With the opening of POT Lobby Bar at Los Angeles’ all-new The Line hotel, Roy Choi earns his self-appointed title as L.A.’s Son once again. Returning to his roots in the city’s vibrant Koreatown ‘hood, Choi wants to create a space “for everyone,” where cocktail snobs can enjoy kimchi-infused soju while his mom sips a white Zinfandel.
The bar, open this week, is just stage one of Choi’s elaborate collaboration with The Line (owned by the people behind NYC’s NoMad), where he’ll soon open two restaurants—one celebrating Cali’s bountiful fresh produce, the other serving hearty Korean hotpot—and a café that fuses Taiwanese bakeries, Seoul food markets, and Salvadorian panaderias.
So far, so L.A—and unmistakably Roy Choi through and through. Over a couple of POT’s signature Uni cocktails, Choi chomped through bag of cheesy bodega popcorn (case of the munchies, perhaps?) and discussed his big ideas for The Line, the backlash to his recent appearance on Top Chef, and how to tweet if you’re a stoner.
What initially attracted you to this collaboration with The Line?
I actually turned it down twice, so I guess third time is a charm. [Previously] I had nothing to do with Sydell Group at all; they just came to me with roses. But I didn’t want to do it. I loved my freedom. My whole life changed when I started selling tacos on the street, and I found myself in a place of complete and absolute freedom, where I could do whatever I wanted, be whoever I wanted to be. It was total fluid Kung Fu—being able to go out and cook for the people. It was like playing music just because you love to play it.
[Taking on this project] felt like a real job again, and I hadn’t had a real job for a long time. But I came in and looked at the place, and it finally clicked. My bargaining chip was that I had to have complete creative freedom to do whatever I felt was right for this property. They gave it to me, which was pretty courageous on their part.
What’s the idea behind the POT Bar?
This was the first time I had a hand in creating the drinks, so we had to find a mixologist I could vibe with who would help me take it to the next level conceptually. [Head bartender] Matt Biancaniello and I really wanted to create a bar for the people; everything I do is for the people. I wanted to create a bar that, wherever you came from in life, you could open this menu and you wouldn’t feel intimidated.
I wanted to create a place where a gourmand could order the Uni cocktail, but then my mom could come and have the white Zinfandel.
So I really thought about four major things. One was the neighborhood we’re in, K-Town. I know it really well, and I didn’t want to exclude anyone. If we were able to go to every house in this neighborhood, we’d find Salvadorean, Guatemalan, Mexican, Oaxacan, Korean, Bangladeshi and Filipino families. I really wanted to create a place where those people wouldn’t feel excluded.
There are also a lot travelers passing though here that come from different parts of the earth and may not all be on the ‘cocktailian’ tip; they’re not all gourmands or connossieurs of fine liqueurs or wines. They may be people who drink White Zinfandel. They may be people who still drink Fuzzy Navels, or White Russians, or Tom Collins. But I ain’t one to judge. I wanted to create a place where a gourmand could order the Uni cocktail, but then my mom could come and have the white Zinfandel. So that’s the bar; it’s for everybody.
How about your forthcoming restaurants and café?
They’re all connected to the space and the neighborhood. The first time I walked into [the lobby at The Line, where the bar and café are situated], the high ceilings and open space immediately reminded me of a train station. Train stations are used everyday and people just hang out in them. I wanted the whole neighborhood to be able to use this place as a recreational community center.
POT [Choi’s forthcoming in-house restaurant] was an old Korean restaurant with teppanyaki grills, so that immediately spoke to me. Then, when I went upstairs to the pool deck [where Choi’s restaurant commissary will be housed] I really felt that it had to be a vegetable-driven restaurant, where we paid homage to the farms in Oxnard, Ventura Country, and L.A. County.
What kind of food will you be serving at POT, the restaurant?
It’s a Korean restaurant and it’s all about hotpots that you cook together at the table. I really like to challenge social taboos in eating. At Kogi, we challenge the idea of the food truck. A lot of people thought food trucks were dirty and were calling them ‘roach coaches,’ but now they’re a phenomenon.
POT is about double-dipping. As an Asian, I grew up around double-dipping, but for Americans it’s still a big taboo.
With A-Frame, I challenged the idea of strangers sitting together at the same table, and eating with your hands, and sharing food. And it’s not a communal table; it’s literally a four top where we seat two sets of people who don’t know each other.
POT is about double-dipping. As an Asian, I grew up around double-dipping, but for Americans it’s still a big taboo. So I wanted to challenge that. I feel that the power of great food is that it’s able to [cut] through all that neuroses.
Let’s talk about the name…
That’s a great thing—that at this stage in my life I created a restaurant that [First We Feast] is interested in covering, in a major hotel, called POT, and no-one stopped me. To me, that shit is so fucking hilarious. There are all of these multimillion-dollar investors and corporate bankers involved in this hotel, and I was able to have this restaurant called POT. It’s not like it slipped under their noses, either. I’ve been upfront since the beginning, and to me that’s a beautiful thing.
Not only will we challenge the idea of double-dipping, but POT will always challenge the notion of marijuana, and of life, and of spirituality, and of things we think are wrong that are not wrong. Because I don’t think marijuana is wrong. POT is not a soapbox to politically vouch for marijuana, but the word itself will always make people smile. You know deep inside that there’s a little smirk behind it.
Your Twitter feed is an interesting glimpse into the inner workings of your mind. Is there any way for your followers to gauge how high you are at any given time, based on your tweets?
Most of the craziest stuff is not actually written when I’m high. When I’m high, I’m too stoned to even deal with Twitter. I create all the content when I’m stoned and when I’m not stoned I have the ability to actually deliver that content. It’s almost like it cultivates in my mind.
Back to the Line. Tell us about your relationship with the surrounding neighborhood of Koreatown.
I have a lot of roots in K-Town. This is the first neighborhood my family immigrated to. I lived here a bunch of times throughout my life. All through college I partied in K-Town. My life now is based in K-Town—this is where I go to the dentist, where I shop, where I do all my errands, where I eat lunch.
Do you feel comfortable with being part of its gentrification?
No matter what I do I’m about the people. It’s easy to get caught up in the division of people, but what I do with the Kogi truck you’ll see that I’m about bringing people together, wherever we go. Doesn’t matter if you’re cool, or I’m cool, or if you’re young, or old. I believe that people know that’s what I’m about, and that I would never let this place be a farce. If it is changing the neighborhood then it’s enriching and evolving it, rather than gentrifying it. K-Town doesn’t need gentrifying. This shit is fucking fly the way it is. And K-Town doesn’t need The Line hotel; The Line hotel needs K-Town.
I am afraid of not being true to the residents of K-Town and all of L.A. I’m a little nervous because I want to do my best—that’s what Korean culture is all about. There’s a Korean word—yeolshimhi—which is basically about giving your all to everything you do, and never half-assing anything. I want everyone in K-Town, from the youngsters to the old-timers, to the Latinos, to the people at nursing school across the street, to feel that this place is theirs. I’m not trying to be a chef-driven restaurant; I’m trying to a Korean-driven restaurant in Koreatown. That shit is fucking scary, man. It’s real.
Are you less scared of the reception of national TV audiences? I’m referencing your recent Top Chef appearance…
I care about everything I do. Top Chef was cut and edited to make it what you saw. There was much more to that situation than what was shown. Was I intense about the food? Yes. Because the food was no good. Sometimes I forget that I’m on TV, and I just spoke to those same five chefs the same way I would talk to my chefs if they came to me with a sloppy product.
The TV food world has made kitchen life such a pansy, tail-between-the-legs, fucking soft-boiled egg bullshit.
People think I’m a dick but it’s hard for me because I don’t ‘get’ excuses. I don’t understand them. I come from an immigrant family who had to make it here with nothing in their pockets. We had to rise and shine and make a life. Same thing with Kogi—people didn’t want to hear excuses when I handed them their first taco. I was just trying to teach the chefs that there were elements in the food that were missing, and it’s very important for them to acknowledge those things. It was because I cared.
I know what I did, and that’s why I didn’t fight back on the Internet or on social media. It’s a game show; it struck a nerve and people were excited, whether they love me or hate me. Ask any of those five chefs if what they saw on TV reflected how I talked to them in the studio—I believe that none of them could say that I was being a dick to them. The TV food world has made kitchen life such a pansy, tail-between-the-legs, fucking soft-boiled egg bullshit. [Chefs] are intense people and we only expect the best.
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