IN COPENHAGEN in the summer of 2013, Daniel Patterson, a two-Michelin-star chef with four restaurants in California’s Bay Area, watched as the Los Angeles–based chef Roy Choi gave a speech about the millions of Californians who are hungry or live in fear of going hungry. As Patterson sat in the audience at the MAD Symposium in the Danish capital, an annual event that gathers thought leaders in the field of food, he was reminded of his own social-justice initiative, called the Cooking Project, which works with kids and adults in San Francisco’s toughest neighborhood, the Tenderloin. “The idea,” he says, “is that by teaching some basic cooking skills, we can greatly improve eating in areas where nutritious and delicious meals are hard to come by.”
Patterson wanted to expand his idea in the form of a fast-food restaurant. It would link the Cooking Project to social enterprise, creating jobs in the Tenderloin. And it would give the fast-food chains that inundate inner-city diets with a steady stream of chemicals and high-fructose corn syrup a run for their money. “We’d bring in a natural, cooked-with-integrity alternative,” says Patterson. “We’d have chefs feed these neighborhoods, not corporations.” In Choi, he recognized the desire to help the same demographic. So a few weeks later, he flew to Los Angeles, where Choi co-owns four popular restaurants, plus the fleet of Kogi Korean taco trucks that put him on the map. They began hatching a plan for Loco’l, their chef-driven fast-food restaurant, over a bowl of Korean noodles. “There was no money behind us yet, no investors,” says Choi, “but we don’t put business in front of ideas. We slurped a hot pot, talked about changing the game, and there was no question from there—we were doing this.”
The chefs chose the 2014 MAD Symposium last August to announce their plan publicly. Choi took the stage to speak, introducing Patterson—“DP,” he said, invoking their bond by way of nickname—eight minutes later. They both stood behind a long, age-worn butcher’s block flanked by trees, the 45-year-old Choi wearing a baseball cap with a crisp brim, and Patterson, 46, donning the festival’s T-shirt. “We’re going to tackle the fast-food industry,” proclaimed Choi. The Loco’l logo—a graffiti-inspired skateboarding hamburger wearing a beanie—popped up on a screen behind him. “We’re going to build a concept that has the heart and the ideology and the science of a chef, but it’ll have the relevance of McDonald’s or Burger King. We’re going to go toe-to-toe to see how we can challenge the status quo of fast food.”
Choi and Patterson embody a second wave of activist chefs, taking cues from pioneers like Alice Waters as well as a century’s worth of writings on industrial food issues, from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) to Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (2001). They feel the time has come for chefs to step up and do more.
With the legacy fast-food businesses in upheaval, they timed their announcement perfectly. In 2013, Burger King in the U.K. was found to be serving beef burgers that contained horse meat. Last year, undercover video caught workers at Shanghai Husi Food, a subsidiary of the Illinois supplier OSI Group, packaging expired meat for franchises throughout Asia, including KFC and Pizza Hut. Last August marked McDonald’s worst sales month in over a decade, and this March the company replaced its president and CEO Don Thompson. In nearly 200 American cities, fast-food workers have been protesting to raise their pay.
Loco’l hopes to answer those protests by paying more, around 20 percent higher than minimum wage. Employees will be taught skills that will translate into better food jobs later; working the line at Loco’l will mean actually learning to cook, accumulating kitchen techniques that go far beyond dropping frozen, molded meats into a fryer. “People could start here,” says Patterson, “and go on to work in any kitchen in the world.” Quality ingredients are crucial. There will be no azodicarbonamide—a chemical used in yoga mat manufacturing and, also, the buns at Burger King and McDonald’s—in Loco’l bread. Instead, Chad Robertson, of San Francisco’s perpetually packed Tartine Bakery, will create a fresh, flavorful bun. “Loco’l is about communities rising up,” says Choi. “It’s really damaging for entire segments of the population to be served by companies who don’t care about them,” says Patterson. “Everyone should be cooked for with love.”
SIX MONTHS AFTER their joint announcement, on a wind-whipped February afternoon, Choi and Patterson are cooking through the complete Loco’l menu for the first time, in the kitchen of Patterson’s Oakland restaurant Haven. As Patterson chops vegetables, he talks about the need to “create a language everyone can understand.” Patterson’s cultural references skew toward traditional scholarship. In 2010, he named his second restaurant, Plum, after the William Carlos Williams poem “This Is Just to Say,” and wallpapered it himself with 12,000 pages of American poetry. Choi refers most often to hip-hop and basketball. He once said that eating chef René Redzepi’s food felt like being in a Flying Lotus song, and he compares his collaboration with Patterson to Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal playing for the Lakers at the same time. “We’re putting our egos on the shelf,” says Choi. “We’re pushing toward a championship.”
Together, they’ve launched a crowdfunding page on the website Indiegogo to help with operational expenses, and have raised almost $60,000 to date. Redzepi sits on Loco’l’s advisory board along with Tartine’s Robertson, while Hanson Li, a Bay Area restaurant financier, is a partner. And they’ve already signed 10-year leases for their first two locations. Loco’l’s Tenderloin outpost is scheduled to open later this year, at the intersection of Turk and Taylor, known as one of the most dangerous in the city. The second Loco’l, also slated for completion in 2015, is being built adjacent to the Jordan Downs housing projects in the Watts district of South Central Los Angeles. That space is owned by Aqeela Sherrills, the community activist best known for brokering a historic peace treaty between rival gangs, the Bloods and the Crips, in 1992.
hoi and Patterson share a strong desire to apply their craft to solving inner-city nutrition problems. “When chains and liquor stores are the only options for buying food, and the food in them is cheap and easy, residents become dependent on them for basic sustenance,” says Marion Nestle, author of seven books on food politics and the Paulette Goddard Professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. Peeling a slice of Jack cheese from his cheese pile, Patterson suggests Loco’l will be a more healthful option. “It’s food I would feed my kids,” he says.
The Loco’l burger is two-thirds meat and one-third whole grain. It’s made from a mix of beef, quinoa, barley, seaweed, white soy and garum—a highly flavored fermented beef extract that belongs, technologically, to the world of chefs—and is engineered in part to keep supply costs down. As more and more Loco’ls open, affordably sourcing fresh foods in large quantities is one challenge Choi and Patterson will have to resolve. “A project like Loco’l requires a very different kind of supply chain to support the vision,” says Dan Barber, chef at New York’s Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns and author of The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food. With that in mind, Patterson and Choi are currently in the process of reaching out to their existing vendors. “It’s fair to question if Daniel and Roy are thinking in a way that squares with reality,” says Barber. “But it’s also what makes the endeavor so admirable. Daniel and Roy are helping change the culture: The only way to get the food system to change is to activate the right kind of demand.”
Choi throws more meat on the grill and begins to explain the menu. “Our categories,” he says, “are Rollies, Foldies, Bowls, Burgs, Yotchays [snacks and veggies] and Dulces.” Items will mostly cost between 99 cents and $6, with a few as much as $8. “A major point of the brand,” says Choi, “is to have substantial food available at all these prices.” Patterson warns us not to confuse Loco’l with the current trend of chef-driven fast casual restaurants, not to mention Chipotle and Shake Shack, where beer and wine are served. “Those places are more upscale,” he says. “They’re designed to make you think you’re not eating fast food.” Choi continues: “Fast food is the only totally inclusive kind of dining. Everyone feels like they belong.”
Having prepped items under the Rollie, Foldie, Bowl and Burg rubrics, Patterson starts passing finished dishes to Choi for analysis and critique. On top of possessing innate branding and marketing skills, Choi owns a finely tuned fast-food palate. The stuff is holy to him, he explains. “Growing up, it was a special treat. I ate so much Korean food that fast food tasted like freedom.” He reels off a series of memorable bites: “McDonald’s, Del Taco, a place called Naugles, Jack in the Box. One of my first great meals,” he says, “was two Monster Tacos and a strawberry shake.”
Choi takes a bite from a Bowl of hearty tofu-vegetable stew. “Can we figure out a way to get some crunch on the top?” he says. Next, he picks up a quinoa falafel ball—filling for a Foldie—bringing it close to his face, examining it the way a jeweler might inspect a diamond for flaws. “I love these categories,” he says, “projecting that these things will become part of life, part of reality, like, imagine these kids rolling up, being like, ‘Gimme two Foldies, a Rollie and a Burg.’ ”
Smiling, Choi bites down on a Burg stuffed with barbecued turkey. “It eats like something from Wendy’s,” he says. “I have no clue what that means,” responds Patterson, who does not eat fast food, and whose own formative food memories involved many boyhood hours devoted to watching his grandmother Freda cooking quietly in her Massachusetts kitchen.
“I’m the one who always brings it back to fast food,” says Choi. Patterson, on the other hand, relishes the challenge of developing a menu with more variety than the genre typically allows. Loco’l, he asserts, won’t be strictly a burger joint. “There’s more than one point of entry,” he says. Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin American flavors will all be represented. “From a chef standpoint,” says Patterson, “I think it’s just as hard to make mass quantities of food well and inexpensively as it is to make Michelin-star food.”
With both chefs standing over the Haven griddle, Burg R&D continues. Beef-grain-garum patty, Awesome Sauce, Jack cheese, grilled-scallion-and-lime relish on a Tartine Bakery bun—but Choi intuits one more necessary step. “I keep thinking about mobility,” he says, “taking it outside, skateboarding with it, eating it on a bike.” He grabs a spatula, puts his fully dressed Burg back on the grill and applies pressure. “I like it pressed,” he says, taking the artisanal loft out of the bun and heating its entire surface until it develops a thinner, crispier texture. Patterson agrees. It’s superior. And like that, their first menu item is finalized. “Me saying ‘Press a sandwich’ isn’t Stephen Hawking,” says Choi. “But it could be the thing that makes us part of the vernacular. It could be the thing that makes Loco’l relevant.”
ON THE CORNER of Taylor and Turk, Patterson ducks into a dark opening between two sheets of plywood. With the flooring not yet installed, boards balance across a series of joists, and he’s careful to stay toward their center to keep from falling through. Workers in hard hats drill into the generously high ceiling, spraying concrete dust everywhere. “This is it,” says Patterson.
Scott Kester—a Harvard-trained architect who is an advisor to the restaurant and also its designer—explains the look the space will ultimately assume: “The goal,” he says, “is to make Loco’l feel like it wasn’t designed.” Choi, having been inspired by Kester, said he envisioned an interior that’s open and democratic like a city park, with multiple kinds of surfaces available for sitting and eating. Patterson points out the thousand square feet on the premises where food will be prepped for the Loco’l kitchen. “With typical fast food,” he says, “things arrive in bags, off a truck. We’re making everything fresh.”
“The neighborhood is ready for this,” says Aqeela Sherrills, of the Watts location. “People here deserve quality food, and they deserve guys like chef Roy and chef DP, who cook conscientiously and want to feed all people with integrity.”
There’s a good deal of We’ll figure it out as we go with Patterson and Choi. But their ambition remains unwavering. Within hours of flying back to L.A., Choi has already started texting Patterson about Loco’l’s future:
Can’t get that bbq turkey joe off my mind.
Jarobi White from Tribe Called Quest is down to run our NYC location, he’s a chef too.
Cooking the food really puts the brand in stereo, and inspired the whole room to believe even more.
“Roy makes everything cool,” says Patterson, turning onto Taylor Street. “I’d never take on a $200 billion industry by myself, but one thing I’ve discovered is I only like doing things that are either impossible or as close to impossible as I can get. Loco’l is very appealing in that way.”
Earlier, at Haven, after giving their Burg its green light, Choi and Patterson discussed just how many Loco’ls they’re looking to open.
“A million?” said Choi.
“A million,” said Patterson.