What’s on the menu at Chego?
Very simple, like Kogi, with five to seven items, and like Kogi, it will grow weekly with the people. A few appetizers like Korean meatballs, a couple salads, and four rice bowls: a Korean lacquered pork belly, a chicken, a veggie kimchee fried rice, and steak and egg. And one dessert: I’m going to try and reinvent the Rocky Road with marshmallow cream, spicy peanut brittle, and broken-up cookies inside.
Why rice bowls?
It’s how every single Asian person eats. It’s like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to us. Get a bowl of rice, throw some Spam and some pickled vegetables on it, and go to town. When I was [learning to cook] in European kitchens, I never embraced or respected my own upbringing. Rice bowls out there in America right now … aren’t that good. It’s usually chicken with teriyaki sauce on top. I want to take it to another level. And the place we took over was actually a rice bowl restaurant called Asian Rice Grill. I had the vision for the rice bowl before that, but it was serendipitous that we ended up taking over a rice bowl restaurant.
What will you do to give rice bowls some love?
There are some fundamental principles I will break. In Asian cultures it’s sort of taboo to mix too many things or broths with rice. But I want to put a really nice broth on the bottom, the rice, really great vegetables [like] Chinese water spinach or Chinese broccoli, I want the meats to be cared for in a great way. We have a Chinese oven there, so I’m going to play around with a new version of char siu [Chinese barbecued pork], but do it with a Korean chile glaze.
Why do you go for the comfort food like tacos and rice bowls?
I was a chef for a long time, and sometimes coming up in the industry we are cooking to prove something, or searching for new techniques, in a way, to stroke our own egos. Kogi was about letting all that go and just cooking food that I would eat at home. Things regular people would eat out of their refrigerators.
So you would’ve done a much different rice bowl pre-Kogi?
I think if I tried to cook a rice bowl three years ago it would be uni with an emulsion of herbs and a lemongrass foam, and cracklings of pork, and maybe caviar on top. But I think where I am as a person now is I can just cook peasant food and be OK with it. I want people to walk out paying seven to nine bucks but having a crazy-delicious meal. If we hit it, it’s going to blow people’s minds; if not, I’m going to be a laughingstock in the industry.
What will the feel be at Chego?
If you go to [the Southern California cities of] Arcadia or Monterey Park, you go in these places, they are the size of your bedroom, they have normal basic chairs, maybe some Hello Kitty pictures pasted to the wall, hand-drawn signs—there isn’t much going on. We aren’t doing it as a gimmick, but a lot of us are Asian. We are just trying to really bring to life how we eat on a normal basis, make it a little bit fun, sexy, and cool. I don’t want to sanitize it or dumb it down; I just want to get that feeling and let people experience it. We want to do it with respect, honor, and fun.
What does the name Chego mean?
In Asian cultures we are very maternal as far as food goes. Chego is the moment when your mouth is full and they’ve been watching you like a hawk and putting more stuff in front of you, and asking you if it’s good, and you put the thumbs up. Chego means it’s so good that you just put your thumbs up and go, “Mmm.”
What do you think of the state of food in the U.S.?
We’ve got a lot of ground to cover in terms of the way we eat in America. It has nothing to do with fine dining or trying to replace it, but just trying to make great food more accessible so we can inspire people to maybe change some of their eating habits. We’re not trying to preach about it; I just want to create some sort of bridge. I want a 16-year-old kid to eat a rice bowl and be as excited about it as he would be about drinking a Red Bull or Monster. If I have to take some shit for it or be an outcast within the food industry for it, I’m cool with it. I love junk food, fast food, but I also eat a bunch of vegetables every day. Maybe from there people can start getting excited about vegetables just like the way they are excited about chips and Monsters. I don’t think that if I say these things anyone would take me seriously, but what I can do is talk to people with the food. I want food to talk to people like a bong hit talks to people. I want food to be exciting without it being exclusive.
How has it become exclusive?
In our industry, as much as food has grown—especially with culinary schools, the Food Network—we are still cooking for a very small populace. The only people eating at the restaurants are people who can afford to. As chefs we have never thought about not only the person eating there, [but] what about his gardener? The sewer man? The electrician? Your cousin, your little nephew? All those people around you in your life that aren’t foodies and don’t know what broccolini or Swiss chard is.
You do also have connections to the restaurant industry though.
I don’t know that you can just jump off the turnip truck and just start cooking like this. The 12 years I cooked in pro kitchens contributed to my ability to cook like this. I respect the industry so much and there is so much to learn and to abide by, but I think it’s a bit suffocating because we are only cooking food—if you look at real cooks and chefs there is spirit behind it—but a lot of the way we cook is dictated by a certain populace of restaurant-goers that are somewhat wealthy. Sometimes we get brainwashed to believe those things aren’t food either—the food you see a grandma cooking in a posole place is not something we aspire to be. I started Kogi to run away from the industry. From that place where I had nobody to kiss ass to, or worry whether I’d be taken seriously as a chef.
It seems like you are connecting with people via your food?
A lot of people preach “neighborhood” restaurant, but a plate of green beans is nine bucks. I think what we are trying to do may upset a lot of people because it may take away that margin and revenue, and I am trying to walk a fine line of not putting up my middle finger to the industry, but I have a connection to the people on a daily basis that shows me what we have done in the industry: We’ve failed. Let’s come together and figure out how to stop feeding the incestuous circle we’ve created and thinking that it’s the whole world eating our food.
The fact is, people want to eat this way; they would love to eat different flavors, but there are a lot of factors that don’t allow them to do that. A lot of blue-collar neighborhoods we go to, there is nothing good to eat. You are conditioned and forced to compromise every day. And also our industry, it’s our fault for creating a barrier for people to approach food. It was good for a while, it was great, we had a great run, a lot of restaurants made a lot of money, chefs became famous, but that shit is done, fuck it. Let’s go to our purpose as cooks: to feed people.
Photograph of Roy Choi by Eric Shin