Celebrating BIPOC culinary communities with Roy Choi

In this interview with Roy Choi, we celebrate BIPOC culinary communities, social justice issues with the lens of food and how it is bringing change .

Delivering change with food

You’ve probably heard the saying that food is fuel for your body. However, when it comes to renowned chef and entrepreneur, Roy Choi, food is also fuel for change and social justice. 

Roy Choi sits down for a heart to heart with the legendary restauratrice and food activist Alice Waters in the episode "From Seed to Table."
Roy Choi sits down for a heart to heart with the legendary restauratrice and food activist Alice Waters in the episode “From Seed to Table.” Photo credit: Dave Jimenez

Food, he explains, has the power to drive change by bringing people together and uniting different perspectives. 

“Through food we’re allowed to let our guard down a bit,” says Choi. “And when you’re sharing a meal there are no ulterior motives — it’s a chance for people to just be human with one another. Food is the Trojan horse that allows us to talk about difficult things.”

Talking social justice with food

Using food to figuratively (and literally) bring different perspectives to the table is exactly what Choi seeks to do in his Emmy® and James Beard Award®-winning series, Broken Bread

Poster of Roy Choi in Season Two of BROKEN BREAD.
Photo Credit Audrey Ma

The second season of the show premiered January 25 on Tastemade. It brings together activists, artists, chefs, journalists, and more to shed light on complex social justice issues through food. 

“We try to use the show to provide a window into those people who are actually making change,” says Choi. “A lot of our guests are people working to correct unjust systems or from neighbourhoods that don’t get coverage in mainstream media. We wanted to show the real people on the ground.” 

Guests from season two include a wide range of change makers from across a range of industries. Some of whom including Chef Wolfgang Puck, restauratrice and food activist Alice Waters, artist Chuck D., journalist Patricia Escarcega, and artist Six Sev. 

In the episode "The Future of Restaurants" Roy Choi breaks bread with Chef Wolfgang Puck.
In the episode “The Future of Restaurants” Roy Choi breaks bread with Chef Wolfgang Puck. Photo credit: Stephen Vanasco

Tackling the tough stuff

Affordability, food scarcity, and the future of restaurants are just a few of the tough topics that Choi covers. 

“There are a lot of things broken with the food system,” he says. “But we’re trying to approach it through a level of kindness. And that’s different than placing blame and pointing out everything that’s wrong.” 

While Choi and his guests confront many economic and societal issues, the show is ultimately inspiring, educational and uplifting. When describing the future of the restaurant industry, Choi is quick to acknowledge the many challenges businesses are facing. He also points out how newcomers created new opportunities in the face of adversity.  

Roy Choi explores Tijuana's incredible variety of nightlife, street food and cultural diversity with chef José Figueroa.
Roy Choi explores Tijuana’s incredible variety of nightlife, street food and cultural diversity with chef José Figueroa. Photo courtesy of KCET.

“Younger generations are out here doing pop ups and trying to make a living.” says Choi. “Some have taken over their parents’ restaurants and turned them into pop ups or different collaboration events. [Others] have done barbecues or Instagram limited sales options. I think people will have found the new hustle and some kind of moved away from traditional careers. Pretty much anything is possible and nothing’s off limits anymore.”

Shining light on inequities within the food system

Prior to pandemic, there may have been more barriers to get involved in the food industry. But as many join the great resignation to follow their dreams, innovation is bringing a change to the historic business model. 

“A lot of these vendors are primarily people of colour and a lot of them haven’t run businesses or food businesses before,” Choi continues. “So this is a whole new arena of entrepreneurship for a lot of people… The costs are lower, you can run a business on social media and get the orders in through Venmo… it’s a whole new kind of economic model. It benefits everyone — there’s more variety. There’s more affordable options.”

While the second season of the show isn’t entirely focused on the effects of COVID-19 on the industry, it does use the current circumstances to put a spotlight on some of the inequities in the food system that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. 

An episode which covers the polarizing issue of gentrification in Chinatown features flourishing new businesses, as well the activists who are fighting for legacy entrepreneurs and communities being displaced. 

Roy Choi with Gay Yuen, Board Chair, Friends of the Chinese American Museum.
Roy Choi with Gay Yuen, Board Chair, Friends of the Chinese American Museum. Photo credit: Randall Michaelson

Choi even puts himself directly in the line of fire, questioning the ripple effects of his rice bowl restaurant, Chego, which had opened in LA’s Chinatown in 2013.

”We have to be aware that certain neighbourhoods or situations require different levels of care. If I use myself as a lens, you can have the right intentions, [but] you could still be ignorant to what’s going on,” he says. 

“Now since the pandemic happened, everything has been exposed. We can no longer claim ignorance.” 

The episode goes on to offer tangible actions, such as surcharges that can fund oversight committees, and steps that can be taken to find a balance between the two groups. But perhaps most importantly, Choi opens the door to conversations around balance. 

Discovering a way through, together

Broken Bread is an intimate look at evolving communities, as well as the food and people creating meaningful change. The show feels a little like getting a behind-the-scenes tour of a new city and dining with locals at their favourite restaurant. It makes you laugh. It makes you hungry. And makes you hopeful. 

Roy Choi meets the people actively preserving Latinx cuisine in L.A.'s Chavez Ravine.
Roy Choi meets the people actively preserving Latinx cuisine in L.A.’s Chavez Ravine. Photo credit: Randall Michaelson

“I hope [people] enjoy the show [as] entertainment that makes you think and that you see faces you don’t normally see on screen at 8pm on a Tuesday night,” says Choi. “I hope it drives the algorithm of entertainment to where this type of programming can be more in demand.

Our biggest goal is to redefine who our heroes are…by the work that they’re doing, but also by the nature of who they are. Maybe it will inspire you to believe that change doesn’t have to happen in one swoop. Rather, it can be through small steps that build upon each other.”

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