At home, Choi was still Good Roy, living in a mansion in a wealthy enclave, even if he stubbornly refused to take an allowance, instead earning his money at a toy store or washing dishes at Leatherby’s or busing tables at Cask ’n’ Cleaver. But with his friends in Grove Street, Choi morphed into Bad Roy, getting into fights, taking drugs, and storing shotguns under the seats of cars. By his senior year, he’d purchased and tricked out a 1987 Chevy Blazer, earning him a spot in a Latin car club called the Street City Minis. This was Cool Car Roy. Choi’s world was weird and fractured and multiethnic, filled with fights, petty crime, custom car shows, and a doting, successful family with a beautiful home. Choi was living two, maybe even three, lives, and it was hard to tell which was the real one.
After high school, Choi went to California State University, Fullerton, and majored in philosophy. But then, as Choi tells it, his life turned into a series of dramatic montage scenes from Rounders, Casino, and the scarier parts of Goodfellas. He spent a summer in Korea, met a girl, ate around Seoul with the girl, lost the girl, and ended up in New York at a YMCA smoking crack for a week after a con man swindled him out of his last $120 by pretending he was an adjunct professor who was going to bring Choi to an expensive lecture.
He went home, started to get his shit together enough to go back to college, and then became a gambling addict for the next few years, playing Asian Pan 9 and Pai Gow games at the Bicycle Club Casino in Bell Gardens. At first, Choi was a damn good gambler, winning $34,000 on one hand, eating pho, drinking milkshakes, and getting massages while bluffing Telly Savalas; blowing his winnings at Koreatown nightclubs while hanging out with people named John John Boy and Davy Baby and Marty Party; watching a guy win $150,000 at the casino, only to hear a few hours later he was murdered in the parking lot with an ax. You know, that sort of thing.
Eventually Choi’s luck ran out, but he couldn’t stop chasing it, and soon he was pawning everything he had, selling his clothes and shoes, stealing from his parents and his sister, taking anything he could. Finally, his parents intervened and brought him to their house to detox, and he started getting his shit together. He began working as a mutual funds broker at First Investors, initially on some Boiler Room shit, but soon he began doing well, even making six figures. But then the cycle shifted: Choi reconnected with an old friend, the old friend loved to drink, they went out, one night turned into a week turned into a month turned into six months, and it all bottomed out when an ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend and his friends beat Choi senseless and stuck guns to his head in the karaoke room of a Koreatown nightclub. Choi was asked if he wanted to live or die. Choi didn’t answer, and was allegedly brave or drunk or stupid enough to stagger to his feet, flick them off, walk out of the room without getting shot, and wake up the next morning in the passenger seat of his own car. Peak Bad Roy.
And that’s how we get back to Emeril. As most origin stories do, this one has turned into myth, with different iterations and angles and locations, but it goes something like this: Choi, hungover on the couch a few weeks later, was coming in and out of consciousness. In the background of his haze, he could hear a man seasoning the ever-loving shit out of meats and yelling phrases more commonly associated with the storyboarded sound effects from Adam West’s Batman. It was Essence of Emeril. The Fall River/ NOLA man/ bear hybrid was revving up the crowd with his discussion of beef bourguignonne. As Choi came in and out of this world, Emeril stepped into his dreams and gave him a pep talk while possibly letting him smell basil. Emeril, more than the ax murder, or the pawning of his shoes, or the guns to his head, was the tipping point for Choi. He was going to be a chef.