Chef Roy Choi Brings an Oasis to the ‘Food Desert’ of South Central LA

Kogi chef Roy Choi partners with the South Central Los Angeles community and Dole Food Company in a fruitful venture for all.

photo by NARITH TA

A half-hour before the grand opening of 3 Worlds Café in South Central Los Angeles, Roy Choi circles the staff like a hawk, making sure the kitchen is running at full capacity.

“Stay at your stations, all right? Don’t ever leave your station,” he instructs. “This is you, right here. You rely as a team on everyone else to do their job.”

Choi’s voice rings over the excited murmurs of the early customers and members of the community trickling in, as the 3 Worlds crew, as dubbed by Choi, prepares for the café’s July 6 grand opening. Despite the game face, the chef of Kogi truck fame can’t help but show his excitement.

“This is a joyous day,” he declares. “It’s a very, extremely happy, joyous day.”

For the co-founder and culinary mind behind the renowned Korean taco-serving food truck and variousrestaurants all over Los Angeles, 3 Worlds Café appears, at least on the surface, to be Choi’s latest business venture. But, different from his other restaurants, 3 Worlds Café is a collaboration between Choi, Dole Food Company, the local nonprofit Coalition for Responsible Community Development and Jefferson High School. The café presents a menu headlined by smoothies, fruit cups and coffee drinks.

Its location in the inner city is significant, as the inner city is often dubbed a food desert because of the dearth of supermarkets and healthy food options.

The first inklings of the idea to open 3 Worlds came after Dole approached the chef about three years ago, expressing interest in working together.

“At that time, my head was in a place where I was looking for celebrity or sponsorship, but what happened was that I thought, ‘What if we take that money and we do something in the neighborhood, instead of me standing and crossing my arms in a bossy photo?’” Choi said. “‘Why don’t we take whatever money we were gonna spend in those ad dollars and do something great?’”

Choi began working with Jefferson High to build an “Economics 101” program, a specialized course for 10 to 12 juniors and seniors, following a lesson plan that includes running a business, taking inventoryand—most importantly, Choi says—serving fruit in a delicious way.

“As I was going through it, [I] was also thinking about the divide that we have between the monikers of eating healthy and what’s really going down in the neighborhoods,” said Choi. “People need to eat healthy and the youth need to eat healthy, but two things: One, we’re not giving them access to a lot of foods that are out there. And secondly, if I’m a 17-year-old student and an adult tells me to eat healthy, I’m like, ‘F-ck you. None of this sh-t you say to me is interesting. Why should I listen to you?’”

That was a lesson the 3 Worlds team learned early on, when the project began as a fruit cart at Jefferson High three years ago. Dole provided the fruit, Choi provided his culinary guidance, and the high school provided a small, dedicated workforce.

F-CB-0813-2Cafe-KidsRoy Choi with three of the original members of the 3 Worlds crew from Jefferson High School. 

Luis Pahena was a senior two years ago when he was accepted to become a part of the inaugural 3 Worlds crew, and recalled that students at the time weren’t so willing to venture outside of the options they already had available, that is, mostly fast food.

“A lot of people didn’t like [this kind] of food over at Jefferson,” Pahena said. “You don’t really see many places like this in [South] L.A.”

Still, Pahena added that the communities that make up South Central already have a deeply embedded fruit culture, an oft-overlooked fact. “You have a lot of Hispanics, they like mangoes and [other] fruits,” he said.

It was just a matter of making such healthy food options appealing to this high school crowd. So, after some menu modifications and lowering prices, the 3 Worlds fruit cart began to catch on with students.

“My angle was to stop using the word ‘healthy’ and just make it ‘delicious,’” said Choi, describing his strategy. “Let’s make it fun. Let’s put some flavor and some energy behind it, and let’s let the kids design it. Let them make the concept as if they were talking to each other.”

The behind-the-scenes of the 3 Worlds cart at Jefferson High reflected exactly that. Students were able to pitch and bounce ideas off of Choi, who would then offer his feedback or provide resources. From there, students would go out and spread their ideas and products to their friends and community. The program enjoyed success for two years, and while Choi was contemplating its long-term future, leaders from the Coalition for Responsible Community Development, approached him. They told him they had a vacant café location on Central Avenue. That sparked the idea to take the 3 Worlds brand and move it into that spot as a business.


Roy Choi shares a toast with several members of the community and business partners. 

And the rest, as they say, is history—or rather, the present and, hopefully, well into the future, say its supporters.

“It’s almost too good to be true, but it’s possible, and it’s possible to replicate this,” L.A. City Councilman Curren Price said, in remarks at the 3 Worlds grand opening. “I’m excited about the fact that this is the first one, but not the only one, right, partners? Right, community? We’re gonna see these all over.”

One only needs to step inside 3 Worlds Café and look around to see that it is driven by and catered to the people who live and congregate around Central Avenue, a longtime business center for South Los Angeles. Customers can enjoy a signature Mango Bomb smoothie or an intriguingly-named Boba Fett fruit cup, while enjoying the student-designed murals.

As with his Kogi franchise, the community aspect of this project brings an added significance for Choi.

“They’re my family,” he said of the neighborhood. “I spent every day of my life in this neighborhood for the last three years. There’s no master plan, no ulterior motive—they’re just good people in my life right now, and I’m a part of their lives. I know where I’m at right now, I know there’s some celebrity and some momentum in my life as a chef, but I never forget that I have to wipe my ass and put my shoes on and go out into the world.”

As with his other restaurants, Choi makes sure the kitchen runs as smoothly as possible, demanding the staff always give their best.

“I’m busting these guys’ asses,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Our only goal right now is to serve the best possible drinks, best possible smoothies. … For me that part is the same, not minimizing or overcompensating any training or sympathy for anybody because of where we’re at or what hasn’t been here. What’s the same is the attitude of just excellence, doing your best, hospitality and belief, and knowing that this place is going to be a success.”


Chefs, he said, should follow his example and not be discouraged by preconceptions of the inner city and its apparent lack of food culture. That’s an issue that will never be solved, as long as chefs refuse toinvest in the inner city.

“[The] bottom line is, chefs aren’t opening restaurants in South Central L.A., in South L.A.,” he said. “There are a lot of liquor stores. Those are just facts. For me, it’s about why do we have to accept those facts? The people that I hang out with here, they’re not stereotypes or caricatures that you can just put in a form. They’re living, breathing human beings that eat food just like you. So why not open the same things you would open in any other neighborhood, instead of just saying, ‘Oh, these are food deserts, and they’ll never happen.’ Why won’t they happen? How the f-ck do you know it won’t happen? How the f-ck do you know people won’t love them?

“It’s really about taking a chance,” he continued. “Five years ago, people were calling food trucks roach coaches. People were pointing at food trucks and saying, ‘I would never eat off that thing.’ Now, the same person who said, ‘I would not eat off that food truck’ is hiring it for their 9-year-old kid’s birthday party.”

3 Worlds Café is a dream that has “no boundaries,” Choi said. “The big dream is that this will be a success, and that the team will be able to support their lives and families and have a wonderful job and have a great paycheck,” he said. “The community will have a place where they can hang out. It can naturally grow and have an energy. From there, they will find their own way to become entrepreneurs and grow this business. This is not my business. It’s theirs.

“The next step is to grow it organically, find their entrepreneurial spirit, which will in turn influence others, and then maybe other investors come in and see this, and say you know what, ‘This can be replicated in Baltimore, the South side of Chicago, the Bronx, all these areas.’ … This is a start of something really, really awesome.”

This article was published in the August 2013 issue of KoreAmSubscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the August issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).