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I’ve been watching The Chef Show the last few nights while I’ve been very ill with strep throat. The strep was so bad that eating was near impossible and nothing tasted right, so watching beautiful food being made and devoured in a home kitchen (albeit an enormously souped up home kitchen) was quite soothing.
The thing about Roy Choi (the head chef on the show) though, is that an indirect personal insult everyone else in my life has gotten over, continues to gnaw at me. Perhaps I hold grudges too long. But oh who cares now.
It’s two insults, actually.
The first story goes: when Kogi Truck first became a local sensation in Los Angeles and chef Roy’s star was catapulting, there was some skepticism. But because the hype machinations felt decidedly Asian American (i.e. social media flash mobs, high-low food culture mashup, gamification), I had to respect the hustle.
My father used to run a factory in Compton where a lunch truck came through every morning to the delight of day laborers across the facility, and I know what food trucks are supposed to look, smell and sound like, and Kogi truck fit the specs from what I was hearing, and was probably good (I’ll honestly never know).
So one day, a venerated Asian American non-profit arts institution in Los Angeles, contracts Roy to cater a milestone anniversary event. This is a huge deal for everyone as both the museum (which had just culminated a huge show for a major contemporary Japanese artist) and the truck are red hot at that time. But not two weeks before the scheduled event, Roy canceled the gig because he’d been invited to cater (wait for it), Ryan Seacrest’s birthday.
I was so irate I swore never to eat a kogi taco.
Watching the show, however, I find Roy to be exceptionally affable and a calming presence. Heroic because he’s laconic, and patient. This is due in part to the fact that I find Jon Favreau’s “teacher’s pet” act so excruciating to witness. Anyone working as his sidekick deserves a medal. I don’t like to pull this line of rhetoric often but if Jon were a woman, this show would not exist. It’s a personality we only tolerate in a specific kind of man and he is usually the host of food shows, alas.
In one episode, Roy and Jon go to Atlanta and have lunch with a bunch of people involved in Iron Man because that’s definitely relevant to food in Atlanta somehow…Well, someone at the table asks Jon how he connected with Roy and he proceeds to tell the story of how they first met when “Gwyneth hired kogi truck for a party.” I guffawed.
I could likely have gotten over the fact that kogi truck chose fame over mission so early in its development. Honestly I think I get it. And I’m sure he made up for it later with a donation or some free food. Or at least he better have. And as far as I know the museum hasn’t held the grudge. They just moved on to the next great local Asian food phenomenon.
However, a horrifying restaurant experience at his A Frame would cement my distaste for the hype beast forever. And this is the second insult.
It was an early experiment for both Roy and I, potentially. A Frame hadn’t been operating very long, but they shot up in popularity because of an infamous fried chicken. For me, going to A Frame for a holiday (it was a weekday leading up to Christmas) was significant because it was the first time I was inviting my father and his roommates (close friends, sponsors, whatever you want to call them) along with my sister, to a family dinner—the first after a very long estrangement.
A thing worth noting about my father in this context is that he’d recently just gotten his life together from having verged on homelessness and a not-brief (also not long) stint in jail. He looks physically like he’s been through some things, both because he has and because he’s just built that way. I recall seeing Edward James Olmos on tv for the first time as a kid and seeing my dad in him, feeling emotional. Dad has extremely pockmarked skin and had always been a bit self-conscious about it. He didn’t look at all like destitution, unless you know to identify extreme cleanliness as a learned trait of the so-called reformed; he just didn’t look like “Culver City,” which is where this restaurant was located. His roommates weren’t any closer to Culver City-looking either: a super-geriatric woman, who reminded me of the witchy matron of any Ghibli movie, was his landlord and had charitably taken him in after meeting in a church group. The other roommate is affectionately known in our family as dad’s boyfriend because he effectively lives with him “on the weekends.” He’s a seventy year old Korean man, best dressed of the three, in shin-high athletic socks, washed Reeboks and a Members Only jacket over a promotional t-shirt. I want to say I made a reservation because of the size of our group but in any case we arrived at the restaurant and were immediately received and seated but that was the end of the cordiality.
The hostess and wait staff must have all applied first to the Rose Cafe or Erewhon if that was even a thing then. I say these things because I want Southern Californians to have a clear look in their minds of what the ecosystem looked like in here. To everyone else: this looked like the would-be staff of Goop, Gwyneth’s lifestyle brand (yes yes I know that A Frame predated Goop by a good ten years but I’m just giving you a visual cue).
God knows I can handle white hipsters. Of course I can. But the staff ignored us for a whopping two hours after informing us that they were out of chicken and taking our orders. The hostess eventually placated us when we asked what the deal was with our food and why they ran out of chicken at lunch (!!!). Her answer was so ridiculous I just…I couldn’t deal.
“We catered a huge wrap party last night and just ran out of a lot of stuff this morning.”
We did of course order other things, and half expected a modicum of service. Our coffee took twenty minutes. The food another 90 minutes. It wasn’t even warm by the time we got it. When we tried to flag staff they’d just wipe us away and tell us to wait for our server. Who the fuck was that anyway? We politely kept the complaints to ourselves but I kept noticing that the staff were much friendlier to the other patrons, who looked nothing like us.
I didn’t want to complain at the time, but looking around at the Goopy patronage, I felt something that would make it impossible to come out of the experience with any rational next thoughts: I felt shame.
There is no worse feeling in the city of Los Angeles than to feel unwelcome as an Asian American in an Asian-owned business. I know it’s a terrible feeling anywhere, any how, but in LA, in an Asian business, it is an abandonment. I felt a hot bowling ball in my throat. We simply did not matter. Of course we had to accept that we were no match for the hangover of a “huge wrap party.”
All people know, intuitively, when they are not wanted somewhere. You know the feeling. People of color, differentiated people, our friends in wheelchairs, people who can’t roll stealth, know exactly what I’m talking about. You feel the eyes on you. You don’t even need to know if they’re positively fascinated eyes. You just feel them and want to crawl out of your fucking body and die. You leave those situations wanting both never to return to the place, but sadly, you also promise to yourself never to stand out like that again and you change your appearance, if even dramatically in the other sense (i.e. I’m gonna ball so hard as an arts hag that no one will ever ignore me again).
My father tried not to get arrested again. No, I’m just kidding (I’m JK-ing because he was arrested on solicitation of illegal business, not anything violent). But my point is he was really fucking upset. In a weird way I think this was his first fatherly gesture toward me—making me see the cruelty of how we were being treated and begging me to walk out on the bill. I scoffed at him that there was no way we would do that. In fact because I had waitressed through college, I explained to him, it was pretty much an order of law that I still had to tip at least 20%.
The funny thing about this event is that even my sister (who arguably has a shorter fuse for incompetent service) has gotten over this insulting experience. She insists I read Roy’s memoir about growing up in LA. I’m incredulous at the suggestion. Give this guy the enormous honor of my fucking reading eyes? No thank you.
I am not public (or haven’t been till now) about any of this because Roy Choi is a local legend and culinary saint. I know dope chefs, and he’s a decent fellow if I’m to follow common knowledge amidst the usually quite unforgiving gossip. Plus I know the insult to me is more to do with restaurant management than chef stardom.
He gives to the community now, I hear.
But since I’m never eating at his restaurants and because I’ve just watched at least five hours of this show featuring him alongside a Hollywood hot shot, I just want to tell you what I see: another person who feels shame. Why else would I see you everywhere with white people who will never be us? Instead of being a king wildly gallivanting naked for the world to witness with a misplaced sense of respect, you make lunch for movie stars. I’d always rather be in the emperor’s new clothes. Let everyone else deal with the discomfort of my nudity.
Coda: my husband loves this show. And like I said, watching Roy Choi make food was a balm while I was sick. Food television can be great. Perhaps these chefs can accept the fantastic notion of serving masters of the universe while feeding the rest of us.