Many of our jobs, careers, and day-to-day lives were affected by the pandemic, but comedian Jo Koy’s experience has been pretty unique. “The New York Times listed me in the top 10 arena acts in the world. Not just comedy acts, arena acts period.” Then the pandemic hit. “All of a sudden the doors just close in front of you.” An act who can pack stadiums on several continents is beyond rare in the world of comedy. And while this year stalled Koy’s global tour, there are other ways you can experience him—in his three Netflix specials, for example— as well as his memoir, Mixed Plate, which arrived in bookstores this week.
Koy holds little back in the book. Hilariously and humanely, he reveals what it was like growing up in the United States with a Filipino mother, and without his White American father (who left the family when Koy was still a young boy). Koy lays bare his family members’ struggles with mental health, as well as the challenges he and his family faced as Asian Americans. At the same time, it’s a story of triumph, an incredibly relatable one, as Koy and his family find the meeting place of their American and Filipino identities. Both in the book, and in Koy’s life, a great deal of his Filipino culture is expressed in food (hence the title of the book), so much so that he included a number of his favorite recipes in the book.
Recently, we tried out one of these recipes—for Pancit, a Filipino stir-fried noodle dish—and reached Koy at his home in Los Angeles to talk about how it turned out, his book, the difficult year, and how an improvisational approach works in the kitchen, on stage, and in life.
I messed with your recipe a little. I added bok choy—know why?
It was on sale at the market.
That’s the coolest thing. I love it, man. Improvise.
Did you learn to cook from your mom?
Indirectly. She never taught me how. But just watching her.
What’s the number one thing you picked up?
Absolutely no measuring cups. Ever. Straight bottle to pan. She had an eye for it.
Did that approach translate to her parenting style?
One hundred percent. It went from food to being able to use those skills when you’re meeting people. Seeing my mom’s ability to grind and hustle, the way she did, I also picked up on.
Do you ever cook for your mom?
No. I’ve never, ever, ever cooked for my mom. How selfish! But why would I give her the second best of something she can do way better.
As a person, and as a comic, and then as an Asian-American comic, how are you approaching this moment we’re facing after what happened in Atlanta?
It sucks on all levels. I never knew what systemic racism was until it came to the forefront now. And that’s ignorance on my part. Because I was living it and accepting it. My mom, as an immigrant mom raising these mixed kids, saw racism. And she had to sit there and take it. Well, we’re not there anymore.
At the same time, much of your comedy is about identity, and there’s been so much policing and canceling— as a comedian, that has to be challenging.
I’m going to use my platform wisely. I want to make sure I say the right words and I want to make sure I represent this community the right way. It’s one thing to be able to say it, but I also want to make sure I say it right. We live in a sensitive time right now, and rightfully so. There comes a responsibility. I still want to have that freedom to say what I want to say and have fun and still laugh, but be informative and be a little more responsible with my words.
What are you hoping that people will take away from your book, in that respect?
We live in a time when people are so quick to be spiteful and to hate on things. You can go online and do that. Maybe you should get to know some people. Maybe when you read about what they went through, maybe that will change your views on somebody. And maybe you’ll appreciate what they’ve done. And hopefully that will inspire you to do whatever it is that you've dreamt of doing. That’s what I want this book to do.
Why did you decide to include recipes in your memoir?
When I grew up, in the 70s and 80s, Filipinos didn’t really have any type of representation on TV or any type of restaurant on the streets. It’s still hard to find those restaurants now, in 2021. So telling people about my culture and of course our food is something I’ve been doing since I was born, promoting our culture through food.
How has Filipino cuisine helped shape who you are?
My dad divorced my mom. He moved to another state. I was raised by my mom. And food was what I latched on to. I was surrounded by Filipino culture my whole life. The easiest way to learn about someone's culture is through food, so seeing my mom and aunts cook, inviting people over to try our food, that was me embracing my culture and finding my identity.
Do you have a favorite Filipino restaurant where you go out to eat, or did pre-pandemic?
I don’t because they’re hard to find. I think that’s maybe a venture I need to get into. I sold Howie Mandel on our food. We have a verbal agreement that we are going to open a restaurant together. So get ready for that.
It’s usually a good idea when entertainers invest in restaurants. It always works out.
Haha. I think this one will, though. There's not a big presence here. New York is a different thing. You’ve got my friend Nicole’s restaurant, Jeepney NYC, on 1st Avenue. It’s delicious.
If you did make your mom something would she be critical or complementary?
She would just love it. To be honest, I’m actually very good in the kitchen.
What are you best at?
You’re not going to believe it: eyeballing something. Tasting it. Figuring it out. Solving the puzzle on my own. I love it. I love trying new things, adding my own little flair. Like adding bok choy to pancit.
Jo Koy's Pancit
1 pound uncooked rice noodles
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 cup shredded chicken
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
½ onion, medium diced 2 carrots, thinly sliced
4 celery stalks, thinly sliced
½ half head green cabbage, medium diced
¼ cup soy sauce
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
4 scallions, thinly sliced, for garnish 2 lemon wedges, for serving
1. Take the noodles out of the package, place in hot (not boiling) water until softened, about 5 to 10 minutes. Drain in colander, set aside.
2. In a large saucepan or wok, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat. Add the meat and cook until browned, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic, onion, carrots, celery, and cabbage and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 5 minutes.
3. Add the softened noodles, soy sauce, and pepper. Stir to combine, remove from the heat, and serve.
4. Garnish with the scallions and serve with the lemon wedges alongside.
From MIXED PLATE by Jo Koy. Copyright © 2021 by Jo Koy. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.