“It is an ephemeral act, anything you do and care about in food. You don’t eat awards, you don’t eat nostalgia; everything you work for in this business gets flushed down the toilet eight to 10 hours later,” says chef David Chang.
Chang is a titan of the food world; beginning with New York’s Momofuku Noodle Bar, which he started in 2004 when he was just 26 years old, he birthed a culinary empire that now spans 15 restaurants, from Los Angeles to Sydney.
His restaurants have won Michelin stars in record-breaking time, as well as coveted positions in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Chang is now releasing a memoir, Eat A Peach, where he recounts his meteoric rise and lays bare his struggles with depression, suicidal ideation and bipolar disorder, and the role of therapy in his life.
He also digs into his boundary-pushing approach to food and innovation, authenticity and tradition.
‘The dark ages’
Chang’s parents migrated to the US from North and South Korea in the 60s. As a child, Chang was a golf prodigy, but in his memoir, he describes being a middling student who often disappointed his strict parents.
After a failed stint at a finance firm in Manhattan, Chang decided to go to culinary school.
He writes in his memoir that he was “looking to the kitchen for salvation”.
He ended up studying (again, to poor results) at the New York’s French Culinary Institute before honing his craft and working in a number of the city’s fine-dining establishments (once more, he wasn’t great).
“I’m a really good cook [now], it’s just taken a long time. And that’s the beautiful thing about cooking — there’s more than one way to get to the end goal,” Chang told Blueprint For Living’s Jonathan Green.
Chang describes the era in which he began his culinary career as “the dark ages”.
“[Chefs were seen as] a band of outsiders, a motley crew of misfits, and you just didn’t do that,” he recalls.
This was the early 2000s, pre-foodie culture; a time when there was hesitation to spend huge amounts of money at a restaurant.
“Mainly because it [fine dining] was exclusive, and it’s exclusive because it’s for rich people — and that’s how I think food was seen, at least from a Western perspective,” he says.
“I think the idea of liking food was [seen as] the provenance of the upper class.”
‘Everybody wants to eat well’
Chang says it was his time spent living in Japan, as well as travelling in Korea and China, when things fell into place for him.
“Wherever I would go, people ate well, it was part of the conversation. And you can eat incredibly well affordably in Japan … even in the convenience store,” says the chef.
“I realised, like wait, ‘Everybody wants to eat well,’ it’s just for whatever reason, there are social constructs, at least in America, that prevent people from understanding that.”
Back in New York, Chang and chef Joaquin (Quino) Baca opened a ramen bar — a bizarre concept at the time — calling it Momofuku Noodle Bar.
The lo-fi joint — in a tiny space in the East Village with a hot water supply issue that got them on tense terms with the Department of Health — was a disaster at first.
But as he writes in his memoir: “At the last possible moment, we erased the line between what we thought we should be serving customers and what we wanted to cook for our friends.”
Their approach turned out to be a hit, serving up ramen and pork buns that had diners lining up and food critics salivating — and setting up a motif of Chang’s career: swings from disaster to monumental success.
By 2006, Chang had opened another restaurant (Ssam Bar) and by the time he was 30, he’d opened his first fine dining restaurant: Ko.
“I think a lot of it happened because I was able to look at culture from a different lens,” Chang reflects.
‘A complete misunderstanding’
Chang studied religion and philosophy at university, which influenced his analytical and data-driven approach to food.
“I feel like whatever my intuition is, I want to make sure that there’s logic and reason behind it,” he says.
Chang uses that line of culinary inquiry to ask why something is being undervalued or overlooked in the Western food world.
Case in point: MSG, which was widely condemned in the West as unhealthy and falsely accused of causing “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”.
“And lo and behold … MSG has birthed this whole umami revolution over the past sort of 15 years — and people eat MSG all the time, naturally,” he says.
Chang says that a lot of Asian food has suffered from racist readings and “a complete misunderstanding”.
Another example is ‘kim’ — a popular Korean snack of edible seaweed — that the restaurateur snacked on growing up.
“That was something that kids used to make fun of me [for] as a kid, and now it’s what kids want to eat,” he says.
Chang’s work threads the needle between populist food (fried chicken is another one of Momofuku’s specialities) and fine dining.
“I’m really just trying to go for things that taste good, and ultimately keeping one foot rooted in tradition, respecting the past, and one foot in the future, destroying the past [and] creating something new,” he says.
In his 2018 Netflix series, Ugly Delicious, Chang takes aim at “authenticity”; one episode culminates in Chang and comedian Aziz Ansari in Tokyo, eating a pizza made entirely with fresh Japanese ingredients.
“Authenticity is a really dangerous word … When I really think about it, to me, this sounds crazy, but it’s like eugenics. We got to keep something pure,” he says.
“The only time authenticity is important is preserving tradition and culture that if not [done], it will be lost forever.”
Instead of cleaving to labels like DOP or AOC, which denote certain cheese and wines made in both specific ways and regions in Italy and France respectively, Chang has a different idea.
“What is most authentic to me is trying to use what is fresh, what’s best around you, and merging that with the idea of what you’re trying to recreate.”
Chang says his “eureka” moment on authenticity happened in Sao Paulo — which is home to the largest population of Japanese people outside of Japan, as well as other Asian immigrant populations — where he ate a dumpling that felt both Japanese and Brazilian.
“I think that’s a beautiful thing. It’s no longer Asian. It’s no longer Brazilian. It’s now something else entirely,” says the chef.
“And to me, that’s authenticity. Authenticity is finding a new point in that trajectory.”
In his memoir, Chang recognises that this idea is politically risky:
As an Asian chef, I tend to get away with posing such scenarios more than I would if I were a white guy explaining why his Nashville hot chicken doughnut is actually an homage to black cooks. Yellow privilege, baby! It’s one of the few perks of being Asian that makes up for, you know, your skin color being referred to as “yellow”.
Chang believes there are foods that are universally delicious like fries, pizza and chips.
“These are platonic ideals … I think about that a lot,” he says.
Which brings us to Australia.
“The potato chips [here] are unbelievably good and I think they’re the best potato chips in the world,” Chang says.
Chang would know: he’s spent serious time here. In 2011, he opened his first restaurant outside of the US — Momofuku Seiobo — at The Star casino in Sydney.
He won’t name names, but Chang says that around that time he was approached by an Australian publication to write an op-ed for Australia Day, outlining his thoughts on what constitutes “Australian food”.
“[My] thesis, really, was that Australian food is everything that is not Anglo Saxon … It’s Greek, Italian, it’s Thai, it’s Vietnamese, it’s Chinese, it’s Korean,” he says.
“Some of the most amazing food in the world is because of immigrants. And yes, there’s British culture for sure, but to me what defines Australia is everything but that.”
The publication spiked the piece.
“When I think about Melbourne, you know what I think of? The original location of Dainty Sichuan and eating crispy, spicy eggplant with a fragrant fish sauce — that to me is a world-class dish,” Chang says.
While our hospitality sector — particularly Victoria’s — is struggling through the pandemic, Chang is deeply concerned about the post-COVID future of the American restaurant industry.
“I know how the restaurant world’s gonna look; maybe less so outside of the rest of the world, but in America it’s bad. It’s pretty bad,” he says.
But Chang is also the first to admit: “I am terribly neurotic and filled with dread and anxiety over anything. I mean, anything — it could be watching sports and I’m like ‘the sky is falling’.”
But that might’ve actually helped him in the often-volatile food business.
“It’s allowed me to prepare for the worst, and hope for the best. And I joke that I’m actually an optimist. The best kind of optimist is a severe pessimist who hopes to be wrong.”
Eat a Peach is out through Penguin Random House from September 15.