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Chef Roy Choi fuses food and neighborhoods

Published on December 28, 2017 10:33AM

The holiday season typically involves food, feasting and calorie overload — so this is the perfect time to devote this column to a Bellevue, Washington, publisher that focuses on promoting “food literacy from the ground up.” Readers to Eaters was founded in 2009 by husband-and-wife team Philip Lee and June Jo Lee.

Philip, born in Hong Kong and educated at UC Berkeley, had a background in New York’s magazine publishing industry before he co-founded Lee & Low Books in 1991, which has gone on to become the nation’s largest publisher of multicultural children’s books.

Philip’s work on children’s issues led him to recognize that hunger, food security, food deserts and youth obesity were all major obstacles to a healthy childhood for way too many kids.

June, born in Korea and educated at Harvard, is a food ethnographer interested in building community and relationships through food, while also looking at “decommoditizing” what we eat and how we eat it.

Together with author Jacqueline Briggs Martin, who initiated the “Food Heroes” series for Readers to Eaters with her previous books “Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table” and “Alice Waters and the Trip to Delicious,” the Lees have now produced “Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix.”

Although this book is aimed at readers ages 6 through 10, all ages can enjoy this upbeat biography.

Born in Korea in 1970, Roy Choi was just a toddler when his family came to the U.S. He grew up in his family’s restaurant business, where they cooked with sohn-maash — a Korean term that translates as “the flavors in our fingertips” — to convey the love and skill that go into handmade foods.

Eventually Roy became a top-flight chef himself, working in fancy restaurants in Los Angeles, cooking “for rock stars and royalty.”

But as this story shows, Roy really yearned for a more direct connection between what he cooked and the people he cooked for. With a friend, he started a food truck business that featured the Korean cooking he loved from his childhood — served up on a tortilla! Kogi Tacos — Choi’s mash-up of Korean and Mexican street food — became a big hit all over L.A.

The next step was to create fast-food spots “in hungry neighborhoods.” Roy wanted to provide places that served healthy and flavorful food, as well as good jobs for local folks.

Again, Roy was not only bringing together new combinations of traditional foods, he was bringing all sorts of people together, “Koreans with Latinos, kids with elders, taggers with geeks.”

Zippy illustrations by graffiti artist Man One echo the energy and vibrancy of Roy’s approach to food, and this book’s inclusion of “recipes” are really more like invitations to experiment and create concoctions that are uniquely your own.

“Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix” encourages folks of all ages and stripes to come together and connect over meals that are healthy, adventurous and delicious, thanks to a big dollop of that essential ingredient, sohn-maash.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.


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