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Good in the ’hood

A food truck tycoon gives back.

Author Michael Kaplan

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Though Los Angeles–based chef Roy Choi is best known for his role in elevating food truck grub to gourmet fare—via his Korean-Mexican fusion Kogi trucks—the project that seems to excite him the most these days is a new fruit and juice bar manned by inner city kids in South Central L.A. Called 3 Worlds Café, it’s a nonprofit that Choi hopes will become self-sustaining.

“We want to invest in a neighborhood where only liquor stores and fast-food chains usually invest,” he says. “I want to show these kids that somebody cares about them.”

Choi confesses he wasn’t always such a stand-up guy, though. Back in 1995, he says, he was a drug addict, a gambler and a “scumbag.” As he puts it, “I was at the end of my rope.”

He may not be the first chef to have addiction problems (to wit: Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential), but his turnaround has been no less dramatic. “I was waking up from being stoned and gambling,” he remembers. “I saw Emeril Lagasse on TV, and he spoke to me. He came out of the TV, slapped me in the face and said to me, ‘Get off the couch! What are you doing with yourself, Roy?’” Then, in his drug-addled haze, Choi received a forkful of wine-braised short-rib from Lagasse before the chef retreated back into the TV.

The hallucination scared Choi straight. He enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America and scored some plum cooking jobs. Then, when a surprise layoff left him vulnerable to falling back into his old ways, a friend with a truck proposed the idea of Kogi. “I told my crew that if we parked on a particular corner, people would come,” says Choi. “It was a Field of Dreams moment. Then it all happened so quickly.”

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