When walking onto the set at the Tastemade studios in Santa Monica, California, chef Roy Choi blends in as one of the friendly faces designed to make sure the day goes smoothly. Dressed in a Stüssy sweatshirt and Carhartt ball cap, Choi is quick to accommodate me as a guest in his hometown. After he hears I’ve made the flight from Oakland to Los Angeles that morning and don’t yet have a place to stay, he begins naming a few spots to crash.
Choi is a legend in Los Angeles. The 49-year-old chef helped usher in the gourmet food truck movement when he opened Kogi BBQ Taco Truck in 2008. He wrote a best-selling cookbook that doubles as a memoir, describing his experiences growing up as a second-generation Korean American in Los Angeles. He’s opened several restaurants in his hometown, set out to change the future of fast food with celebrated chef Daniel Patterson through a project called Locol and recently opened a restaurant in the Park MGM in Las Vegas. He co-produced the 2014 film “Chef,” directed by and starring Jon Favreau, and has been named on TIME Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world twice. Through all this hype, Choi has never positioned himself away from the struggles and triumphs of the average person. He’s never stopped expressing his truths and he’s never stopped smoking or talking about his love of cannabis.
“I’m truly at one with weed,” Choi says. “It’s my martial art. It’s my shaman, it’s my life…”
Choi is the type of person who follows his intuition and waits to act until the moment is right. That was the case, he says, when it came to creating his TV series “Broken Bread” with LA’s public broadcasting network KCET. The show is a six-part series examining how food can be an agent of change and, among the other episodes that shine a light on other chefs who give back to their community, there is an episode that looks at cannabis at this pivotal moment in time. Choi positions himself as a member of the old guard, a longtime stoner satisfied with enjoying cannabis in its most traditional ways: rolled up in a paper or packed into a bong. He said creating the show allowed him to confront his own preconceived notions of what it means to be a person who enjoys marijuana.
Choi and I begin our interview in a living room-type of set up, where I run through my questions with an acute sense of ease, as if I’m chatting with an old friend rather than one of the world’s most celebrated culinary minds. When the interview concludes, I give Choi a copy of Cannabis Now and he enthusiastically inquires if I have anything else to give him. We’ve just gone through a discussion about how both of us are not under the influence of cannabis that day because you have to approach certain moments with a clear head, but when I hand him a chocolate-covered coffee bean from a company called Somatik containing 3 mg of THC, he asks me to double-check the dose before enthusiastically opening the package and eating the edible right away. I’m then invited to hang out on set and try some of the food made by the chefs the show highlights. I sample a vegan version of a cheesesteak from The Vegan Hooligans and chat with business owner Jose Mejia. While I’m lingering after my appointment, I overhear some of the interviews Choi is conducting with food and wine writers keen to hear about his new show.
“Cannabis Now just gave me an edible,” Choi says in a boastful tone, apparently explaining to the person that he’s now talking to that his answers might not be as clear as he’d like.
At a certain point, Choi turns to me and says with a big beaming smile that the edible was good. Yes, he’s a world-famous chef and I knew what I was doing when I gave him a treat made with ethically-sourced chocolate and single-origin coffee. I’m no fool, I say, as Choi thanks me with an embrace. To be near Choi is to feel accepted. Choi’s parents immigrated to America and were able to start a business with a fund pooled from their community, and it seems Choi hasn’t forgotten his family’s beginnings or his own struggles to become a chef. Today, he continues to not only nourish his community through food, but also showcase others who also use food as a platform for activism and an impetus for social change.
Cannabis Now: Congrats on the new show, it looks real cool.
Roy Choi: Thank you, it is real cool. As for that word “cool,” we’re trying to make things that matter cool. You know how hard that is in this world? The things that we all care about, for some reason, as humans we decide collectively within media that we don’t want to be shown those things. So, in return, studios and corporations don’t invest in those things and you’re made to believe that those things don’t sell. The ideas of being a good human being and caring about things and being loving and empathetic and nurturing that those things don’t matter and we just have to look at train wrecks for the rest of our life on TV, you know? I’m so excited that finally the things that I care about are being put on this huge major platform and we’ve done our job behind the scenes to try and make them cool enough so that they can be entertainment as well as thought pieces.
How does cannabis fit in the conversation about raising up communities through food?
It’s interesting because most of the stuff we cover in our show is about something food-related, right? Food waste, food future, food access, but we have two episodes that kind of became the wild card. For one, we dedicated a whole episode to Watts. We brought it down to real micro storytelling to tell a larger macro story. And then the other was cannabis. We decided if we’re going to look at cannabis, let’s look at the state that it’s in right now and how it’s like a field day — mainly for people who have the privilege to have a field day — but let’s also look at what lead to the gentrification and the kind of retail element of weed now. We have to look at also the criminalization of those who were wrongly convicted on felony charges for small misdemeanors like having a roach in their ashtray, someone who was African American in East Oakland and now they’re serving time in San Quentin.
I wanted to look also at the history of weed, so we had Cheech [Marin] and Shep Gordon telling us about how they got their weed in 1970 and 1969. I learned so much about how hard it was to get weed. You had this image from Cheech and Chong that weed was just growing off trees, no pun intended, but they said it was the complete antithesis to that. Literally, it was like going on a quest everyday just to get a dime bag of dirt sess. We also talked to Virgil Grant and talked about how the love movement and the vibe movement started in Compton and how that became the chronic movement and how he really got that Chronic strain from Northern California back and forth.
Then, I confront my own demons on weed. I’ve been smoking weed now for over 30 years and I’m a pretty progressive person I think in most things, but the one thing I’m really conservative on is weed. I don’t know why. I still just smoke flower rolled up and I never really wanted tinctures and CBD and cooking and edibles and all these things. I don’t know why. This was one thing I was a little bit of an old f*cking geezer on. I have ideas about this is how you get stoned, this is the community and this is what we represent. And I used this show for me to confront the demons of this new new era.
I’m really against being on lists — I’m not on the TSA PreCheck or anything like that — so I never went to dispensaries. I don’t like being on a list because I have this paranoia of “Minority Report” sh*t. So I used this episode to confront that. I went shopping at MedMen, put myself on a list, walked around and shopped retail. I was buying f*cking face cleanser.
I also went to a pop-up cannabis dinner where I met all these people that don’t like to be stoned and don’t like stoners. They’re literally verbally saying, “We’ve never smoked weed in our life and intend not to and we don’t like the effects of what it does on people.” Yet they’re at a cannabis dinner eating CBD-infused food. So looking at these things as an old stoner, I would have had clenched fists, but the show allowed me to open myself up and not look at them through a stereotypical lens, but really get to know who these people are: what their ideologies are, why they have these perspectives, what their culture is.
How was it putting yourself out there like that?
It was amazing. I spent so much time of my life holding myself back from it and what I realized is, I was holding myself back from something I created in my head. It allowed me to see that there wasn’t just one way to be a stoner. It allowed me to confront my own possessive nature of what it meant to be related to marijuana. Because as spiritual and as loving as marijuana has made me as a person, it also made me this secretly possessive person about what I thought it meant to be someone that smoked weed. This show allowed me to see beyond that, open up, meet people, get to know them and understand their perspective. I used that segment of the show to talk to all my old-school stoner friends about how our way of being a stoner isn’t the only way. Weed is truly for everyone and everyone can find their way to weed even if it’s totally something that we would have never agreed upon.
We talk about produce that’s shipped, packaged and sent elsewhere. We talk about the importance of having an awareness of where food comes from. You have a mission to build a sustainable and equitable food industry, how does that work with cannabis for you?
I think the same ideologies and the same checkpoints exist within cannabis as they do within food because it’s an agricultural product. Cannabis can be looked at through the same lens of growing, of soil, of sustainability, of consciousness, of carbon footprint, of caring, of supporting small farmers and the impact of those things. It’s like comparing commodity-based mono-culture GMO-fed cow to meat produced on a small farm and eaten in small portions.
We have this window dressing that the cannabis industry is just all love and good times and tie-dye dreams, but it’s a big business and if we’re not conscious of that, after this gold rush, we’re going to end up in the same position as the agricultural industry. Because this same gold rush that we’re going through right now is the same gold rush the food industry went through after refrigerators.
As humans, we’re repeating mistakes. We weren’t eating like this before the mass production of the refrigerator and we weren’t eating like this until modern advertising culture in the early ’70s and late ’60s. The diet that we have now has been curated for us by corporations, who created this fantasy world without looking at the impact of that fantasy. Then, that fantasy became the Frankenstein that is now our world and we are in a position now that we have to turn around very quickly.
And those ancestors from the late ’60s and ’70s that created this world, they didn’t have the knowledge or information. They were just like anyone starting a new business, they were just going for it. They had no idea the polar ice caps were going to melt because they f*cking made Hungry-Man frozen dinners, you know what I mean? But in just 40 years, you see what happened, right?
I believe that the cannabis industry sits at that precipice as well. Right now, it’s the gold rush, everything is great, but in 50 years, if we’re not sustainable, practicing small farm philosophies, considering the earth, considering access and equality, then the weed industry is going to be as hurtful and harmful as the corn industry now.
What strain is your favorite?
I like Jack Herer. That sh*t f*cking gets me so stoned, I love that strain. Obviously OG Kush. In my older age, I’ve grown to be more of a sativa guy. I love thinking and all that stuff. Back in the day, I loved sinking into the couch, so I was more of an indica guy.
Because you’re a chef, I think everyone wants to know if you have you cooked with cannabis.
That was a part of the old “get off my lawn” guy that I had to confront within myself. I swear to God, I’m a f*cking old school stoner man, like I believe in flower, Zig Zags and a lighter, you know?
So, I just never really cooked with weed. I was more of a guy that liked to get stoned and eat versus eating food that got you stoned. After this show, now I f*cking eat edibles all the time. I’ve got mints in my car. I’ve got lotion in my bathroom. It’s really opened up my world.
I think the topicals side is still a little window dressing. The edibles seem honest, the topicals stuff — I may be wrong — it still feels a little bit like snake oil.
But you are finding honesty in the edibles?
I am finding honesty in the edibles, I never thought I would.
I read somewhere that you said food is honest and edibles are kind of deceiving.
This show allowed me to confront that. That was the “get off my lawn” Roy.
Have you tried a dab yet?
I’ve done dabs. I’m really into tinctures now. It’s helping me be more patient, too. With the tincture, literally I’m not stoned until like six hours later. That’s when it really kicks in. I like it. I feel like a little kid to be honest. I’m so new to it that I forget sometimes and so I’ll be doing an interview like this and I may have done a tincture and it all kicks in. Then I get these internal smiles and I’m just like, “F*ck yeah!”
Do you use cannabis daily at this point?
Pretty much. I smoke every night.
What about on the job?
Yeah, because I’m my own boss. I can be as stoned as I want to be. But I choose not to be stoned sometimes because I want to be clear-headed. Today, I’m not stoned. I’ve been smoking weed for so long that I don’t need to prove how much of a stoner I am. I don’t need to make every situation in life a laughable moment.
And there are moments when I really enjoy being sober. Sober is the wrong word because the opposite of sober means that you’re some sort of other thing and I don’t think weed means that you’re not sober.
When I cook, I don’t like to be stoned. It’s like tight roping. If you’ve got to tight rope across two skyscrapers, maybe in that moment you may not to want to be stoned.
After you get to the other side…
Yeah, after you make it to the other side? Take a f*cking rip! So yeah, at some point in every day, I’m stoned.
While cooking? No. It’s not that I can’t do it or won’t do it or don’t know how to do it. It’s just that I haven’t found my desire to do it yet and I can’t wait until that kicks in because I think I would be a really f*cking good cannabis chef.
You would destroy the game!
I’m like a virgin waiting for the right moment. Even though it might be a fairy tale, I’m waiting for that moment where I can break my virginity towards [cannabis] cooking and I want it to be right. I’m very old school. I don’t know why.
I saw that you have a daughter. Do you talk to her about cannabis? What sort of conversations do you have?
I really don’t talk about my family too much publicly, but everyone knows I’m a stoner. I think the one thing I can say on the record is that I don’t try to de-normalize something based on the propaganda of what our world decides is normal. There was a time where people thought street food wasn’t normal. So whether it’s raising my child, or inspiring my teen, or being a part of something or even speaking to you, I don’t fall into the trap of being a puppet of what government or propaganda decides is right.
I try to always be true to something that I morally believe in and if that ends up being that I’m a stoner or I care about organic produce, that I speak up for the inequality of the lack of education within inner cities or whatever the case may be, I follow my moral compass on that. I teach my kid not to believe the hype. Don’t believe the sh*t that other people, especially corporations, are telling you. You have to have your own moral compass, and so that means that if you’re led to believe that drugs are wrong, you have to look at the whole argument.
How has cannabis influenced Los Angeles culture for you?
LA has always been a weed smoking city. The difference that I’ve noticed lately is that we used to all get stoned to get stoned. It was never about just having one hit and just downshifting. What I’m seeing now in LA is that it’s not about being stoned, it’s about just shifting. Everyone everywhere is taking just one little hit of a pen or one little corner of a cookie and what it does is it just kind of makes the city that much more fun.
Cannabis just really brightened and opened up the city, it just added an element of a surprise. Now, it’s a little bit like a scavenger hunt of who’s stoned and not stoned. Now, you can catch yourself sometimes — when you get a little agro or put off by someone — you take that moment and you see something within them and you realize, “Hey, wait a second, they’re a little stoned.” This person you may have hated, you’ve opened up a new lens towards them. Even within that same conversation, things can change.
I think that’s a lot of what cannabis can do to help us as humans. It’s there for us to be a communication tool. It’s there for us to be an emphatic way to connect with each other. We’ve only been removed from it because certain people, mainly older white men within government and power positions, have decided over generations what we should or shouldn’t have. I think that we’re reaching an age where those old hierarchies are starting to crumble and this thing that is really meant for us is now coming together.
You’re not like other celebrities in the sense that you don’t have a cannabis product to promote. Why do you still feel that you want to talk about cannabis?
I don’t have any agenda with cannabis. Why do I want to keep talking about it? It’s not that I want to keep talking about it, it’s a part of my life. If you asked me you know, why do you like asparagus? I have no agenda to sell asparagus. I’m not on the asparagus board. I don’t have a product with the extract of asparagus juice. It’s just the same thing with cannabis. I don’t have any agenda.
There’s a second side to my old school “get off my lawn” outlook, which is also contributing to the liberalism and the open mindedness of who I really am. I’m truly one with weed. It’s my martial art. It’s my shaman, it’s my life and because of that, I don’t have a product yet, because I don’t want to force it. Just like this show, just like the cooking, everything in my life so far. This show is so right now, after all these years, because public television, Tastemade, myself — we were all ready to do this. We never had to take the lowest common denominator on anything because we were all ready and in a position to tell the right stories to the world. It’s the same thing with a product for me. When I’m ready, I know I’ll be ready.
This interview has been condensed.
TELL US, do you feel protective of certain elements of cannabis culture