Roy Choi shines a light on our broken food systems: "We'll throw away food before we feed people"

The food truck icon talks to Salon about standing up for social justice, with a taco in hand

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published January 26, 2022 8:31PM (EST)

Roy Choi meets the people actively preserving Latinx cuisine in L.A.'s Chavez Ravine. (Randall Michaelson)
Roy Choi meets the people actively preserving Latinx cuisine in L.A.'s Chavez Ravine. (Randall Michaelson)

"I'm a dreamer," says Roy Choi, the Los Angeles author, chef and entrepreneur who helped spark the food truck revolution.

In the second season of his PBS series "Broken Bread," Choi brings his unique brand of activism, appetite and optimism to our complex and often contradictory American food system. It's a show that not only deals frankly with gentrification and labor exploitation, but also tells a deeply personal and hopeful story.

Choi isn't content to point out snobbery and injustice. Instead, he focuses on the persistent, resourceful individuals and groups who are creating positive change in their communities.

In a recent Zoom conversation, Salon talked to Choi about the series, his legacy and how to break bread while fixing the food industry. In the process, we also learned how "Broken Bread" got its name. 

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

It's an interesting name for a show. It's not "Breaking Bread," it's "Broken Bread." Tell me why it's called that.

For all the obvious reasons — the alliteration, the inflection towards "Breaking Bad," the double entendre of breaking bread with people. But really, at the core of it, it's about broken food systems. The show is looking at hard issues that affect people that a lot of us don't want to confront, or that are being done deliberately, for generations.

The thing is, we are not a political show. We don't want to get into the divisiveness. We're about generosity, love, kindness, bringing people together, finding solutions. We always bring it back to food.

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What we try to do is get into these deep topics, but use food as a through line, so that there is some form of balance, some form of nurturing and love that everyone can put their guard down a little bit. Instead of fighting with each other and arguing with each other or pointing fingers, we can just talk with each other. At the end of the day, it's a social justice show disguised as a food show. The "broken" is the social justice and the "bread" is the food. Together it is "Broken Bread."

Numerous times you show things that seem to be working, then something happens and they don't work anymore. It's about the flexibility of solution finding and understanding maybe something that worked this month won't be available to us next month. Was that part of the narrative plan for this season?

No, but the great thing about "Broken Bread" is we're documenting real life as it's happening. Obviously, we're in a pandemic. and we're filming within the pandemic. Every day, every moment, everything changes. We started the season with Avenue 26, and by the time we were done editing, Avenue 26 had been stopped by the local governments. We were all about pivoting, even bringing in someone like Wolfgang Puck or Alice Waters, legends that have been around for decades that really know things and are extremely experienced and intelligent. They're still pivoting every second. The show is very malleable. We just go with wherever reality is going.

We try to balance that, through my narratives and my perspectives and the theme of the show, with a lot of idealism of where we want the world to go and what we believe the world should be. We don't understand how you can have mountains of produce and people are starving. Ultimately, that's the number one analogy that I use for myself every time I step into filming or editing or writing for the show — how can we have so much abundance, but then yet so many people don't have anything? It's not the fact that the systems themselves can't work. It's us, as humans, in between that are kind of ruining it for a lot of people.

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There is not a shortage of food — just so that's clear. There's a problem with distribution, with access, with our morals and our values towards what food is and how valuable it is to people. We will throw away food before we feed someone who needs food. That's fundamentally a broken system, a broken thing. What we're trying to do with the show is just get people to see the humanity behind things. We get fed all this information, and it's hard to comprehend and maybe get a grasp on how everything just feels so big and so out of our reach. We're just trying to show you that sometimes the biggest problems just take the smallest, smallest step-by-step solutions.

That's really what we try to show you with the people in the show. You don't have to feed five million people. You could feed five people, but that could mushroom into five million. Your movement can make a break somewhere and shoot off into something. We want to bring awareness so that people can really look at and have the knowledge and say, this is ridiculous. I can't believe that we have all this food and so many people can't access it, yet we'll throw away the food before we feed people.

Before we feed schoolchildren.

Before we feed children — especially children. My whole crusade in life is about the youth. Every step of my journey, from Kogi to Locol to "Broken Bread," is all building, hopefully, towards the foundation that I want to leave on this planet. That's really about feeding the youth and providing nutrition, knowledge, access, all of those things. The problem right now is that for the youth in elementary school, in junior high school, especially within the cities that I represent and the neighborhoods that I represent, so many resources are stripped every single day.

If we were to just talk about it point blank, it would be the most absurd thing ever. If you were to come on this planet and go into any inner city in America, and look at what's supposed to be the nurturing systems to keep the community thriving and healthy, and look at exactly what's going on on a day-to-day basis, you would be scratching your head trying to understand what the heck is going on.

In this pandemic, there have been public school kids whose access to their free breakfast and free lunch programs was affected. Plus, there's the impact on university students.

That's the biggest elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about — the homelessness within college students, the lack of ability to access food. Scarcity, affordability, everything. Because it would taint the illusion of the college dream.

The food scarcity in college students, and the sleep deprivation, and the fact that these kids are often working two jobs. That craziness around people who we call adults, yet don't have the resources that minors might have — it's immoral.

It's immoral — and colleges don't want you to hear that.

What I appreciate about this show is you don't just leave it with, "This is immoral, this is wrong." You use tough words like "exploitation" and "erasure." Then you ask, "OK, so what are we going to do about it? Here are people who are taking actions." You're calling upon us — wherever we are in the food cycle, even as consumers and eaters and home cooks — to ask what are we going to do creatively.

Absolutely. That's "Broken Bread." This is a show built around fixing the problem and finding solutions, and finding people that are already doing it and finding the solutions. It's a personal show, but it's also a communal show. The personal parts are that I'm a chef, I'm a cook. If you know kitchens and you know professional chefs, we are just problem solvers. That's what we are.

You live in New York City. Every restaurant in New York City, every chef, every kitchen — they've got to open every night, no matter what happens. You could have a million things happen. Everything breaks, everything goes down, deliveries don't show up, cooks don't come in, the power doesn't work, whatever the case may be. But we've still got to honor your reservation, and the show must go on. We have to, behind the scenes, always figure things out.

We also have our own moral compass. If something is rotten, or spoiled, or not correct, or cut improperly or someone's wasting too much, we don't let things fester. In a kitchen, you don't just see something and let that thing continue to rot, or continue to spoil. You do something about it, and you find solutions to fix it. You research and investigate, and you go to the point where you think it went wrong and you fix it.

For a lot of us in the kitchen, it's hard for us to go back into the real world and see all of these things that just are left to spoil in life. The show has helped me feel and believe that I'm not alone in certain things. I have a very childlike viewpoint towards life. I'm a dreamer, and I want to believe that we can do better and that there is a world where we can take care of each other and give without expecting something in return to each other. I try to operate my businesses that way.

The world constantly hits you in the face and says, "That's not how it's supposed to work, you ignorant child." Sometimes when you are burdened with that purpose and belief that you want to do righteous things and moral things, you feel alone a lot. You just feel like, maybe the world is right. And then I go out there and I film "Broken Bread," and it's like I'm not alone. There are so many amazing people doing so many things. In the Alice Waters episode, when I hear her say things like, "Time is not money. Bigger is not better." There is power and strength in believing and wanting to heal and not having to just destroy, and win, and scale and be on top all the time.

You also, in the midst of all this big picture problem solving, ask us as viewers and eaters fundamental questions. Why do we put down the idea of eating standing up? Eating in front of a cart — why is eating at a cart somehow less valuable or less meaningful than sitting at a table? Why do we value a plate of pasta because it's European cuisine, and we don't have that same sort of love and respect for a plate of beans or a bowl of rice? How do you approach these fundamental questions that get to the heart of trying to have a relationship with food that is more authentic and more respectful?

First and foremost with the show, I always never try to forget that it's a show. It's television. It's entertainment. We try to make an entertaining show. I try to be an entertaining host while also tackling very difficult topics. I don't want to just be a buzzkill to people. I don't want to just feel like it's a lecture. The big things that I try to focus on are just bringing up these structures we have in our world that are affecting millions and millions of people, and millions and millions of kids, and how they are treated and view themselves and can succeed within America.

We're still in a psyche and a psychology that is dominated by Western European thought. Because of that, we're still in a situation where we value certain humans, and we don't value certain humans. Through that perspective and through that lens, we have a very hurtful way of separating and valuing people in who they are. The perfect example of that is pasta compared to phở or chow mein. I just try to give my dime-store philosophy of how that all works together. Then maybe smarter people can trampoline and leapfrog that into something where we can maybe make some changes in the world. It is racism in its purest form. What is happening is with the bowl of pasta, because you're talking about all these different barriers. Maybe with certain cuisines and the people who cook those cuisines, they can't speak English. That's why a lot of us, as these second generation kids are stepping up, to speak up for our parents. We grew up in a whole generation, through the '70s, '80s, '90s, where we saw our elders and our parents basically get treated like sh_t. The only thing that was really hindering them is that they couldn't express themselves in English. Then people would take advantage of them, or would relegate their food as less than, or as cheap eats.

That's supported, again, by a lot of mainstream media, through a Western European lens. This bowl of pasta, you add storytelling to it. You can add poetry to it. "These ingredients were kissed by the sun in Tuscany." The San Marzano tomato is the perfect anecdote to this whole thing. You can create this whole folklore and story behind it. You could take something that costs like a $1.20 to make, and in New York City, I could charge $46 for marinara pasta, probably. And get away with it. Yet phở has to be $7 or $9. Or else, all of a sudden there's an outcry. I'm just trying to bring those things so that we can all confront them and hopefully do our part as storytellers to add value to things that people decided didn't have value. Ultimately that's what I was trying to do with the show, is be a storyteller, and do the same thing that was done for pasta, but do it for the things that have been relegated to cheap eats.

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By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Broken Bread Food Food Inequality Food Trucks Interview Roy Choi Social Justice