I took a photography course last year while I was living in Austin, Texas. A few classes in, a fellow student asked the instructor if we would be covering “food photography” in the course material. Austin is a food hub, after all. The instructor replied with a slight smirk and a quip to the effect of, “there’s not much to go over.”
One of the first lessons students learn in culinary school is the meaning of mise-en-place. French for “put in place”, it means that ingredients are prepped, tools are gathered, and everything is organized before cooking begins. It’s a grounding philosophy that keeps your head clear and your body poised to make things happen.
After almost a year in the BU kitchen, I have become intimately familiar with the concept. As part of my Gastronomy degree, I completed the Culinary Certificate program last spring, and was honored to be awarded the Julia Child teaching assistant position for the Fall 2015 semester. From September to December (that flew by), I fastidiously ‘mise-en-placed’ my way through veal stocks, bread dough, handmade pasta, fresh ricotta, Thai green curry, Punjabi greens, tres leches cake and much, much more. I gathered produce for daily recipes, measured ingredients for morning demonstrations, peeled, seeded and chopped tomatoes, and washed caseloads of chicken backs for the stockpot. My corner of the kitchen was rarely without a project.
Throughout the year, the BU Gastronomy blog will feature occasional posts from special guest writers including current students, recent alumni, professors, and more. The following Guest Post and photographs are brought to you by Gastronomy student Amy Allen.
Roy Choi, who ignited the food truck revolution when he brought his Kogi Korean taco truck to Los Angeles hipsters, came to Boston University on November 8, 2013, to talk about his new book, “L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food.”
Choi trained at the Culinary Institute of America and worked at Le Bernardin and other restaurants before he launched the Los Angeles food truck that draws crowds of customers who wait in line for hours for a $2.29 Korean taco, with the most popular being homemade corn tortillas filled with caramelized Korean barbecue, salsa roja, cilantro-onion-lime relish, and a Napa romaine slaw tossed in a chili-soy vinaigrette.
Choi was engaging and honest when he talked about the overwhelming situation he found himself in five years ago when his life took a “strong detour” and he became a celebrity of sorts for his taco truck food. He wasn’t ready for the attention, he said, acknowledging the backstage role he held as a chef. “It’s hard for chefs to celebrate things and be out here and have a great time. We don’t have great times. Our job is to make sure YOU have a great time.”
When he was initially approached to write a book, “all I wanted was to get back to the truck and cook tacos,” he said, Daily, people would stop him, he said, “not to ask for an autograph, not to hang out with me, and not to sleep with me, but to ask, ‘How did you come up with this flavor?’ and then they would start crying or hug me.”
Choi admitted that he didn’t know how to deal with all the attention. “I did a lot to destroy it,” he said. “But sometimes when you step on a garden, it grows tenfold.” Finally, two and a half years ago, he says he woke up and was in the right state of mind to write the book. But, he didn’t want to write “the Kogi book” of taco truck recipes.
He describes the book as very personal and says it “is not about the food I do as a chef.” The recipes show the inspiration for Choi’s cooking and illustrate his history. With dishes such as kimchi and pork belly stuffed pupusas, ketchup fried rice, and spam banh mi, the recipes also reflect Los Angeles’s diverse cuisines. Choi says conceptually, the book is like Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” in its continuous flow; each chapter of the autobiographical book concludes with recipes that embody the life story you just read.
Choi said he grew up in Los Angeles in an immigrant Korean family that cooked food that “looked nothing like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a pizza.” His mother was “an underground queen” in the Korean community for her kimchi, which she would sell out of cardboard boxes out of the trunk of their car. In a nod to his mother, Choi demonstrated the technique for making her braised short rib recipe. “Everyone says their mom’s galbi jim is the best,” he said. Choi said that even though the recipe has three components, that it is simple and anyone can make it. One of the keys, he said, is to soak the short ribs in water overnight to remove the impurities.
While preparing “ghetto Pillsbury fried doughnuts”— biscuit dough removed from the paper tube, fried in Crisco, and rolled in cinnamon, toasted sesame seeds, and sugar–Choi told the story of the recipe’s inspiration: He had decided to travel cross country to surprise the girl of his dreams. But his feelings were not reciprocated, and soon after, Choi had a lost week crack smoking bender in New York City. These doughnuts are what he would have wanted to eat at that time, he said.
When asked about how attending culinary school affected his food sensibilities, Choi said it gave him discipline and a way to deal with anger, and it developed his palate. “It changed everything about me,” he said. “I was a street kid from L.A.” Most significantly, he said, it gave him a deep love and appreciation for French food and French culinary technique.
While Choi has expanded his reach beyond the food truck and opened a series of restaurants in Los Angeles, he has bigger ambitions of bringing “chef-driven restaurants into the hood.” Choi referred to his talk at MAD3 in when he outlined the problem of hunger and neighborhoods with little access to healthy and fresh food. His vision is to involve chefs in the solution by starting restaurants in neighborhoods that have few good food options. In the meantime, Choi and his coauthors Tien Nguyen and Natasha Phan are on tour promoting their book through the end of this year. You can hear Roy on NPR and get the short rib recipe here.
Are you a current student or a recent alum with a food-filled story to share? Pitch your idea to firstname.lastname@example.org and get published on the BU Gastronomy blog!