DANIEL PATTERSON Transforming disadvantaged communities with healthy, affordable food

Two of America’s most celebrated chefs are reinventing fast food. Serving up ‘burgs’ and ‘foldies’ for $6 or less to some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in California are Daniel Patterson – the Michelin two-star chef of San Francisco restaurant Coi – and Roy Choi – street food king and founder of Kogi. Through their joint venture, LocoL – which currently has two restaurant locations in Watts and Oakland, plus a roaming food truck – their aim is to provide tasty, nutritious and affordable food to communities that have limited healthy choices. Compass spoke to Patterson to learn more about LocoL’s mission and future goals.

COMPASS: What made you get into the food industry?

DANIEL PATTERSON: I started as a dishwasher at 14 to make money. So I didn’t go into it thinking I was going to have a career. But I kept working kitchens; I really loved the environment and I was good at it. By the time I was 20 I realized that it was something I wanted to do long term.

It’s all I’ve ever done. And I work really hard. I’m pretty obsessive. I’m never satisfied with anything; I always want to make it better. And I think that’s what makes people successful, having a kind of relentlessness – a strong work ethic and an aversion to complacency.

What inspired you to found LocoL?

DP: Five years ago, I worked with Larkin Street Youth Services in the Tenderloin [a neighborhood in downtown San Francisco]. They take in kids who have ended up on the street and give them counseling, housing and job training.

I realized that they didn’t know how to cook. So I said “OK, the restaurant’s closed on Mondays, bring over 10-15 kids and we’ll do some basic lessons.”

It was apparent that they had no taste memory of good food, which meant they didn’t crave it. Once they tasted it, it was like a lightbulb went off.

I wanted to find a way of reaching as many kids as possible. Most of them eat fast food, so I thought it’d be great if there was a fast-food restaurant that served real food. I didn’t know how to do it. But then I saw Roy at the 2013 MAD food festival in Copenhagen. He gave a terrific talk on hunger and responsibility, and I thought “that’s my guy.”

I called him up a few months later and he said, “Great, let’s go!” And that was it.

Describe LocoL’s mantra.

DP: We want to feed people, and in doing so communicate love and caring and kindness and compassion.
Human existence is unique in how it brings people together. I think the history of the United States is that we really neglected and, in some cases, actively antagonized parts of our population. One of the results is that now some areas don’t have access to the same standard of living.

In a way, food can start a change that nothing else can. No one is going to get mad at you for making something delicious! Our business is very political, but we are not.

Why are you and Roy a good team?

DP: I think one of the things that Roy and I are good at is to visualize and dream about something that doesn’t exist and make it happen.

We changed how people cook in our local communities across LA. We introduced a business model that didn’t exist and we did a lot of things that trickled down and became useful across the entire neighborhood. I feel very lucky to have found a partner with exactly the same moral compass.

How does it feel to be making such a difference to local communities?

DP: We opened our first restaurant in Watts [a name that has been synonymous with poverty and racial unrest]. The spirit of the people in that neighborhood is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen – it changed my life.

Through the restaurant, we’ve taught each other things we didn’t know, but we meet in the middle at food. That is the most powerful aspect of LocoL. You can get a group of people that all come from different backgrounds, but we sit together over a meal.

Cooking is an act of generosity and of giving. A lot of our talented employees at LocoL are from the communities we started working with. One of our goals is to hire and promote from within.

Tell us how you put together the menu. What inspires you?

DP: We wanted to make fast food. So we started with the things people are used to – burgers, fried chicken sandwiches.

But we wanted to make these foods healthier and find a way to make less of an impact on the environment. So 30% of our ‘burg’ is grains and tofu. About 50% of our menu is vegetarian. We don’t advertise that, it just happens that way.

All over the world people feed themselves very well but inexpensively by using off-cuts of meat and lots of vegetables and grains. We look to traditions that are thousands of years old – places where it’s about long-cooked flavors, spices, grains, starches, vegetables. We just don’t do this very well in the US.

Roy and I work closely together on the menu. He has a good sense of what people like and don’t like. Sometimes he’ll say, “Why don’t you try this?” and I’ll go away and develop it. Then we’ll try it and kick it around. It’s like a real restaurant in the sense that the food is still evolving.

You’re already having a big impact on the communities you serve. What legacy do you hope to leave?

DP: What I think about is how to make positive change, how to bring happiness to people and make their lives a little bit better, and that’s enough.

LocoL is a huge sprawling, wonderful, joyful challenge that I hope will continue for a long time. I don’t know what the future holds. But I hope that in five years someone would walk into LocoL and have no idea who Roy and I are – that LocoL exists as its own entity. That would be success. These communities can speak for themselves, and we need to start listening.

by Rebecca Lambert Back to top
by Rebecca Lambert

Peek inside LocoL’s Watts location: