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Roy Choi’s ‘Broken Bread’ is a food show that’s really about gentrification and other social issues

“Our mission statement is looking at broken food systems and finding good people doing great things against all odds,” the Los Angeles chef says

Roy Choi meets the people actively preserving Latinx cuisine in Los Angeles. (Randall Michelson)
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The typical celebrity chef food show follows a familiar formula: chef visits a new locale each week, shepherded by a local to restaurants where they eat mouthwatering dishes over a good conversation.

Los Angeles chef Roy Choi wanted to do something different with his show “Broken Bread.”

“People love looking at food on TV, and so it’s kind of weirdly disguised as a food show,” Choi said. Each episode, Choi interviews people at nonprofit organizations, restaurateurs and other leaders in the community who are tackling social justice issues such as gentrification, cultural erasure and food deserts — and yes, with a healthy side serving of foodie glamour shots.

About US spoke with Choi about the new season of the show, which premieres Jan. 25 and is made by Tastemade and Southern California’s PBS station KCET.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: The format for the show is something different from a lot of what shows about chefs and food usually do. Why go with this particular format?

A: I guess it’s because these are the things that I care about and that I do every day, with or without a camera. Feeding the streets, feeding neighborhoods, creating pathways allying myself with organizations and cooking up the resistance; that’s what I do.

Every single day in my life, I’m in the trenches, but for some reason life has given me this opportunity to kind of step through different worlds. So even though I’m in the trenches, I’m also in Hollywood. I have one foot here and one foot there, so for me, I do have this access, I do have this opportunity to have a show. … And so I got to make sure that if the world is listening to me and in one crazy way or another, I’m going to make sure they hear what’s really going on, but not hear it in a way where they’re at fault or blaming anyone but hear it, like, truly from the heart.

There are systematic resources being stripped every single day through generations and generations, and those things have to be addressed at some point in life. I just wanted to make a show where there are no sides and we bring up the issue and we just try to provide solutions and the people who are active with those solutions that can show you that there are answers to these big problems.

Q: On the show, you talk a lot about gentrification. As your restaurants have become more successful, how do you balance success and not becoming an agent of gentrification yourself?

A: Well, we try to address that head-on in the Chinatown episode. … As we were doing our research and trying to figure out the storyboard and the story line of the episode, I offered up my own personal experience of opening a restaurant in Chinatown in 2013.

What happens is one shop opens and then all of a sudden the media gets behind it. And then it gets heralded as the new hot neighborhood, right? “The foodie destination” and all of that happened. And from that, maybe 30 to 40 new vendors came in, and it was everything from coffee shops to restaurants, artisan tea shops, all these things. So I just wanted to look at that and really personalize the story of gentrification and ask: Did I start all this? Who was displaced? What did I miss in 2013 because my intentions were pure? Also, we were asking a double question of: If you come from that neighborhood itself, can you still be a gentrifier? …

When we opened that restaurant in 2013, it was pure intentions, but now looking back, I realize it did displace people. It displaced a lot of seniors and recent immigrants. And then with the onslaught of the media labeling it the next hottest neighborhood in Los Angeles, landlords got on top of that and something that they could charge $800 for it now they could charge $3,800 for, and I think we came out of that episode with some answers.

I think we should be sensitive and aware and knowledgeable of neighborhoods when we go in, and there should be some financial way that helps the neighborhood. And that’s the thing that we came out with in the episode, whether that’s a surcharge, where every purchase that you make goes to providing an oversight committee fund that can work with developers and small merchants and the residents and always create a balance.

Maybe there’s a share of profits that happens, you know? And then eventually, with that momentum, go to local and city regional governments to get allocated funds. Again, just trying to keep a balance because, right now, everything is so unbalanced. But for me personally, I don’t really struggle or have too many demons with what I do. … I really try to always, even in growth, make sure that whatever I have is always still accessible to people. Like if you look at my main business, the Kogi taco truck, in 13 years we’ve only raised the price of our taco like 35 cents, you know? For me, it’s just really important to run businesses that are holistic, that aren’t just about profit.

Q: What did you want to show about Los Angeles that hasn’t been seen before when you came up with the idea for this show?

A: I just wanted to show the real neighborhoods and the streets and the issues that exist in real-time. And you know, selfishly, I wanted to put a lot of faces that aren’t on screen regularly on screen. I’m talking about Brown and Black faces, people who I hang out with every single day of my life. Us as immigrants and minorities are in a country where we don’t have shows that ever really put us on, you know? And so I wanted to make sure that if I was going to executive produce and host my own show, I wanted to make sure that there is representation and show the real city, show the real L.A.

And then that grew into what we where we are now, with Season 2, where we start with L.A., but we go up the state, all throughout California. But with the same ethos, like showing like real life, real people on the ground.

Our mission statement is looking at broken food systems and finding good people doing great things against all odds. … When you have that as your mission statement, things naturally fall in place. We don’t do a casting call or anything. We’re not like choosing, “Okay, we’re going to have, like, three White people, four Latinos and five Asians.” It’s nothing like that. Just when you have that purpose in life and you naturally go out there, you’re putting yourself in an environment where real people are doing real s---, and in most cases, the majority of those people are people of color, because a lot of the issues exist within communities of color.

Q: What do you see as the future of the show?

A: I never thought of it when we were even starting Season 2 or even all the way through Season 1, but I think that the show can go international because these problems exist everywhere in the world.

There are fighters and soldiers and healers and fixers all throughout the world and on the ground trying to care for their communities. And I think that the show can bring that to light whether that’s in Colombia, Uruguay, El Salvador, Vietnam.

I feel like the show cannot only be a food show. We’re trying to figure out the riddle of how do you address these issues that are really personally important to us without them feeling too political … where people will tune out. If we were to have sit-downs and just lay out the facts, I think it would be a different show. People would choose sides, you know? But by it being through the lens of food, I think it allows everyone to see the humanity within it and maybe connect with it in a way that they wouldn’t have.

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