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By the end of March, Choi is scheduled to open a restaurant in an old strip mall; he and his partners bought the space for $30,000. They're not going to fix it up and instead will serve $7-to-$9 rice bowls--including lacquered pork belly, and steak topped with horseradish cream and poached eggs--in the 30-seat space, where Choi believes he can somehow serve 1,000 people a night. Kogi's current operations serve about 3,000 a day.
It's not just fast turnover, small portions and cheaper cuts of meat that allow Choi to charge such low prices. "A Caesar salad at a lot of places is $12, but a Caesar salad costs $1.80 to make," he says, putting out a Marlboro. The insane markups come from a tired old formula, he continues: "Get a space in a high-rent district and hire [ultra-opulent interior architect] Adam Tihany to design it. It costs $1.5 [million] to $2 million for you to open a restaurant. So what's your attitude? 'We have to gouge those m____________.'"
Choi's low-cost philosophy--and his kimchi quesadilla--inspired Beth Kellerhals, a former chef at Chicago's Hot Chocolate, to take him her beer-and-pretzel ice cream sandwich and persuade him to start selling her desserts. "Working in fine dining, I liked the precision and commitment to good ingredients, but it's just food," she says. "Don't take it so seriously. Have fun while you're eating."
But Choi takes it all very seriously. He wants to bring farm-raised, artisanal food to the masses. In addition to the new restaurant in L.A., he's looking to expand to another city with his trucks. One of his dreams involves a traveling foodapalooza where Eminem performs onstage while farmers sell their veggies at booths nearby.
He thinks there's a chance it might all come together--maybe when he finally talks to Emeril, whose people just called him to set up a meeting. "I'll meet one of the big boys and see if he'll ride with me on this mission to broaden the food landscape," Choi says. "It's 2010. Let's start feeding people. Let's get out there."
Kimchi quesadillas? Roy Choi turns street food into high art at time.com/kogi