Eat & Drink

May 27, 2014

Food truck innovator Roy Choi schools director in the ways of the professional kitchen

To play his part perfectly in “Chef,” director/actor Jon Favreau worked with food truck innovator Roy Choi of LA’s famous Kogi BBQ Taco Truck.

Viewers who sit through the credits of “Chef” will see chef Roy Choi teaching the movie’s director and star, Jon Favreau, how to make a simple grilled cheese sandwich. Realizing that Favreau started from ground zero is a shocking revelation given how accurately the movie portrays the world of professional kitchens.

Favreau’s character, chef Carl Casper, not only gets the tats right — a long knife on his arm and “El Jefe” spelled out on his knuckles — he also wields a knife with precision. The movie goes on to nail other important scene-setting details, such as the industrial stainless steel counters, hotel pans and deli containers used to stage cramped and chaotic adrenalin-punched kitchen scenes and the requisite salty pirate patois that are a part of a real kitchen experience. (The movie is rated R. There’s even a joke with a baguette that cannot be repeated here.)

To play the part convincingly, Favreau apprenticed with Choi, a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef and owner of the famous Los Angeles Kogi BBQ Taco Truck. Choi is considered the founder of the modern food truck movement: His signature short rib taco hit the streets in 2008 and quickly became an iconic street eat, thanks in part to the persistent buzz provided by social media.

Kogi’s Twitter feed has 124,000 followers, and Choi and his business partners currently operate a fleet of four color-coded trucks that cover zones mapped out across L.A. and Orange County, as well as several sit-down, brick-and-mortar eateries. He’s the only food truck chef to be named one of Food & Wine’s “Best New Chefs.” He has also spoken at Rene Redzepi’s MAD Symposium in Denmark, where he pleaded for chefs to consider ways to feed more than just the privileged.

Despite his success, Choi said in a recent phone interview that he was not necessarily a shoo-in for the consulting job. Favreau initially met up with Choi in Koreatown, and they just hung out for six hours to see if they would gel.

And how did Choi know he wanted to work on “Chef”?

“I could tell by the way he was looking at things that he had a really sharp eye, but he was also having fun,” Choi said. “There was a fluidity, and he was going with the flow and he made me laugh. All things that make you want to hang out with a guy. And all those things are what makes a good cook.”

Choi set up a “syllabus” for Favreau that included two weeks of professional cooking school to learn basic knife cuts and the vernacular of mother sauces. The requirement gave them a shared shorthand for essential culinary terms such as julienne and chiffonade. “He worked really hard to get that comfortable (with the knife),” Choi said. “He was a complete method actor, but he also became a cook.”

Choi said he has no qualms about the way “Chef” ends, even though some local Kansas City food truck chefs who screened the movie were slightly disappointed.

“I’m really proud of this movie, from the food to the chef’s life,” he said. “A lot of chefs have been very responsive to the early stages of the movie (when Casper is struggling with his relationship with his son). That’s the part that really hits chefs — that they are always pushing their family aside for work.”

The fictional food truck in “Chef” specializes in an especially rave-worthy Cubano, a pressed sandwich featuring layers of boiled ham and marinated pork shoulder, a slice of Swiss cheese, slivers of dill pickle and a slather of yellow mustard. To promote the movie, Choi shares the real thing.

Roy Choi’s Perfect Cubano Sandwich

Makes 6 servings

6 ounces thinly sliced boiled ham

Softened butter, for brushing

Six (6-inch-long) soft baguettes or heros, split lengthwise

Yellow mustard, for brushing

3/4 pound thinly sliced Mojo-Marinated Pork Shoulder (recipe follows)

1/2 pound thinly sliced Swiss cheese

3 half-sour dill pickles, thinly sliced lengthwise

Heat a large cast-iron griddle or panini press. Add the ham slices to the griddle and cook over moderate heat, turning once, until browned in spots, about 1 minute. Transfer the ham to a plate.

Generously butter the cut sides of each baguette and toast on the griddle over moderate heat until lightly browned, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer the baguettes to a work surface and generously brush the cut sides with mustard. Layer the ham, pork, Swiss cheese and pickles on the baguette, and close the sandwiches.

Generously brush the outside of the sandwiches with butter and set them on the griddle or press; if using a griddle, top the sandwiches with a large baking sheet and weigh it down with heavy cans or a cast-iron skillet. Cook the sandwiches over moderate heat until they are browned and crisp on the outside and the cheese is melted, 3 minutes per side on a griddle or 3 minutes total in a press.

Per serving: 530 calories (44 percent from fat), 26 grams fat (12 grams saturated), 92 milligrams cholesterol, 38 grams carbohydrates, 34 grams protein, 962 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Roy Choi’s Mojo-Marinated Pork Shoulder

Makes 6 to 8 servings

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup lightly packed cilantro, finely chopped

1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest

3/4 cup fresh orange juice

1/2 cup fresh lime juice

1/4 cup lightly packed mint leaves, finely chopped

8 garlic cloves, minced

1 tablespoon minced oregano

2 teaspoons ground cumin

Kosher salt


3 1/2 pounds boneless pork shoulder, in one piece

In a bowl, whisk together oil, cilantro, zest, citrus juices, mint, garlic, oregano and cumin. Whisk in 1 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Transfer the marinade to a large resealable plastic bag and add the pork. Seal the bag and turn to coat; set in a baking dish and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and set a rack over a rimmed baking sheet. Transfer the pork to a work surface; discard the marinade. Fold the pork under itself, into thirds if necessary, and tie with string to form a neat roll. Season all over with salt and pepper and set it on the rack. Roast the pork for 30 minutes until lightly browned.

Reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees and roast for 1 hour and 30 minutes longer, until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center registers 160 degrees. Transfer to a carving board and let rest for 30 minutes. Discard the string before slicing across the grain.

Per serving, based on 6: 602 calories (72 percent from fat), 48 grams total fat (14 grams saturated), 141 milligrams cholesterol, 6 grams carbohydrates, 35 grams protein, 157 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.

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