By HELIN JUNG
Photograph by DAVID C. LEE
There are a few things about David Chang we already know.
1. He is built like a house.
2. He has an inhuman ability to split infinitives with the word “f-ck.”
3. With his fleet of Momofuku restaurants—Noodle Bar, Ssäm Bar, Milk Bar and Ko—he has taken New York City and whipped it into a frenzy.
It’s only been six years (“Not that long in the real world, but in dog years, that’s like 100 years, man”), and in those six years, he went from being an anonymous line cook to one of the most fêted, recognizable personalities in the culinary world.
David Chang. Dave, DC, Chang, the Changster, the Changbang, ruler of the Momofuku empire, or the Momoverse, or whatever. The guy’s such a big deal that an entire lexicon has been created in his honor. The man is a myth, and most of us are all too happy to keep it stoked.
The trouble is, whatever it is we are doing to Chang (which, to him, amounts to a lot of nonsensical fetishizing) is burdensome.
“I don’t give a sh-t,” the 31-year-old will say about the heaps of awards, the praise, the television appearances, the requests to participate in every food-related event in the city and elsewhere. “I would just rather not be a public figure. It’s just the struggle with dealing with the fact that, I guess I am.”
It’s strange to him that he has become a celebrity, because basically, he’s just a guy who runs a few restaurants. Right?
Let’s take it back to the beginning. 2003. An immovable purpose and a 600-square-foot space in the East Village the size of a “two-car garage.”
It was going to be a restaurant, a ramen noodle joint. Not a terribly complicated idea. It wasn’t supposed to amount to anything, because it wasn’t intended to be anything more than a proof.
“I needed to test myself to see if I could actually put a restaurant together, and I didn’t even think about the food,” says Chang, sitting atop a stool in that space. “I was 26 and it was like, “OK, I’ve cooked for four years, I don’t know that much, I should be cooking more, I should be working at other restaurants, but maybe if I went to graduate school or something, that would cost a whole lot more than opening up a restaurant. I’d rather learn in the school of hard knocks.”
He says he would never do it again, not like that, because it was the hardest thing he has ever done in his life.
Success did not come immediately, but it did come eventually, in a downpour—with an unabated rain of buzz, press and constant, unreasonable wait times. Noodle Bar was an irrefutable hit, which led Chang and his then co-chef and partner Joaquin Baca to open Ssäm Bar, followed by Ko and Milk Bar.
“It was like a single-cell organism, now it’s this massive, Leviathan-like entity,” he says. “To see it grow very rapidly like that, it’s like, ‘What the f-ck?’ I guess I’m proud of that? It’s been a lot of people, a lot of hard work, a lot of sacrifice to make that happen.”
“He’s as neurotic as he comes across, that’s definitely true,” says Peter Meehan. “I say that in a loving way. He is probably harder on himself in private than he is in public, but I think he’s incredibly hard on himself in public, too.”
Meehan used to write the “$25 and Under” column for the New York Times, profiling affordable finds from the New York City food scene. He reviewed Noodle Bar in 2005, calling it a “plywood-walled diamond in the rough.”
Soon afterward, the critic and restaurateur ran into each other at a Hold Steady concert in Brooklyn.
“I felt this meaty hand slap me on the back. I turn around and it’s Dave Chang,” Meehan says. “He handed me a beer and said, ‘Are we going to pretend like we don’t know each other?’ And that’s how we got to know each other.”
As Chang’s renown swelled and the brand expanded, the cookbook offers started coming. Only if Meehan does it with me, Chang declared (and in typical fashion, he is still conflicted about it—“Nobody thinks that they’re going to do a cookbook one day, you know?”). Meehan accepted the co-authorship, the two friends came up with a proposal and started working on a book.
The cookbook, titled Momofuku, which comes out in October, will serve as a record of the past six years. It will likely be a blockbuster, if internet chatter is any indicator of success. It will include recipes, but it will also be about the stories from the restaurant—the people behind them, the challenges they faced in getting the restaurants off the ground, the philosophies that serve as cornerstones of the food.
The first proposal started out differently. It was going to be Momofuku via David Chang, the origin story, “starting in Virginia with his family, jajangmyeon, galbi, and all that O.G. Korean sh-t that he grew up on.”
Meehan sees the book’s evolution as having happened in the same way that every other David Chang project has evolved.
“For Dave, there’s always a malleability from the outset,” Meehan said. “Noodle Bar was supposed to be a Japanese-style ramen bar and it turned into the fusional weirdness that it is now—vaguely American, vaguely Asian. Ssäm Bar was supposed to be burritos, and now it’s the 31st best restaurant in the world. There’s always flexibility in terms of design and outcome, as long as you’ve got your eyes on the goal.”
The goal, as Chang will say to you time and again, was never to be famous, or to be dripping in James Beard awards. The goal was just to make good food and do it with integrity. He scrolls through the who-knows-how-many messages on his Blackberry, that LED light just won’t stop flashing for a goddamn second, and lets out a haggard sigh.
“I can’t work the line anymore because I get so fucking worked up that I literally just can’t,” he says, rapping anxiously on the countertop at Ko (which eventually took over that two-car garage that used to house Noodle Bar). “I want things to be right all the time, even though it’s not an environment that’s set up to have these expectations.”
One of the commis is taking off too much on a head of lettuce. “Yo, dude, don’t throw out so much of that end,” Chang chides affectionately. “Look how much you threw away, dude.” I still love you, but try to get it right.
“Do I want us to be successful? Do I want us to be busy? Do I want us to have great food? Do I want us to take care of our cooks? Yes.” Rat-tat-tat go his fingers. “I was not aware that it came with all the baggage and the clichés and the bullsh-t.”
A huge part of the BS, for Chang, is the internet. The chatter on blogs gives him agita. Take, for instance, the news that the actor Alan Cumming had been kicked out of Ssäm Bar. Cumming blogged about it himself. “f you momofuku,” he wrote, after describing a scene that involved him and his mother joining a few friends who were already seated and eating.
Chang, who was not present during the incident, is still pissed off about this.
“He fucking cheated,” he says. “Who cares about some movie star? Is he going to impact your life, my life? No. What he did was he f-cking cut in line, so he can get the f-ck out.”
There he goes again, he thinks the internet is saying. Mr. Dickhead throws a fit. It bugs him. He says he doesn’t give a sh-t, but he does, because the only thing he’s doing (and it wasn’t really him, anyway) is staying consistent.
“Regardless of who you are, this is how it is. We’ve made it abundantly clear: The only people we’ll take care of are cooks and chefs, that’s it.”
Growing up Korean seems to have done quite a number on Chang. To start, there are the overwhelming insecurities and expectations that spasm occasionally, uncontrollably. “I wasn’t destined for this” is one of his mantras.
“Who gives a sh-t about the fact that I grew up Korean? There are expectations, sure, but I didn’t live up to any of them.”
Since he won’t really talk about his family or his childhood, you only get tiny bits of information. Chang is the youngest of four siblings (“I was an accident”). He played golf when he was younger, football in high school. He wasn’t an exceptional student, and didn’t go to an Ivy League school. His parents were immigrants. His mother still speaks to him in Korean, which he doesn’t speak very well. His father was a businessman and one-time restaurant owner himself, and as a result, was hardly ever around.
“My parents have guilted me so much,” he’ll say when he talks about his last remaining duty as a filial Korean son: marrying a Korean. “I’m so brainwashed that I have a feeling that if I married a Korean girl and had a Korean child, my parents would die. They would be like, ‘OK, we can die now.’
“There are certain things about Korean culture in America that I find disagreeable,” he says, though he does his best to avoid and ignore any explicit associations with his Koreanness. “I avoid Koreans like the plague.”
Chang emphasizes that his restaurants—the food, the philosophy—are American, not Korean, not Asian, not “Fusion.” It’s a sign of the times that the public has accepted his categorization as such, that a menu which includes kimchi, pork belly, ramen and rice cakes is digested unquestioningly as American, or not even categorized at all.
Wylie Dufresne, the chef/owner of WD-50, another one of this city’s inventive and touted restaurants, is one among Chang’s many admirers, colleagues and friends.
“Dave’s importance is that he serves delicious, really well-executed food at a great price point,” Dufresne wrote in an email. “A lot of people espouse locally-sourced American ingredients, but Dave is doing it in an unpretentious and approachable way. He doesn’t hit you over the head with it, which makes the whole idea more attractive.”
“I consider David a brother,” says Cory Lane, a partner and general manager of Ssäm Bar and beverage director for all of Momofuku. “I would do anything for him. I know that he would do the same for me.”
This is the kind of loyalty that Chang cultivates. As a Trinity College classmate of his would tell it, “Over the years, he has gotten more famous and met lots of interesting people, but he’s just collected more friends, more good friends, and hasn’t abandoned any of the old ones. He doesn’t forget where he came from.”
He is a guy’s guy who is passionate and funny and blunt, and not incidentally, really into the Redskins. He drinks and he cusses and will likely call you a lying sack of shit, but only if he likes you. He knows how to cook and knows how to run a business. You’d be stupid not to want to be his friend.
As a boss, he will take care of you. He will provide health care, pay you more in wages, make you part-owner and give you a platform to do whatever your heart desires (as long as it’s not embarrassing).
That, you’ll find, is the thing he’s most likely to accept. Your friendship, your loyalty, your devotion. The thing he’s still working on, though, is the success bit.
“I finally understand what it’s like to be an A+ student, when in the past, I only understood from having known or dated girls that were always the best,” he says. “I never understood the pressure of success. How does one cope with that?”
The cookbook is coming out in a few months. Those pesky press inquiries are banging down the door. Meetings, appearances, Copenhagen, and then the question of whether or not there will be more expansion, or a television show, or who knows what else?
Mark Bittman, most recently the author of Food Matters, was one of Chang’s earliest supporters.
“There are a lot of very smart, very good chefs out there who don’t get to the point that David’s at now,” Bittman says. “He could probably find backers and support for doing pretty much whatever he wants, and I’m sure he’s capable of doing whatever he wants. It really just has to be defined by where he wants to go.”
Chang’s answer to that is most often, “I don’t know.” He will sometimes expand that to say that he wants to throw away his Blackberry and travel for a year. Go to Costa Rica, his safe place and retreat, and read some Hindu texts or books about the Civil War.
“I don’t know how much longer I can do this,” he says. “I would much rather be working with food, and that’s becoming more and more difficult because I have to wear a hat as the face of this company. We have something that works. I’m proud that we have a place for people to express themselves. It’s been one hell of a ride, and if it all ended tomorrow, I think I’d be pretty stoked about what happened.
“But I don’t see that end in sight.”