Roy Choi may have been born in Seoul, but he’s about as L.A. as they come.
The Korean tacos that put him on the map and helped launch the gourmet food truck revolution were a mashup of the Los Angeles neighborhoods he knew by heart.
The title of his 2013 memoir/cookbook is “L.A. Son.”
Choi is so L.A., if you were to cut him open, there’s a good chance smog would come rolling out — along with the sounds of Tupac’s “California Love” and a tiny agent trying to sell a screenplay while sipping celery juice and fuming about the traffic.
Since opening Best Friend at Park MGM at the end of 2018, though, he’s been crushing hard on Las Vegas. Half of Wednesday’s batch of six new installments of “The Chef Show,” the Netflix series he co-hosts with Jon Favreau, were filmed here.
“Those episodes are kind of our love letter to Vegas,” Choi says. “I just wanted to do my best to show the side of Vegas that I really love.”
Home away from home
Like most celebrity chefs with restaurants on the Strip, Choi is contractually obligated to visit Best Friend only four to six times a year.
He’s been coming two or three times a month, though, and considers Las Vegas his second home.
“I just love the vibe of Vegas, man,” he says. “I love the fact that the town is a hospitality town. Like, anyone I meet, I feel like I know them already.”
During the trips he made to Las Vegas with his family as a child, or even the poker adventures that lured him to the Strip as an adult, Choi never really appreciated the city. Now, though, he’s getting to know as many local chefs as he can and is venturing off the Strip in search of new tastes.
“Now that I have a life there, I’ve been able to separate myself from my L.A. self a little bit, and I’ve been able to see Vegas for what it is versus it just being a weekend getaway.”
A life-changing friendship
Aside from Korean barbecue and tortillas, the combination that’s had the greatest impact on Choi’s life is his friendship with Favreau.
When he was hired as a technical consultant on “Chef,” the actor-writer-director’s beloved 2014 indie film, Choi says it was “just a job.” It didn’t remain that way for long.
“As soon as we met, it was kind of love at first sight,” he says, laughing about their relationship. “We just became best of friends from the moment we met.”
On set, Choi was responsible for keeping things authentic, from how Favreau would hold his arms while preparing a dish to the way he tied his apron. He even had the power to call “cut” if a scene wasn’t working from a technical aspect. The two were inseparable for six months, from prepping the movie to the editing room, and the resulting friendship is kind of adorable.
“When you make a movie, it’s really intense. Then it all ended,” Choi says. “It was like summer camp ended, man. We just wanted to see each other again.”
They’d hang out when they could, but it just wasn’t the same.
“We weren’t redlining the RPMs on our relationship,” he adds. “We were kind of having withdrawals.”
Choi and Favreau did a series of pop-up events with El Jefe, the food truck from the movie. They considered opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant or filming a sequel. They thought about writing a cookbook and a comic book. Eventually, they settled on “The Chef Show,” a travelogue that leads them to cook in various kitchens with friends and celebrity guests.
Las Vegas’ culinary roots
The first of the new Las Vegas episodes finds Choi and Favreau in the kitchen with Wolfgang Puck at his Cut at The Venetian. The second features Border Grill founders Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger inside Mandalay Bay.
“We wanted to show kind of the first wave of the New Vegas. … Kind of go back to those days and look at what it used to be like, how they made it through and what it’s like now for them,” Choi says of the three chefs. Puck was the canary in the culinary coal mine that was Las Vegas in 1992, when he launched Spago at Caesars Palace. Border Grill opened with Mandalay Bay in 1999.
Choi considers all of them friends, and he’s been a fan of Milliken and Feniger since their days on Food Network’s “Too Hot Tamales” in the mid-’90s. His relationship with Puck, though, is special.
“Wolf is like my big brother, man. As I came onto the scene, he really opened his arms, his doors, his wisdom,” Choi says. “He never, ever made me feel like I was some intruder into this field.”
Inside look at Best Friend
The third Vegas-based episode, the one that seems like a no-brainer, is the one Choi tried his best to resist.
He and Favreau spend a half-hour inside Best Friend, going up and down the menu, preparing everything from Uni Dynamite Rice and grilled dorade with ponzu sauce to simpler dishes of grilled street corn, dumplings, street hot dogs and a fried bologna sandwich.
“That was Jon,” Choi insists of the driving force behind the episode. “If it was up to me, I probably wouldn’t have done it, ’cause I’m shy like that. … It doesn’t seem that way, because my picture’s on billboards and stuff like that. But these are things that I make concessions for personally, because I know the business needs it.”
As outgoing as he is on “The Chef Show,” Choi swears he’s an introvert.
“This was Jon really doing his part for me and saying, ‘Listen, man. Let me show the world what you do,’ ” he says of the Best Friend episode. “My natural instinct is, like, ‘I don’t want the world to know what I do.’ ”
Still, though, once the cameras were ready to roll, Choi’s instincts kicked in, and his inner showman came out to play.
“Let me show you what we’re about,” he says of his mindset at Best Friend. “Let me show you what we’re trying to do here, the respect that we have for Vegas, who we are from Los Angeles and the bridge that we’re trying to make between L.A. and Las Vegas.”
The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson. Las Vegas Sands operates The Venetian.