As mentioned in my last post, the Worlds of Flavor (WOF) street food conference was host to a smorgasbord of distinguished chefs from all over the world. Celebrity chefs like Rick Bayless, Michael Chiarello and Cat Cora put in their two cents on what they consider comfort food, and even dazzled fans with some quick fire demos of their signature recipes. Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto happened to lead the seminar I had signed up for on Japanese street food, and as to be expected, drew an overwhelming crowd. Five minutes into the session, as Morimoto began to sing karaoke, I realized I had signed up for the wrong class.
Fortunately there were four simultaneous seminars being held at various stations in the CIA Greystone kitchen. I wandered across to a smaller group of people that had formed around Roy Choi, Chef and owner of Kogi BBQ, a taco truck that operates out of Los Angeles. Choi, previously an executive chef at The Beverly Hilton, went from the top of the corporate chef ladder to working the streets of downtown LA out of his four taco trucks. Amidst all of the high profile chefs, guests and speakers at the WOF conference, Choi was the true embodiment of world street food.
As he grilled up spicy pork for his “al pastor” tacos, Choi describes how he finds inspiration in his Korean roots and from the Mexican culture that infiltrates LA. “The food of Kogi is a reflection of how I grew up and what I see everyday walking the streets of LA. Koreans and Latinos live side by side in K-Town (short for Kogi town) like bread and butter baby. The taco is a painting of my life in LA, that’s it.”
Biting into his signature Korean Short Rib taco, you can taste the authenticity of Choi’s words. Choi’s own version of a Kalbi marinade (used traditionally for Korean barbeque) yields a sweet smokiness to the beef that, in addition to the heavy marbling of fat, helps to perfectly caramelize the grilled meat. The tender slices of short rib are wrapped carefully in a hand rolled tortilla, topped with a cabbage salad and dressed with a fiery Korean chili vinaigrette. A Mexican salsa roja, toasted sesame seeds and a cilantro lime relish, aside from being final garnishes, all play a deliberate role in the canvas of flavors.
Trying to unravel the compilation of hot, sour, salty and sweet flavors, I could identify notes of sesame, citrus, chili and soy, but to do so would miss the point. Savoring street food is all about embracing the moment, and letting the sights, smells and tastes of the experience rush over you. Choi’s aim, as he describes it, “is to capture the imagination in one bite”. Indeed, Kogi’s food is not about fusing together two different cuisines, but more creating an entirely unique portrayal of the Korean-Mexican-Los Angeles culture that is “home” to Choi. To be transported to the streets of LA by biting into a taco is a feat that very few chefs can master.
Choi is motivated by his own truth, passion and spirit, and his food is a genuine reflection of the story of his life. It is refreshingly honest, and is driven not by profit, but by a yearning to connect on a deeper level to the reality of his world. His four trucks operate off of different street corners everyday, and send out “tweets” to announce where they might be at any given moment. Often, their food is served in the wee hours of the morning, where loyal fans are pulled in the direction of the truck, regardless of the neighborhood. There, local residents and regular followers commingle in the spirit of good, fast, street food that is unlike anything you can find at a good sit-down restaurant. Choi, in an effort to describe what he does, expresses his unique art this way: “We operate our life like a graffiti artist. We dirty up the street with our food, and leave before you even knew we were there. But you look up and feel our energy.”
What’s on Molly’s Menu? It depends on what’s in season, what looks and smells good at the market, and what inspires the Chef daily. Inspiration can come from the weather, an enticing bottle of wine that begs to be paired accordingly, a meal at a local restaurant, or a culinary trip across the world. Food is the medium and the canvas can be expansive or simple, so long as the flavors, textures and temperatures harmonize in a way that charms the palate. Reviving the art of cooking in your home means reconnecting with the food you eat, understanding how to distinguish the best ingredients, and learning a few fundamental techniques that can be applied to many recipes. Why be a spectator when you can immerse yourself in one of the most integral and pleasurable aspects of life?