Main Course

Roy Choi Puts the ‘Food’ Back in Fast Food With LocoL

His latest culinary endeavor with fellow chef and restaurateur Daniel Patterson aims to prove that "fine fast food" is not an oxymoron.

Mayor Eric Garcetti, Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson during Grand Opening of LocoL (Photo Credit: Audrey Ma)

Fast food is a $200 billion dollar a year industry in the U.S., but it’s actually a staple of some people’s diets because it’s some of the only food in their neighborhood and because — shock — they like the taste.

Recently, two world-renowned chefs — Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson – decided to fight fryer with fryer by creating a chain that serves food which looks, costs, and tastes like fast food… but is made from wholesome ingredients.

It’s called LocoL. The first location just opened in Watts, in Los Angeles. They plan to open more in equally distressed neighborhoods. When Brendan visited, he asked Roy what makes their idea different.


Roy Choi: On one end, you have kind of a lecturing going on like, “You need to eat healthy, you need to eat nutritious. Don’t eat that. That’s bad, eat this.” When they’re saying, “Don’t eat that, that’s bad and they say eat this,” the eat this is usually not that delicious. Usually like kind of boring and nasty and, and kids aren’t feeling it.

Kids eating at LocoL during Grand Opening. (Photo Credit: Audrey Ma)
Kids eating at LocoL during Grand Opening. (Photo Credit: Audrey Ma)

Brendan Francis Newnam: I remember I talked to Alice Waters a couple of years ago and she was talking about, if you give a kid an apple, it’s kind of intimidating. It’s just like this big, round thing, that’s impenetrable and it’s not tasty. But if you chop it up, maybe you put some sugar on it, it actually makes it more enticing. It sounds like you have, you see this as a similar challenge.

Roy Choi: Definitely. And that’s what Daniel and I do is we just try to make food. And by making delicious food or approachable food or food that is fun in your life, I feel like us being chefs answers the other part of that question. Because we would never cook the food knowing that we were kind of like, not using good or fun or delicious ingredients. And so that part is not even a part of like our brain process. We would naturally just pick vegetables or fruits to make flavors. I think that part is in the bag.

Brendan Francis Newnam: There are some parameters you gave yourself and that’s affordability and nutrition to a certain extent, even though it’s kind of in your DNA as a cook. What was the biggest challenge, affordability wise, what was the toughest thing to crack?

Roy Choi: We do have these parameters. Two dollars, four dollars, six dollars. We look at the price and then we say, obviously for two dollars or four dollars, we can’t serve a whole breast of chicken. But what if we ground that chicken up, mixed it with sprouting oats, seasoned that whole thing up, emulsified it, then spread it back down and then froze it, and cut it into shapes, put a slurry on it, and then fry it. Which would look — in our sandwich — which would look like an eight ounce piece of chicken, but because it’s mixed and emulsified, it’s actually maybe only a three to four ounce piece of chicken, mixed with grains and oats. But then when you eat it, our science as a chef hopefully will translate where you don’t notice the difference, but your body actually feels better.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So as I ordered, with your assistance before I sat down with you, a burger, some chicken nugs, a sundae and a carnitas foldy.

LocoL Foldy (Photo Credit: Audrey Ma)
LocoL Foldie (Photo Credit: Audrey Ma)

Roy Choi: There it is. So if you look at that [the foldie], all the stuff I’ve been saying even if you believe anything I said, like if you would just look at this, this is more powerful than my words. We wanted to do exactly like fast food. So you have the nuggets, which are chicken nuggets. But again that’s that forcemeat that I talked about.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I’m going to try, and what’s the sauce, is it?

Roy Choi: The sauce is an herb green goddess sauce, mixed with the buttermilk mayo, and then hot sauce.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And so, tasting it, I almost sense a little fennel. Like a sweetness and other stuff. But also, it’s just fried good. I get that just animal delight of biting into a friend chunk.

Roy Choi: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. And the experience is just a nugget. So if you were a 16-year-old kid, you didn’t, you don’t need to know that there are sprouting oats in there. And you don’t need to know that that sauce has tarragon and chervil in it. You just need to know that that is bomb.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Chervil would be something I’d call my friend to make fun of.

Roy Choi: Yeah, exactly. And you just need to know that it’s bomb and then after you eat it a couple times, you may ask, you know, “What’s in this sauce though?” Then if we say chervil, they may laugh and then they may ask again and then what’s chervil and then finally then the bridge opens up.

Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson during team meeting at LocoL .(Photo Credit: Audrey Ma)
Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson during team meeting at LocoL .(Photo Credit: Audrey Ma)

Brendan Francis Newnam: So I want to look at this foldie which, so this looks something like Taco Bell or something with maybe…

Roy Choi: Yeah, I actually, when we were designing it I was thinking of the monster taco at Jack in the Box. So that was kind of what we thought here. So this is different sprouting beans and grains, mixed together, and this one has carnitas. So we take a whole pork shoulder, we cook it overnight with garlic, and then we make a salsa verde that we mix into it, and then that’s filled and then griddled on each side and it gets served for two bucks.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I’m going to try it right now. It tastes like a real corn is going on in there.

Roy Choi: For sure.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Talking about the grilling and stuff, I guess you also had to make this stuff that could be cooked fast and isn’t too much work right, because you’re going to, you have lines and you have people coming in and you have the promise of offering fast food.

Roy Choi: We’ve got to serve this food in three minutes, you know what I mean? Otherwise people start to create in an environment where it’s already tough enough to kind of change the way people are eating. If we don’t, if we don’t deliver, we open up that door for skepticism. The way we have really thought about it is a lot of our early visions were like short order grill, Philly cheesesteak where it’s just literally hot stone, a piece of hot metal, flip it a couple of times, you get it in your hand.

  • LocoL BBQ Soft Serve Sundae
    BBQ Soft Serve Sundae (Photo Credit: Audrey Ma)

In order to do that, we have to take 99 percent of the work and do it behind the scenes. So slow, like any chef’s kitchen, slow cooking, building of flavors, layering of flavors, and that is what gives us the opportunity on the front end, to not have any like, advanced level cooking going on.

There’s a lot of advance preparation, but they don’t have any salt and pepper, they don’t have any knives or any cutting boards or anything like that they have to do. All they have to is literally take that foldy out, put it on a hot piece of metal, flip it and then put it in a bag.

Brendan Francis Newnam: It’s almost like a classic franchise. You’ve delivered these things with very simple instructions about how to do them.

Roy Choi: Yep. I know I started this interview by saying we’re chefs. But the infrastructure of local, we’re trying to create as a fast food company. So, imagine every step of the process being just like a Burger King or a McDonald’s, or a Taco Bell. Comes in the back door, they put it on their station, the one in the front kitchen literally presses a button or puts it on the thing, they put it in the bag and they go.

The difference with us is the system is the same, but the food is real food.