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Chef Roy Choi Explores Food Activism In His New Show, 'Broken Bread'


And we're going to spend the next few minutes in the company of a culinary rock star on a mission. Roy Choi made his name as a food truck pioneer. In the early days, he prowled the streets of LA, hawking his signature Kogi. This is Korean-Mexican fusion - warm tortillas stuffed with Korean barbecue beef. Students at UCLA loved them. They totally took off. And before he knew it, Food & Wine magazine had named Choi best new chef. Roy Choi became kind of a big deal.

Now, in his new TV show "Broken Bread," Choi is exploring food activism - food as an agent of change. And he is branching way out beyond barbecue beef.


ROY CHOI: So what is this I'm looking at right here?

ANNA ROSE HOPKINS: It's an arboreal garden, so we basically foraged it.

HENRY FISCHER: A lot of this stuff is edible if you know how to use it.

CHOI: This is edible?

FISCHER: If you want it to be.

CHOI: If you want it to be?

FISCHER: Depends on how eager you are.

CHOI: OK. All right. All right.

KELLY: In that scene, Choi is holding up a pine cone, and that is before he moves on to raw jellyfish and a melon and jack rabbit salad.

Roy Choi is in our studio at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Welcome.

CHOI: Hello. That sounds pretty delicious, doesn't it?

KELLY: Really? Well, I mean, honestly, raw jellyfish - was it delicious?

CHOI: Yeah. I mean, it wasn't actually - I guess it was raw. It was made into a jelly, so...

KELLY: It was swimming right before you ate it. You scooped it (laughter) out of the water.

CHOI: Oh, I ate the raw one, too. That's right. There was a jelly one, too.

KELLY: (Laughter) It looked pretty raw.

CHOI: I did eat the raw one. That's right. It was swimming. I don't know about delicious, but it was good.

KELLY: It was edible.

CHOI: It was good enough to contemplate the future of our world and sustainability. It wasn't something where sustainability had to be spit out. It was good enough to say, wait a second; maybe we can look at something beyond pigs, chickens and cows.

KELLY: We should explain. This was all in the service of a big dinner that was being prepared, a dinner titled Nimble Foods for Climate Chaos. This is the brainchild of a pair of chefs, Henry Fischer and Anna Rose Hopkins, who run a pop-up called Hank and Bean. And they were getting ready to serve this big dinner. I mean, just give us a sense of what that menu looked like.

CHOI: It was all based around foraging and proteins that are untraditional to how we've been conditioned to eat but are very traditional to cultures around the world, so insects, crickets, jack rabbit, aloe, jellyfish, succulents, ice plants - things like that, so not really steak and mashed potatoes.

KELLY: No. And the jack rabbit that we mentioned.

CHOI: Yeah, that was really enlightening because we've been conditioned to believe that we have to eat, let's say, even 8 ounces to 24 ounces of meat, especially when we consider steak or a big pork roast or anything like that. But literally, we ate about 1 ounce of dried, cured jack rabbit. It was almost like jerky in a sense, but that was served with this beautiful melon - summer melon and herbs and a little bit of oil. And I mean, I got to tell you the truth. It filled me up more than eating a steak. And it fills you up in a very different way. Eating like that makes you feel a lot more nimble...

KELLY: Right.

CHOI: ...And a lot more connected to the Earth.

KELLY: The basic idea here, which you alluded to, is Americans have - most of us have grown up on a diet that comes from three animals - from a cow, from a chicken, from a pig - and that there's a whole lot of other stuff out there that might be better for our bodies and better for the planet. So why aren't we learning different ways to cook and eat?

CHOI: I think it's been designed for us. I'm not a scientist, and I'm sure you got a lot of scientists on NPR that can either back me up or put me down, but I don't think our bodies are designed to eat pigs, chickens and cows at the rate that we're eating them.

KELLY: I want to ask you about another thing that you explore, which is the power of cooking to save people, to rehabilitate people on the margins of society.

CHOI: Yeah.

KELLY: You interviewed the founder of a place, Dough Girl. This is a pizza place...

CHOI: Yeah.

KELLY: ...That hires and trains troubled teenagers, including teenagers struggling with addiction. And the interview you did with the founder, a woman named Mar Diego, who had served time herself, was fascinating. She talked about how the local high school wanted to shut her down because she was allowing people to use at her location.

CHOI: Yeah. The biggest thing about that is a lot of folks that don't understand addiction feel like it's a light switch. The way the high school may look at it is, like, how can you allow these kids to be on drugs? But Dough Girl's not allowing them to be on drugs. Dough Girl is understanding the process it takes to get them off drugs.


MAR DIEGO: I don't look at a kid that's strung out and be like, but let me ignore him, because if you want to give love, you have to listen and care - right? - because it all starts with a connection. How else are we going to be able to change lives if we're constantly pushing them out?

CHOI: So you're never going to get a kid off drugs if they only have one shot. And the beauty of Dough Girl is that there are many shots at it. And that's what she's doing. And a lot of people in positions of authority cannot understand that.

KELLY: It feels relevant here to mention that you struggled with addiction. You struggled with alcohol and drugs at a point in your life. And so this must feel really personal to you.

CHOI: It's very personal. And look at me as an example. Like, if people would've gave up on me and I would've gave up on myself, I wouldn't be here on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED talking on the most, you know, high-minded, intellectual thing that humans have created, you know...

KELLY: I don't know about that, but go on.


KELLY: On our better days.

CHOI: ...Trying to share knowledge. And, you know, some kid might hear this, some organization might hear this, some person might hear this and is going to change the world. You know, and you can't give up on people.

KELLY: The argument you're making is meet people where they are. Whether they're somebody struggling with addiction or a criminal record or membership in a gang - whatever it is, meet them where they are. Give them a tangible skill. Teach them to make a pizza. But it prompts the question - these are businesses you're talking about. Can they turn a profit and save the world at the same time?

CHOI: But you got to define, what is profit? Yes, a business should thrive, but it shouldn't thrive at the expense of everyone else losing. And so, yes, I feel like you can be profitable. It just means one vacation less for you as an owner, one less bonus, you know?

KELLY: What about - take profit out of the equation. How do you talk to people in your industry and convince them, take a chance on somebody who might pose a risk?

CHOI: My goal would be to just hopefully jog the memory of the people within our industry for them to remember, like, listen, man; you were there at one point. You can't just forget about where people are because the only reason you ended up here is because you couldn't fit in anywhere else. Be real about it.

KELLY: Yeah.

CHOI: As far as responsibility goes, I think love is a very powerful thing. I really do. Again, if you're only going to judge it off the system that we have and the fact that you only have one chance to fail, of course these kids or these folks getting out of the prison system aren't going to have a chance. But you got to create that chance as a business owner. We have to create the opportunity and the love for them to figure it out, and they will.

So we're trying to show you the models. We're not trying to convince you that it's the right thing to do, but we are showing you that it's not impossible. And I guess that's the purpose of the show.

KELLY: Well, Roy Choi, thank you so much for taking the time to talk.

CHOI: Thank you.

KELLY: His TV show is "Broken Bread," and it's airing locally in Los Angeles on KCET, nationally on Tastemade TV, and you can find it on the PBS app starting May 21.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.