You don’t start a revolution by being meek, and you sure as hell don’t start a revolution by taking your time. Even if you’re by nature shy and introspective, you learn to grab every bullhorn within reach and declare, without any doubt, that this matters, this is happening, we are doing this, because there is no alternative.
As writer Howie Kahn reported in his recent WSJ. magazine feature about Loco’l, the chefs have signed 10-year leases in Watts and San Francisco’s Tenderloin, two of the roughest, most underserved neighborhoods you’ll find in any big city. Last night, during a Kahn-moderated WSJ. panel discussion on the pool deck adjacent to Choi’s shimmering Commissary restaurant at Koreatown’s Line hotel, Patterson told the crowd that the Watts location is opening “in about five months.”
The chefs are aiming for a late September opening in Watts, at a space being built next to the Jordan Downs housing projects. They hope to open in the Tenderloin a couple months later.
Patterson, whose Bay Area restaurants include the two-Michelin-starred Coi, told the story of how he was inspired by Choi’s speech about hunger at the MAD Symposium in the summer of 2013. (You can read more about this in Kahn’s piece.)
“If you think about it in terms of the timing, it’s totally crazy,” Patterson says. “I called him and said, ‘I have an idea,’ and he said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ I bought a plane ticket the next day.”
It didn’t matter that Choi was already in the middle of his most ambitious venture to date, the perhaps legacy-making challenge of opening the restaurants at the Line hotel. The chefs ate at the space that would become Pot and decided immediately to become partners on Loco’l. The game-changing venture aims to serve healthful, affordable food while paying employees more than minimum wage and teaching them skills that will allow them to work in any kitchen in the world.
“I got respect in the streets,” Choi said last night. “I got respect in the hotel game, Hollywood, the chef world. I’m a man who can flow though and represent different pockets of the world.”
He’s not bragging, he’s making the point that Loco’l is a lot more than just some indulgent fantasy. There are so many things Choi could be doing, so many opportunities he turns down, but this is what’s important now.
“I’m a dreamer, but I’m also a realist,” Choi continued. “Fast food is what’s going out there in our inner cities and our suburbs, what our kids are being manipulated to eat. It’s food backed by billions of dollars and food that’s driven by commodities and lobbying and GMOs basically. It’s very bottom-feeding. It’s taking all the nutrients out of everything and focusing on shelf life, squeezing the soul out of everything, poisoning our people. That shit is real.”
Choi has had enough of the “brainwashing propaganda.” There will be no sodas at Loco’l, which will serve agua frescas instead. Choi and Patterson are thinking about $2 chicken tenders, $4 Burgs (one of the categories of food at Loco’l, which also includes Rollies, Foldies, Rice Bowls, and Dulces), and some 99-cent Yotchays—largely vegetable-based items that could include corn chips or greens.
Everything, of course, is evolving and will continue to evolve long after Loco’l opens. Chefs, Choi notes, are the type of people who will change everything on their menus even when things are going great. Once you have the foundation, though, you have the freedom to tinker as much you want.
“In the next couple months, we’ll get a hammer to a floorboard in Watts,” Choi says.