Using His Noodle
New York has no shortage of headline-grabbing chefs, from established French empire builders such as Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, to quirky, locally bred talents like Wylie Dufresne and Mario Carbone, plus myriad variations in between. But in the city that never stops opening, talking about and eating in restaurants, David Chang of Momofuku fame is something special.
Born in northern Virginia to South Korean parents, his father worked in the restaurant business before opening up a golf shop. Chang played competitive golf as a kid - "Yeah, but it would be a huge overstatement to say I was a Tiger Woods-type talent," he laughs. He studied religion at college in Connecticut, taught English in Japan, then moved to New York where he attended the French Culinary Institute.
He worked answering phones at Manhattan's Mercer Kitchen before ending up in the kitchen at Tom Colicchio's Craft. Two years later, he returned to Japan to work in a soba shop to study noodle-making before - via a stint at a restaurant in Tokyo's Park Hyatt - returning to New York to work at Café Boulud. He left a year later "completely dissatisfied with the whole fine-dining scene" and resolved to open his own restaurant.
Today he remains conflicted about the kind of cooking and the culture he decided to walk away from in order to open his own place. "I hate that lineage of cooking, but at the same time I realise that I needed it. I needed it for me to understand why I'm here and what I'm doing," he says.
"Because without it - without those sort of places to train in - cooks and restaurant cooking, as we know it, will die."
In 2004 he opened Momofuku Noodle Bar in the East Village, named for Momofuku Ando, the Japanese inventor of instant noodles (plus there was fun to be had with the name). His creative fusion of Asian and French techniques and flavours, with American ingredients, left behind misguided notions of authenticity - leaving him to cook food that people wanted to eat, served in a cool, casual, reservations-free environment. His steamed pork belly buns made with hoisin sauce, cucumber and spring onion soon became a cult item.
"I didn't really sign up for this, it just happened," he says, with a trace of a soft Virginian drawl still in place. "We've had our ups and downs with the business and to begin with, everything nearly failed before it took off," he says, laughing off the idea that his success has somehow come easy.
Eight years later and I am on my way to meet him at Booker and Dax, his bar behind Momofuku Ssäm. On Broadway I'm confronted by a huge poster of him advertising for Uniqlo. Turns out he did it because the fee was going to the Edible Schoolyards charity, an organisation that partners with local schools to create kitchen and classroom gardens so children can engage in hands-on learning about what they eat. Not because he wanted a lifetime supply of rainbow-coloured sweatshirts.
He now has four very different Manhattan restaurants; five branches of the funky cookies and cake concern, Momofuku Milk Bar, opened in partnership with pastry chef Christina Tosi; a restaurant in Sydney; and this month, he'll open in Toronto. He's been in Time magazine's list of '100 Most Influential People' and been showered with awards, including making it into The World's Best Restaurants list with two of his venues, Momofuku Ko and Ssäm.
Not content with that lot, he recently launched Lucky Peach, a new quarterly food journal, in partnership with journalist Peter Meehan (who helped him write the Momofuku cookbook) and publishing house McSweeney's. Lucky Peach, like the man himself, is an intriguing mix of the serious and the cerebral, the playful and the potty-mouthed.
Contributors include Anthony Bourdain, Ruth Reichl, food scientist Harold McGee and a cast of the world's most famous chefs. Articles cover everything from the art of Japanese ramen to low temperature egg cooking. You'll read very funny foulmouthed conversations with fellow chefs next to thoughtful essays on ingredients and cooking techniques.
All this, and he only turns 35 this month. "True, I'm now at a place where I don't have to cook every day, but I'm always going to measure myself by my work in the kitchen," he admits.
"I've been lucky enough to be presented with some offers that would have made me a lot of money - me, not anyone else. Maybe one day I'll end up on TV selling products - and I wouldn't care if I did. But right now it's about trying to figure this success out." He pauses, pulls at his Momofuku baseball cap, and grins. "And I'm still figuring it out." www.momofuku.com
David Chang takes Manhattan
Going to the movies at Angelika Theatre in the Village
"It's one of my favourite NYC landmarks, and they always have a good movie playing."
Watching a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden
"I love the Knicks. And Jeremy Lin's success is one of the most important achievements for Asian-Americans in sports."
Browsing the shelves at Kitchen Arts & Letters
"When I am in the mood to splurge, I head here. They have an amazing collection of cookbooks, including rare and out-of-print editions. It's a really easy place to spend money. I could really spend every cent I have here."
Attending talks at The NYPL
"The New York Public Library is such an important part of NYC culture and history, and their public programmes and lectures are unparalleled."
Breakfast at Locanda Verde
"I don't normally eat breakfast, but when I really want to, I love the lemon ricotta pancakes here."
Lunch at Arirang
"For cold NYC days, nothing beats their soups. I especially like the chicken sujeabe."
Dinner at Eleven Madison Park
"Daniel Humm and Will Guidara are doing fantastic work, with a deep respect for the traditions of fine dining."
Drinks at PDT
"It's one of my favourite bars, and I've been a regular for years now."
Trying the wines at Terroir
"Amazing wine bar from the team behind Hearth. Chef Marco Canora has created the most delicious snacks to go with Paul Grieco's wines."