Stinky, Spicy, and Delicious: The Radical Reinvention of Asian American Food

They grew up in tough neighborhoods and trained in refined European kitchens. Now these brilliant young chefs want to show you what's really in their refrigerators.

choi2.jpgClockwise from left: Chef Roy Choi at Chego; french fries smothered in spicy Asian sauce and Mexican cheeses; buttered kimchi chow, a rice bowl topped garnished with Mexican fried pork rind and Japanese dried seaweed; diners on a typically busy night (Nancy Matsumoto)

It's a weekday night at Chego, a rice bowl joint situated next to a convenience store in a postage-stamp-sized mini-mall in West L.A. Customers line up at the register to order dishes like buttered kimchi chow, a bowl of rice topped with fiery Korean pickled cabbage, a fried egg, and red chili tofu, strewn with a colorful garnish of Mexican fried pork rind, and Japanese dried seaweed. Many customers supplement their orders with a house favorite -- a glorious mess of French fries smothered in sambal-spiked sour cream, melted cheeses, chilis, cilantro, and pickled garlic. The amped-up flavors -- salty, sticky, sweet, spicy, and addictive -- assault the senses like stoner food from a Harold and Kumar fantasy.

These loud-mouthed dishes are the inventions of Korean American chef Roy Choi, 42, who grew up in L.A. thinking he was Latino and who in 2008 ignited the food truck revolution. Kogi BBQ-To-Go, his mobile food service, delivers swaggering Korean-Mexican-American creations such as kimchi quesadillas and kalbi sliders to all corners of L.A. County. If food could talk, Choi's, just like its maker, would be dropping cheerful F-bombs right and left, uninhibited by conventional standards of taste and decorum.

Choi is part of a tsunami of rule-breaking Asian American chefs who have created a new genre of cooking in America: a robust and astonishingly creative blend that draws on Asian, Latin, and Southern foods. Its growing ranks of practitioners bring sterling chef credentials and modernist cooking techniques to bear on the foods of their forebears.

What they're making is not just "modernist" Asian cuisine. It's a type of cooking that has filtered through the multiethnic influences of their upbringings: taco stands, fast food joints, barbecue shacks, hip hop, and graffiti. Theirs is not the "fusion" cooking of the late '70s and '80's, effete creations of European-trained masters who melded cultures with delicacy and nuance. Nor is it the cooking of Nobu Matsuhisa or Martin Yan, talented newcomers who tutored America in Asian ingredients and flavor combinations. This new wave of chefs is dishing up what I call Asian Soul Food: a gutsy, high-low mash up of street food and haute cuisine, old country flavors and new-fangled cooking techniques.

The story of David Chang, owner of New York's Momofuku restaurants, is the best known. The 34-year-old Korean American was reared in Virginia and blew through the kitchens of celebrated New York chefs before turning his youthful noodle obsession into an empire built on pork: Asian braised belly and shreeded shoulder sharing the menu with Southern American shrimp and grits and collard greens. Since the 2004 opening of the East Village's Momofuku Noodle Bar, he's founded three more restaurants, a modernist bar and an outpost in Australia, and he has another planned for Toronto. He's also launched, in conjunction with McSweeney's, a quarterly food magazine called Lucky Peach, and the careers of a slew of talented newcomers.

"Asian Soul Food" can be located in the broader trend of highly trained chefs who grew bored with white tablecloth dining and began searching for historical authenticity, mixing high technique with low ingredients. "It's definitely one of the more interesting movements in food now," says Jonathan Gold, the Los Angeles Times dean of ethnic, hole-in-the-wall, anti-establishmentarian food criticism. "It's not fusion coming from the other side, chefs of European heritage making European food and putting Asian flavors in it." Instead, he says, these young Asian Americans "learned the exacting specificity of French techniques and are using it to sort of focus their Asian dishes."

Asian Soul Food chefs are all the children of immigrants, and some immigrated to America themselves at a very young age. Love of good food was universal, a way to keep the family together and maintain ties to the old country. "Most Asians grow up in a culture of food," says Choi, who was born in Korea and moved to the U.S. with his family when he was two. As a child, when he reached into the fridge for snack fixings, what he drew out were not Lunchables and a Capri drink pak, but marinated fresh vegetables, cold rice, soy sauce, sesame oil and eggs.

Even as these powerful early food memories were being laid down, these chefs also grew up attending American public schools, listening to '80s and '90s hip hop, watching TV cooking shows, and idolizing NBA superstars. "We look in the mirror and we see Americans," says Choi, who did a short stint at the Michelin-starred New York restaurant Le Bernardin after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America and before working his way up the ranks of the hospitality industry. "Our food is a reflection of that."

Even as they were becoming fluent in American popular culture, these Asian Soul Food chefs were acutely aware that their parents were sacrificing their lives--some of them by working in or running their own restaurants--to give their children a chance at becoming highly paid professionals. Chang's father got out of restaurant work, but many of his friends were restaurant owners, Chang told the Washington Post. "He would tell the chefs to take me down and have a conversation to convince me that the kitchen was no place for a kid like me."

Roy Choi first fell off the gifted-student path at 13 to experiment with drugs and run with a dangerous crowd. The people he most identified with were Spanish speaking. "I grew up in Latino neighborhoods, which is why kitchens are so comfortable for me," he explains. "My humor, my life, my rhythm, I am in my soul and my spirit Latino." He speaks kitchen Spanish with his Mexican staff, whom he calls, "mi familia," and one of his most powerful memories is of a Mexican dishwasher friend who let him in on a family tradition of buying a goat every week to skin, butcher and take to Mexicali to make birria (pit-barbecued goat).

But it was only after struggling through one year of law school that Choi was able to admit to himself, "This whole thing to please the parents is over!" and embrace his "own little private secret": he wanted to cook for a living. "No one ever fostered that," he says. "Being Asian, it wasn't even part of the conversation. It would have been like saying you wanted to strip and give blow jobs."

Even after he rose to become a hotel executive chef, first at the Embassy Suites and then as chef de cuisine for the Hilton chain, Choi's parents wondered why he couldn't get a job at the Ritz-Carlton. Instead, was recruited to become the top chef at a restaurant called Rock Sugar, the first Asian concept from the company behind the Cheesecake Factory chain. And then he hit a wall. "I just failed," he says simply, "the restaurant was too big, it became too busy, and there were these very rigid systems."

It was during this period, when no one was returning Choi's calls, that he got a call from Mark Manguera , a Filipino American friend and former colleague who had worked the front of the house at the Beverly Hilton. Manguera had a crazy idea: to put Korean barbecue in a taco and take it to the clubs after hours in a truck. Choi was desperate enough to sign on. Creating what were to become his signature Korean-Mexican dishes, he says, was both a culinary and a spiritual breakthrough moment for him.

"It was the first time I really expressed myself all the way, not trying to be a professional, not trying to please my parents." He adds "I had to let go of that fucking Asian guilt. The moment I let go of, 'I should be a doctor,' I truly soared." Now, in addition to his mobile truck business and Chego, he is executive chef and co-owner to three more L.A. area establishments and consulting chef to a Jamaican-inspired restaurant in Venice called Sunny Spot.

Next page: "Will white Americans eat this?" -- the aggressive flavors of James Syhabout's Hawker Fare

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Nancy Matsumoto is health, food, and culture writer based in New York City. She blogs at Walking & Talking and Psychology Today.

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