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What’s in a Woke McRib?

OtherWhat’s in a Woke McRib?

The chef Roy Choi posted up at the counter of Abby’s Diner in Los Angeles recently. Several times a week, the place morphs from a traditional greasy spoon—booths, tiled floor, B.L.T.s—to a greasy spoon that serves vegan renditions of such drive-through classics as the McDonald’s McRib.

“I like to re-create a lot of stuff from fast food so people feel comfortable,” Jose Mejia said. He is a founder of the Vegan Hooligans, which began popping up last February. (The name is a nod to his love of punk rock and soccer.) He wore overalls and a brown beanie. “I wanted to create a brand that didn’t just capture the eyes of, like, vegans,” he added.

Eleven years ago, Choi co-founded Kogi BBQ, a fleet of Korean-taco trucks that fuelled a food-truck renaissance and got him on a number of best-of lists (Food & Wine Best New Chef, Time 100). He is not a vegan. “Kogi, for Pete’s sake, means ‘meat’ in Korean,” he said. But after meeting Mejia while filming an episode of his TV series, “Broken Bread,” a less hedonistic version of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations,” Choi decided to try more meat substitutes. Now he eats animals maybe once a week.

“I don’t like labels,” he said. “If you’re a vegan and you’re woke as fuck, you shouldn’t be putting me down because I haven’t gotten there yet.”

The same could be said of plant-based meat, which a recent report projected will become a hundred-and-forty-billion-dollar industry in the next decade. “There’s a lot of processing, a lot of gums and thickeners and emulsifiers and hidden ingredients in there,” Choi said. “We have no idea where this is taking us: Is it good for you or not? Is replacing animal fat with plant fat and trans fat better or worse for you? It’s like vaping versus smoking. No one knows.”

In one episode of “Broken Bread,” which began streaming on Hulu last week, Choi explores what food might look like if we ate less meat. (He skeptically eyes a pile of succulents foraged by a sustainable caterer: “You think people are gonna look at this and say, ‘Damn, let’s eat’?”) Other topics—chefs who repurpose leftovers, the food activists of Watts—also lack food-porn appeal.

“I made a pact with myself: There’s no need for me to do shitty television,” he said. “I don’t need to put myself in a cutthroat battle or show how spicy I can eat something.”

Last year, a producer from the online video network Tastemade pitched him the show that he had been trying to sell to Hollywood agents for years. Tastemade had a public-television deal and a prime-time slot (plus streaming). “It was, like, soul-mate shit,” Choi said.

Ashley Ellis, who makes alcohol-infused vegan desserts, put a plate in front of Choi. “This is our Western burger,” she said. Her hair was dyed to resemble a black-and-white cookie.

“Inspired by Carl’s Jr., obviously,” Choi said. He took a bite: pea-protein patty, soy bacon, modified-cornstarch cheese. “I love the bun.”

Ellis came back with two shakes in frosty Mason jars: “Banana or Oreo?” Choi reached for the banana shake. Ellis pointed to a flyer that listed the ingredients for the “non-dairy frozen dessert”: bananas, coconut milk, maple syrup.

“All right, guys, it’s spicy,” Richard Chang, in an apron and a newsboy cap, said, appearing with a red plastic basket containing Nashville-style hot “chick-un” (seitan). “This is our reaper sauce and homemade honey butter” (agave).

Choi tried a piece. “Hoo! ” he said. He chugged his non-dairy shake. “This is pretty much what Nashville hot chicken tastes like, though. This culture is at a stage of flavor-bombing food, so you don’t notice the meat is missing. But, eventually, this food has to get to a place where it’s not mimicking. It has to be its own thing.”

How? “Convince the chef world to get involved. Right now, I feel like this movement is being run by the paralegals and not the lawyers. ” (He dropped out of law school to attend the Culinary Institute of America.) “You have developers and businesspeople and forty-niner gold hunters creating this natural-food-expo stuff, the processed stuff, and then you have the grassroots community cooking the food. We need chefs to come in and say, ‘Here are some other ideas.’ ”

Mejia walked over from the griddle. Choi asked him, “Can you still call yourself vegan if you still wear a leather belt?”

“No,” Mejia said. “I’m a leather scoff. It’s been four years, but it’s still hard sometimes.”

“It has to extend to your whole universe?” Choi said.

“Laundry detergent, toothpaste, everything,” Mejia answered.

“You like soccer,” Choi said. “They play with a leather ball. Can you watch soccer as a vegan?”

“Yeah!” Mejia laughed nervously. “I mean, I’m a hooligan!” ♦

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