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Roy Choi — the Korean American L.A. chef known for helping launch the modern food truck movement with his Kogi BBQ tacos and co-starring on Netflix’s The Chef Show with Jon Favreau — is returning to host the second season of his public-television series Broken Bread on Jan. 25.
Produced by Tastemade and Southern California PBS station KCET, the Emmy- and James Beard Award-winning series will focus on the future of the restaurant industry as seen through a social justice lens in its six new episodes. Special guests on the show — which airs on KCET and streams on Tastemade — will include restaurateurs Wolfgang Puck and Alice Waters, artist and activist Chuck D, and others who challenge the status quo.
“You know, this season just feels bigger,” says Choi over a Zoom call in December. “We try to focus on one topic [per episode], usually a topic that may be divisive in the world we all live in now. I thought there could be a kinder way to approach these very polarizing, important and almost terrible problems that we have. A lot of the world doesn’t want to listen to this for 30 minutes. They don’t want to have a buzz kill. So then, how do we get them to care about these really, really real issues? That people are starving, that they can’t access food, that they are being wrongfully criminalized for certain things that others are being glorified for. So the lens is food. It’s a social justice show a little bit disguised as a food show.”
Adds Choi (who serves as an executive producer of the show, along with his business partner Natasha Phan, Tastemade’s Emily Mraz and KCET’s Juan Devis), “I love public television because I can tell the truth. There are no advertisers that I have to make happy. We can just mine for the truth and put that out there. I see this as something we are giving back and as amplifying voices that aren’t amplified on many networks.”
On Broken Bread, Choi is an engaging, passionate host — an empathetic evangelist for equity in the food world, a truth seeker and a diner who sits down with his guests and eats with gusto and appreciation, whether it’s perilla leaf-wrapped dumplings at Shiku at L.A.’s Grand Central Market or caramelized pork with eggs at Vietnamese restaurant Bé Ù in East Hollywood.
“The people that we highlight on the show are people that truly are heroes to me and that I find inspiration from,” says Choi. “Our mission statement within our team is finding good people doing great things against all odds. We’re just here to highlight the people and let them tell their stories.”
The first episode — in which Puck appears, along with journalist Patricia Escárcega — explores worker exploitation and efforts to help support back-of-house undocumented restaurant staff.
Puck, sitting down with Choi at his Beverly Hills institution Spago, mourns the loss of so many small restaurants during the pandemic (“You lose the fabric of a neighborhood,” he says) and adds that given the high cost of living in Los Angeles and other big cities, “I think the wages have to change.”
Puck tells The Hollywood Reporter that he applauds shows like Broken Bread and the slew of other food TV series for putting their focus on chefs. “It has changed our culture, how chefs are perceived by the public. You know, before, being a chef was not really a profession. If you couldn’t be a car salesman, you’d go somewhere and work in the kitchen. These days, we get so many young, smart people becoming chefs and finding their passion in cooking and in life. And I think it’s really changed the way America thinks about food and our standing in the world. It’s because of television.”
Choi also speaks to Bé Ù chef Uyên Lê and her efforts to operate her restaurant on a triple bottom line of sustainability and social and economic justice. “Uyên said it in her own words, ‘I don’t know if this is sustainable, but I know that I’m doing what I want. I want to pay people fairly. I want to give them a great working environment. I want to make the prices affordable, so there is equity in who is able to eat. And I want to raise the boats for everyone. And there has to be a world where these things can exist and matter.'”
While some may call Choi’s outlook on life and business — such as running his Kogi BBQ truck in a way that channels revenues back to workers — idealism, he calls it “realism.” The series, he says, “is just trying to be a show that kind of flips the scale just enough because right now, the scales are so weighted and imbalanced. It’s like cruelty, profit, NFTs. You know, destroy everyone, be the winner at all costs.”
The second episode looks at efforts to protect biodiversity, practice regenerative agriculture and protect the right of farmers to harvest their seeds in the face of corporate control of food production.
“It’s critical for the planet that we maintain this diversity,” Waters (who appears in this episode) tells THR. “We have to know that our future is local and organic and regenerative. We have to practice that. Regenerative grown foods can actually repair our immune system, which has been destroyed by the American diet of fast food. And factory farms are destroying all the bugs and the enzymes and everything in the soil that brings health to our bodies. It’s kind of a miracle that regenerative agriculture could not only pull down carbon from the air, but could rebuild our health and bring back flavor to our diet and the beauty of seasonality. I call it a delicious revolution.”
Waters, who recently opened her first L.A. restaurant Lulu at the Hammer Museum, adds that Choi as host is “such a hospitable, communicative person. He is communicating the potential of cooking food at your own home, using local ingredients and cooking food that’s very different from what you’re usually eating. I just love that.”
Other episodes look at the erasure of Latino neighborhoods to make way for Dodger Stadium in the 1950s, which “leads into the dying art of tortilla making, gentrification, health and wellness and preserving the Latinx of food culture,” says Choi. A look at gentrification in L.A.’s historically Black Leimert Park neighborhood asks, “Are we in danger of Leimert not being a Black neighborhood anymore in the next 10 years.” And a focus on Chinatown queries, “Can you still be a gentrifier if you are from that neighborhood? A lot of the new restaurants in Chinatown are run by second- and third-generation Asian children, and some of them are even the children of parents who had stores in Chinatown. They have taken the keys from their parents and turned them into third-wave coffee shops or a stationery shop, or an organic fair-trade boba shop, and they are also being labeled gentrifiers or being a marketing tool for real estate developers to come in and bring in higher-paying tenants,” says Choi.
“I use my own story as the backdrop,” continues Choi. “In 2013, I opened a restaurant called Chego in Chinatown. That was the start of all those young chefs and entrepreneurs coming into Chinatown, and everyone heralded it as the next big food neighborhood in Los Angeles. But as I look back, I realized it displaced a lot of people. So we go back and look at what could I have done differently, and we also interview a lot of organizations on the ground that are fighting against landlords kicking people out. A lot of what’s happening is landlords are shutting off water, shutting off electricity and basically forcing people out. These are immigrants who don’t speak English. They can’t really go to anybody. The landlords are waiting for them to basically cave.”
The final episode, airing March 1, explores Tijuana and its street food, restaurants and increasing cultural diversity. “That’s one of my favorite episodes,” says Choi. “I hadn’t been to Tijuana in probably 20 years. I haven’t seen the changes that happened in the city, everything from the violence with the cartels and then all of the bars and the tourists going away and then not coming back. And then, after 2010, the residents of Tijuana kind of taking the city back for themselves. Tijuana is changing as a city because, in the last 10 years, they have Haitians, Hondurans, Salvadorans, Africans, all coming into Tijuana that are settling there. They have decided they are just not going to take the risk of coming over to the United States. Other countries and cultures are changing the complexion and identity of the city.”
“We also go the beach and go to the border wall, and we meet the people feeding the migrants,” continues Choi. “At the end of the season, we’re at the border wall, reflecting on the power of change and the power of humanity.”
THR spoke further with Choi about his impressions of Tijuana, how he kept his Kogi truck business going through the pandemic lockdowns of 2020, and what else he’s up to, including the launch of the new flavor packet company Hi Note.
What did you eat in Tijuana?
The tacos are incredible, the produce. It’s different because it’s not just the end product of the food but the whole cultural fabric and thread of everything involved. The way they talk about growing their food, the way their farmers talk about raising their animals — it’s more spiritual. Then they are very specific. This comes from Sonora. This comes from Oaxaca. And the seafood was incredible too. I never really registered Tijuana as a seafood city. I kind of reserved that for Rosarito or Ensenada, but Tijuana is a seafood city. They love their ceviches, their mariscos, everything like that. But the tacos. We’re a taco city [here in] L.A. I’m gonna tell you the truth. After I ate tacos in Tijuana, I came back to L.A., and I ate tacos, and I almost gave up tacos. They are that good in Tijuana.
What was the vibe like in the city?
There are parts of it now that feel like Silver Lake. They have a lot of really cool coffee shops, cool food halls and boutiques, small artisan shops and flea markets. A big thing is Avenida Revolución, which is like the Hollywood Boulevard or the Times Square of Tijuana. After the cartels, everyone left. The buildings sat empty. Then finally, when they realized nobody’s coming back, they went and took them over, and there are these amazing microbreweries and coffee shops and young chefs doing pop-ups. It feels very fertile, like we’re on the cusp of Tijuana becoming one of the most important cities globally. We were able to witness the resurgence within the realm of this larger corrupt governmental situation and poverty and the migrant population and all of those things kind of coexisting. Tijuana completely blew away any stereotypes that I had out of the water. It’s one of the most exciting cities I’ve been to in a long time, and I’ve been to some good cities in the last eight, 10 years, but Tijuana is top two.
Will there be a Season 3 of Broken Bread?
I’ve gotta believe there’s momentum for a Season 3. I want to take it international. I think there’s something we unlocked with Tijuana.
What else are you up to with your food business and TV career?
I think Jon [Favreau] and I still have a few more Chef’s Show episodes we gotta film. With Kogi, we are taking our sauces to Costco, which is a big deal.
You also launched what you call a flavor company called Hi Note. What is that endeavor all about?
It’s just taking something that hasn’t really changed that much over the last four decades, which is those gravy packets from Lawry’s to McCormick. The first one was this Cheezio Pepe [seasoning mix inspired by cacio e pepe pasta, which is already sold out]. I’m all about trying to make people’s lives easier as far as cooking goes. I truly believe we as a country don’t cook enough. I don’t think we can expect people to jump from A to Z without any bridges, and I’m OK with being the stepping stone to something else. I’m all for that. It’s really about creating something where you can open it up and dump it in and have flavor. We have about five more things on deck that are going to be coming out.
How do you put the values that you have — for equity, for social justice — into your own business?
That’s what I do. Kogi doesn’t make any money. We give all our money back to our employees. We’ve been around 13 years. We’re all about our fans and our staff. We really haven’t raised our prices over the last decade too much. Really the goal of Kogi is we try to run just above, not losing money. Because Kogi, for me, is a very spiritual animal. It’s like raising a child. I never look at Kogi as something that I’m trying to maximize profits out of. People look at me, and they don’t understand. For me, as long as Kogi is healthy, then we’re healthy.
How many Kogi trucks do you currently have?
There are four trucks. Two of them are on the streets, and two of them do catering. Every single day, we’re at a studio. Today, we’re at This Is Us. We’re always at some NCIS show. We do wrap parties — all kinds of stuff.
So many restaurants and food trucks’ business suffered dramatically in 2020 during pandemic lockdowns. How did you keep Kogi trucks going?
There was a moment where we thought that Kogi was going to go under. We lost all of our catering. We lost probably 70 percent of our business. The first month of lockdown, no one was coming out to the public stops. We were basically two days away from shutting the whole thing down. That’s when — I was sitting in a parking lot — I was like, ‘Fuck it. If we are going to go down, let’s go down the Kogi way. We are going to give food away for free.’ I rallied our whole team. We got all our food and started going out and feeding people. We started posting on Twitter; if you show up at this spot and you lost your job, we are going to give you a hot meal and drink for free. Then people started hitting us up and saying, ‘How can we help? How can we donate?’ We created the model — whatever you donate will go directly to making more meals. We started multiplying the meals from 1,000 meals to 10,000 meals. I think we fed almost 100,000 people during that time, all for free. Kogi is all about giving back.
And that helped Kogi ultimately bounce back?
I believe that we put so much good karma out there in the world, we were able to keep alive. Really that was the ultimate test. Because people think that the philosophy of Kogi — some criticism of it in the past is that it’s too naïve, too idealistic. You can’t live in a world where you are just nice to people and kind to people. There’s this quote, I don’t know who said it. The more you share, the more you gain. It’s kind of counterintuitive, but I believe in that, and sometimes we lose that as we grow from kid to adult. Even as parents, we teach our children all of these ethical ideals, but then we don’t practice them as we become older. Be kind to people. Share. Don’t be mean. Love everyone. Do your best. Make sure everyone is OK. I always try to make sure Kogi stays as that beautiful childlike thing. And yeah, we got stronger because of that philosophy that we put into action. It was put to the test, and the fans rallied behind us, the online community really got behind us. It kept Kogi alive. And it kept us going until the city opened back up, and then catering opened back up, and people started going back in the streets. That kept us alive for about nine months.
Additional reporting by Evan Nicole Brown.
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