to farms in a yellow bus to learn about “real” food. “That would just reinforce the message that they have to leave their community to be better human beings,” he said. “I want to do the reverse, to enlighten them that they are beautiful human beings, and they are responsible to making the community better.
“They look me up online and say, ‘You famous, dude? What are you doing here?’ I tell them, ‘Just because I’m famous doesn’t mean I have to change what I am.’ ”
The kids can’t cook. “You have to open their hearts. They don’t want to admit they don’t know this stuff. I tell them, you can f**k things up. Mash things together, like hip-hop, like a skate trick, you can fall down and scrape your knees. Use your swagger. Don’t listen to others,” he said. He shows them how to hold a knife, how to peel, how to heat a pan and render fat; to follow a work ethic; the core value of cleanliness.
“I teach them how to blanch and cook asparagus, but it doesn’t have to taste like white people food! Vegetables don’t discriminate. They can char it, squeeze lime over it, hit it with chilies and cilantro, and make it taste like they like to eat.
“I show them how to create a food cart, how to honor their Latin heritage, to use umami flavors, yogurt, coconut milk, a little chili and lime — to make it taste like their palate. So they know ‘my flavors are valid, my palate is valid, I can do anything I want.’ ”
He demonstrates how to “build” fried rice: “Start with aromatic vegetables, layering flavors as you go — ginger, garlic, scallions, that’s your trinity — maybe onions, bell peppers, chilies, cooking them, adding rice, cooking it through, deglazing, finishing with butter, eggs, mixing, layering.
“Even simple things like a hamburger, butter the bread all the way around, toast it completely, slow their steps down. Even if it’s just bread and a piece of meat, notice the difference in texture in toasting the bread, seasoning the meat.”
Forever food exploring
In his own cooking, Choi is exploring flavors of the Caribbean, including Jamaica, Trinidad, Puerto Rico and Cuba. He’s jumping into, of all things, Korean food, “wild sesame, and all these really pungent deep viscous flavors,” making his own fermented chili pastes.
“I’m looking for ways to really intensify vegetables, making them really simple with lots of flavor, like Korean side dishes,” he said.
So here’s a toast to Choi’s new fame: Don’t ever change, Roy, and keep changing. “Whatever I’m doing, it has nothing to do with putting anything else down. I love fine dining. It will always exist. I don’t want to squelch what is already thriving. I want to focus energy on things that aren’t existing,” he said.
Here are three fruit-based recipes that Roy Choi has taught his South Central students. When we asked Roy about the title for the last recipe, he replied, “I named it Boba Fett because of the boba (tapioca balls), which a lot of young kids drink.”
For the spice mix:
⅔ cup kosher salt
½ cup organic all natural sugar
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
2 teaspoons ground cayenne pepper
¼ cup chili powder
Mix in a bowl and store in a shaker top container with a perforated top.
For the paletas:
¼ cup frozen mango chunks
¼ cup frozen pineapple spears
Put slightly thawed but still cold fruit into a 4-ounce plastic cup, store on ice. Sprinkle fruit with ½ teaspoon spice mixture, add 1 lime wedge, serve with fork.
Coco Nuts Smoothie
For the coconut agave mixture:
3½ cups (28 fluid ounces) coconut milk (shake before opening)
3½ cups (28 fluid ounces) coconut water
½ cup organic agave nectar
Thoroughly mix and pour into pitcher and keep cold.
For the smoothies:
¼ cup each of frozen fruits (sliced strawberries, mango chunks, pineapple chunks and peach slices) thawed but still cold. (Use four different kinds of fruit to make one cup total.)
1 cup coconut/agave mixture
Place one cup of the frozen fruit mixture in blender. Pour one cup cold coconut milk/agave mixture over fruit and blend. Serve with a straw.
For the pineapple cinnamon mixture:
1 can (46 fluid ounces) pineapple juice shaken and cold
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Mix well and pour into pitcher and keep cold.
For the fruit mixture:
2 tablespoons frozen pineapple cubes
2 tablespoons frozen mango cubes
2 tablespoons frozen banana slices
2 tablespoon frozen diced strawberries
1 cup cold pineapple/cinnamon juice mixture
Spoon fruit into plastic cup. Pour one cup pineapple juice/cinnamon mixture over fruit. Serve with big boba straw.
Top photo: Roy Choi. Credit: Fridolin Schoepper
They are storied wines — the white, a Catarrato, and especially the red, a Nero d’Avola. They carry meaning from an American writer’s 50 years in Sicily, her husband’s winemaking passion, their daughter’s embrace of her agrarian roots after cosmopolitan wanderings, an inspiring student revolt and a growing international thirst for natural, indigenous wines.
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“The next morning the children and I go down with baskets to the vineyard where the red grapes grow,” wrote Mary Taylor Simeti in her 1986 memoir “On Persephone’s Island: A Sicilian Journey.” (She’s also the author of “Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-Five Centuries of Sicilian Food, and Travels with a Medieval Queen.”) Her two children, in bathing suits and rubber boots, stomped on the harvest in a plastic baby bath. The first year, the vineyard produced … vinegar.
It got better. “The white is indigenous to Sicily, dry, slightly bitter, floral, with a slight taste of almonds,” Simeti said. The red, said Tim Mortimer, operations manager of American distributor Jenny & François Selections, is “aromatic, expressive, with a floral note on the nose, acidity in balance, and a lightness rare in Nero d’Avola.”
Americans who have delighted in Simeti’s writing will soon get to experience her wine, too. Jenny & François are set to begin importing it to select stores soon.
A family passion
At Bosco Falconeria, the farm Mary and her husband Tonino took over in 1966, Nero d’Avola has been grown since 1933, when it was a strong high-alcohol “cutting wine” shipped to northern France and Germany to strengthen too-light wines. By the late ’60s, they were producing very good wines.
“We were very excited about it,” said Simeti, now 71. “It was at the beginning of the renaissance of Nero d’Avola in Italy.”
They sold it to friends and other customers in Palermo. By the ’90s, though, when it looked as if their children wouldn’t be returning, they had the local winery make the wines for them. That changed again in 2005, when their daughter Natalia, who worked in museum administration in the United States, decided with her husband and children to return to Bosco.
“She had had ever since she was tiny, a very clear sense of what she did not feel ready to face, together with the courage and determination to go after what she really wanted,” is how Mary described her then 12-year-old daughter in “On Persephone’s Island.”
The wine is organic, grown without irrigation, from indigenous varietals, made without sulfites or industrial yeasts.
“We produce less, but what we do produce is in its flavor and taste,” Simeti said. “We are making wines that are in my husband’s genes, that have been in the family for generations, and my daughter has become very passionate about it.”
This year, they’ve produced about 10 thousands bottles — about 1,500 Nero d’Avola — but they can triple capacity if the market is there.
An anti-mafia stand
The wine is pure in another way: No mafia influence. In “On Persephone’s Island,” Simeti describes mafia terrors, and the nascent brave youth-led anti-mafia movement. Since 2009, her wines have carried the “Addiopizzo” label. The Food and Drug Administration asked for information about the label, which literally means “bye-bye protection money.”
The addiopizzo movement began with a group of students in Palermo in 2004 who wanted to start a wine bar but realized the mafia would ask for their price soon enough. So they plastered Palermo with stickers on walls, light polls and phone booths that read: Un intero popolo che paga il pizzo é un popolo senza dignita. That is, “A people that pays the pizzo is a people without dignity.”
The movement now includes more than 700 firms, including 39 wine producers, who’ve signed the pledge not to pay pizzo — and to report any attempts to collect it to the police. More than 10,000 consumers have taken out memberships.
“The anti-mafia movement has come a long way in the past 30 years,” Simeti said.
Mary Taylor Simeti’s wines heading for the U.S.
And so Mary Taylor Simeti’s excellent anti-mafia natural organic Sicilian wines are coming to America. The wines should show up any week now in a few stores in selected U.S. cities. For those of us who love Simeti’s books, though, with their graceful blending of food culture and history and ancient myth and family stories, the real pleasure would be drinking a glass while reading a new Mary Taylor Simeti book.
“The farming and family life and writing all feed each other,” she said. “There are no compartments in my life. On the whole, it’s been a privileged life to write what I wanted. I’m working on a fun writing project now, about wildflowers. But I think I have at least one more serious book on the back of the stove. It may be totally scorched, but I hope I can still make it.”
Natalia and Tonino Simeti at Bosco Falconeria in Sicily. Credit: Totò Le Moli