Tuesday, 23 July 2013

David Chang: The Chef Who Makes the Weather

This piece was originally part of my recent post on the Momofuku Pork Bun, but I decided to cut it as a) I was rambling on for far too long (in writing, less is almost always more) and b) last last thing the world needs is another "Hey look! I've figured out David Chang!" piece.

Nonetheless I'm quite fond of it, so I thought I'd whack it up separately. After all I had spent quite a long time figuring out David Chang. Bet no one's written about that before... :-p


Get with the Chang

Pork Buns are taking over the world.

And it’s all down to one man.

David Chang.

Chang is a chef who divides opinion like no other. For the food bloggeratti of New York, home of his Momofuku empire, he can do no wrong. Having conquered the Big Apple not once, but thrice, he has earned that ultimate accolade: an entire blog devoted to his cookbook.

But it's not all plain sailing. For sniffier members of the establishment like Antoinette Bruno of Star Chefs he is "overrated". London's Jay Rayner didn't think much of him either. And San Francisco was unimpressed when Chang dissed their entire culinary subculture as "serving figs on a plate with nothing on it" .

For me, I'm in the yea camp. When I look today at the cutting-edge trends which dominate 2013 London, it's hard to deny the influence of Chang and his Momofuku brand of “fuck-you” haute cuisine.
  • Hot & dirrty food joints like MEATliquor blast the music as they turn out gourmet staples (just like Momofuku).
  • Pitt Cue has them queuing round the block for bar-stool dining (Momofuku pretty much invented the queue).
  • Bone Daddies' brand of gourmet ramen is the hottest ticket in town (Momofuku wrote the manual on this one - more on this below!).
  • Bubbledogs has migrated fine dining from the hotel dining to a round-the-counter degustation (the Momofuku Ko format).
  • ... Not to mention Yum Bun and the other pork-bun rip-offs, op cit.
Now why didn't I think of all that?

The Fury

For those unfamiliar with him, David Chang is the Korean-American founder of Momofuku restaurant group. It started in 2004 with the Momofuku Noodle Bar – originally a Japanese ramen joint which mutated into a no-holds barred Korean-Asian-American-Fusion monster. After a fair bit of trial and error he repeated the trick with the Momofuku Sssam Bar, before branching out into haute cuisine (albeit served to diners seated around a kitchen counter) with the impossible-to-book Momofuku Ko.

He also oversees Sydney’s Momofuku Seiobo (similar style to Ko but marginally easier to book), sort-of-bistro Ma Peche, a chain of spin-off bakeries, a Momofuku dining complex in Toronto and a bunch of stuff I’ve probably forgotten to mention.

And along the way he’s also reinvented global fine dining.

I could carry on about the man, but I won’t. Instead I will simply point you towards the excellent profile featured in Tony Bourdain’s Medium Raw entitled, simply, The Fury:
… the simple fact is that David Chang is the most important chef in America today. It's a significant distinction. He's not a great chef-as he'd be the first to admit-or even a particularly experienced one, and there are many better, more talented, more technically proficient cooks in New York City. But he's an important chef, a man who, in a ridiculously brief period of time, changed the landscape of dining, creating a new kind of model for high-end eateries, and tapped once, twice, three times and counting into a zeitgeist whose parameters people are still struggling to identify.
For the moment let us simply conclude that David Chang is a badass.

The Perfectionist

How do we define his food? Momofuku could be called Asian-fusion. It could be called modern-American (after isn't America's melting-pot the original fusion cuisine?). But it’s actually simpler than that.

It’s defined by being delicious.

You see, Chang is absolutely ruthless in the pursuit of deliciousness. Yes the cooking at Momofuku was shot through with his Korean heritage (kimchi with brussel sproutskimchee consomee with the oysterskimchee as a parting gift at Seiobo). But then he goes and breaks the rules, for one simple reason: He understands what delicious is, and will let nothing get in the way of achieving that.

Take the shaved foie gras on lychee which is the signature at Momofuku Ko. You know what? The cheaper and nastier the tinned lychees are, the better the dish tastes. So make it with tinned lychees. Even if you’re charging $175 for lunch. It’s not the provenance of the ingredients that count, it’s what they taste like.

Take the bacon dashi. Dashi is traditionally made with konbu and bonito flakes. But you know what? Like most things it tastes better with bacon. So make it with bacon.

Take the dish that started it all – the Momofuku Ramen. Chang realised that if he had the same noodles and eggs as everyone else, it would taste just like everyone else’s. So he embarked on a quest to find the the ultimate ramen recipe. It looks something like this:

Yup, that's eighteen (count 'em) pages dedicated to all aspects of Ramen. To be more specific: Ramen Broth, Tare, Dashi (and Bacon Dashi), the perfect Alkaline Noodle (the result of a multi-year quest), the iconic own Pork Belly (and shoulder), slow-poached Onsen Eggs (sous-vide by any other name), and a battery of toppings (nori, bamboo shoots, fish cakes, veggies).

It's probably the longest single recipe in my cookbook library. It's a monument to one man's obsession.

You see, when it comes to the pursuit of flavour David Chang respects no boundaries, and takes no prisoners.

The Thinker

But Chang is more than a cook. Like all the best chefs – from Escoffier to Adria – he doesn’t just cook. He also thinks deeply about what he’s doing.

Do yourself a favour and watch this talk he gave at Google. The discussion about authenticity (32' 18") will make you rethink everything you believe about your local New-York style pizza (unless, of course, you live in New York!):
Just think of it vice versa. You've probably been abroad, like you go to say, you're in Shanghai. Right? And you see some ex-pat serving authentic New-York style pizza. And your reaction is gonna be what? No. That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard. There like, you know, soy sauce on the pizza. What the fuck are you talkin' about? So that's the thing. I think it's easier to understand authenticity when you take an ex-pat's point of view. 
It's like, I always use the, 'cause I did meet a German guy from Munich that wanted to make American barbecue. He's like "I'm gonna make it authentic. It's gonna be just like Memphis style barbecue." And  I was like "No, it's not gonna be Memphis style barbecue. 'Cause you're number one not using the beef that's coming from, or any of the meat that's coming from America. You're not using and of the wood from America. You're not even using any of the workers, the hands, the invisible stuff. All the things that make something special, that taste the way its does at a unique area. So don't tell anybody you're serving authentic American barbecue."
Also check out his take on the MSG-myth (38' 52")
Fear of MSG. Which, people say they're allergic to. And I'm not saying thy're, I just believe that it happens to be possibly more psychosomatic than anything else. 'Cause there's nothing that proves that MSG. In fact all the studies, there have been many that are, try to prove that MSG creates this Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. There's no evidence at all. In fact, everything supports that it's psychosomatic. 
And we serve Asian food in part, I'm particularly interested in it because we serve a lot of Asian ingredients and people say "Oh, I can't eat your food because there's soy sauce in it." But they're happy going to Babbo and eating a plate of pasta with tomatoes and Parmesan cheese. Glutamic acid, which equal umami. You know. And the only difference between that and artifically made MSG is they add one molecule of sodium so you can disperse the glutamic acid. Your body digests and breaks down glutamic acid in the same way as one would eat a bag of Doritos or anything else. Soy. Like, Doritos. You know, a plate of Parmesan is extraordinarily high in MSG. .
(Bottom line: the Italians gorge themselves on Parmesan and they don't get Chinese restaurant syndrome. What gives?)

Then there’s Lucky Peach, the attempt to create a digital food magazine which ended up as an entirely analogue food journal. Issue 1 (The Ramen Issue) has already become one of the most sought-after rarities in the cookbook world – a "Culinary Unicorn" if there ever was one.

Most amusingly is the take-down he issued against the anti-foie gras lobby. His glorious “fuck-you” note to the Duck Liver Liberation Front (bottom line – from now on we will guarantee there is at least one foie-gras based dish on every menu we serve) is hilarious not only in its chutzpah, but also because he tackles their argument head-on.

The Chef Who Makes the Weather

In short Chang is one of those chefs with the rare ability to reshape the world around them by sheer force of will. That puts him into exalted company:

  • Paul Bocuse was another one, slaying on the ghosts of Escoffier with one hand, creating the modern celebrity chef with the other.
  • Ferran Adria was another, challenging and testing every rule about what is possible in the kitchen.
  • Alan Yau is arguably a third, redefining Asian dining with the clattering-benches of Wagamama before repeating the trick with the achingly cool Hakkasan.

It takes a curious mix of ego, bravery and luck to do this.

David Chang has all that and more:

Yeah, David Chang can probably do that too...

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Signatures: Momofuku Pork Buns (David Chang)

The latest post in an occassional series exploring famous signature dishes, and the cookbooks where you can find them.

Edit: I also put up a companion piece profiling David Chang, originally part of this post but cut for reasons of brevity. Less is more an' all that. But in case you're interested...

The Pork Bun Supremacy

The bun that conquered the world.

Like Nobu’s Black Cod, the steamed pork bun from David Chang's Momofuku's is a dish the world can’t get enough of. It may have started in New York but today the steamed bun has gone defiantly global.

Yum Bun's hommage a la Momofuku
London is one candidate for steamed bun central. Exhibit one is Yum Bun, an achingly trendy food-cart now transformed into an aching-trendy hole-in-the-wall. They have built an entire business  on unashamedly ripping off the New York original. Imitation, flattery, sincerity and all that...

And on the other side of town new opening Flesh and Buns is preparing to unleash an avalanche of steamed buns on the denizens of Soho - not just traditional pork but also slow-roasted Korean lamb, chicken with yuzu and seabass and coriander.

And from New York the juggernaut has moved south to Mexico, where Deli Bao is bringing Pork Bun Goodness to the denizens of Guadalajara.

Then leap across to the other side of the world to Melbourne’s Wonderbao (the clue’s in the name) which offers a range of buns: roasted pork belly (Momofuku-style), braised pork belly (the Taiwanese classic) or fried silken tofu (for misguided vegetarians).

Hirata McBuns from Ippudo
And while you’re in that part of the world stop off at Sydney the branch of world-spanning ramen-ya Ippudo, which offers their own Hirata Pork Buns pairing roast pork belly with crisp lettuce and mayo – basically a Momofuku pork bun crossed with a McChicken sandwich.

We live in the age of the Pork Bun Supremacy.

The Dish

Steamed buns and red herrings

It's oh-so-simple:

Take a slab of pork belly. Slow-roast it in its own fat til its almost confit. Cool, slice, fry, crisp.

Split a freshly steamed Chinese bun and slather the inside with hoisin sauce. Stuff it with slices of pork belly, quick-pickled cucumber and add a dash of sriracha hot sauce.

And there you have it – fatty, salty, meaty, sweet.

The Pork Bun served at Momofuku Seiobo

If you believe David Chang's book, the buns were last-minute addition to the restaurant menu. A take on a “pretty common Asian food formula: steamed bread + tasty meat = good eating”. If you believe the book, there were three big influences for the dish:

1) Char siu bao buns stuffed with “dark, sweet roast pork” he ate in Beijing
2) Niku-man steamed buns (very similar to Chinese baozi) from Tokyo convenience stores, and
3) The Peking Duck served at Chinatown’s Oriental Garden, which is served with folded over steamed buns rather the traditional thin pancakes.

A Niku-man bun: Nothing like the
Momofuku version...
Actually I suspect this list is a complete red herring.

For one thing you don’t get char siu bao in Beijing. It's a Cantonese dish. yes there are plenty of steamed bao in Beijing but they're stuffed with minced pork and scallions, not roasted char siu. Also both the char-siu and niku-man buns are nothing like the Momofuku dish. They are stuffed buns with the filling steamed inside the raw dough, rather than being loosely-assembled sandwiches.

The real story (or at least, my version)

I want to suggest two alternate inspirations for the Momofuku pork bun:

A Taiwanese Guabao, painstakingly dissected (it was a tough job, but someone had to do it...)
The first is the Taiwanese guabao (刮包), a common fast-food staple. Like the Momofuku pork bun it’s a steamed Chinese bun, split and filled with pork belly. However there are some ciritcal differences. In the guabao the pork belly tends to be braised rather than roasted and it's often shredded. Also rather than cucumber and hoisin, it's topped with pickled mustard greens and crushed peanut. The result is a slightly sloppier tasting product without the delicious sweet-fatty punch of the Momofuku version.

The second inspiration is the famed Sichuanese tea-smoked duck (zhangcha ya). Fuschia Dunlop's Sichuan Cookery has a wonderful account of the dish. A whole duck is marinated with Sichuan pepper, hot-smoked over dried tea-leaves and then steamed for an hour. Then the whole this is deep-fried, chopped up and served up like a Peking Duck, with scallion, cucumber and hoisin sauce.

Tea-smoked duck with lotus-leaf buns - the fluted shape of
the bun supposedly resembles a lotus leaf (Source: Yelp)
The key difference though is that while Peking Duck is served with thin pancakes, tea-smoked duck is served with fluted steamed buns known as lotus-leaf buns (heye bing), so named because the shape of the bun resembles a lotus leaf. These are folded up at the table with crispy duck, hoisin and cucumber.

Think about it - that’s pretty much the Momofuku recipe. Swap confit pork for the duck and you have a perfect match. Different meat, but the same salty-fatty-smoky-crispy hit.

So take these traditional dishes, throw them together, and amp them up in the pursuit of ultimate deliciousness. A guabao can be a bit tame. Tea-smoked duck a little faffy. But add them together and you have a modern classic.

The Recipe

Of course you don’t have to travel to NYLON or Australia to sample these delights. Thanks to the wonders of modern publishing, the recipe is right there in the Momofuku cookbook:

The recipe from the Momofuku cookbook.

Let’s dig in.

The Meat

The most important part of the recipe is undoubtedly the meat. The recipe is on page 50, a beautifully simple one that demands only three (count 'em!) ingredients.

The belly is marinated in a rub of equal parts salt and sugar (6 – 24 hours; I would advise the lower end of the range), blasted in a hot oven for an hour to brown and then cooked on the lowest-possible setting until tender and pillowy. It’s then chilled and pressed, before being sliced finger-thick and heated in a pan for service.

The Pork Belly Recipe.
A few cook's notes:

  • This recipe is unusual because its uses skinless pork belly (the skin can be a little hassle to take off if you’re knife isn’t sharp enough so ask the butcher). Most roast-belly pork recipes obsesses over keeping the skin on and getting the crackling just-so (you known… shock with boiling water, shock with cold water, rub with vinegar, score to buggery, rub with salt, crisp in the oven, crisp under the grill… the list goes on). Having tried them all I've now decided that actually the Momofuku approach is the best. Leave the perfect crackling to the pros – if you trim off the skin and leave a nice rind of fat it crisps up equally well with the minimum of fuss.
  • I personally think the salt-sugar rub is a stroke of genius – Chang also uses it to prepare the pork shoulder for his Bo Ssam. I’m not sure where this comes from (traditional recipes for Bossam are completely different) – possibly from American-style bbq rubs?
  • While the recipe tells you to roasting the pork belly, scuttlebutt suggests (e.g. the see comment from Rarrgarr at the bottom of this article) that in the restaurant they actually go the whole hog and confit the belly completely submerged in lard. I wouldn’t be surprised...
  • How much you want to heat up your belly slices at the end is a matter of preference. I like them slightly crispy on the cut surface, but at the restaurants they are sometimes just warmed, rather than crisped (see the Seiobo pork bun pictured above). 

The Buns

The steamed bun recipe.
I’d wouldn't lose sleep over your buns. After all Momofuku started off by buying theirs in from the nearest Chinatown outlet – I suggest you do likewise. The most important thing is that it has that little bit of sweetness – traditional Chinese steamed bread has a tablespoon of sugar slipped in to give it that edge. As long you have that covered, you’re laughing.

If you are going to make the buns yourself, the recipe in the Momofuku book looks as good as any. One tip - do make sure use you lard for your shortening (something Yum Bun also copy in their recipe). Using lard in bread is less common in the West, but its the magic ingredient in much Chinese bread making, most notably the ineffably flaky shaobing griddle-cakes of Northern China.

As a subversive alternative, I tend to use brioche buns for this recipe. While not quite as soft as steamed buns, they have the same slight sweetness, and are a lot easier to find.

The Sides

Sriracha on  the side
at Seiobo
Momofuku adds quick-pickled cucumber into the buns (p65). Thankfully there’s not need to muck around with pickling jars or three month waits – sliced cucumber is simply tossed with a mixture of 3:1 sugar salt for 5-10 minutes and rinsed off.

I noticed many imitators such as Yum Bun tend to simply throw in freshly-sliced unpickled cucumber. I find the pickled option to be vastly superior, or alternately substitute thickly-cut slices of pickled Japanese daikon (it has the same sweet-vinegary-crunchy hit).

Hoisin sauce is self-explanatory. If you want a similar salty-sweet hit you might also want to try playing around with Nobu-style miso as a substitute.

Nowadays Momofuku also serves Sriracha hot pepper sauce on the side (e.g. at Seiobo in Sydney). I don’t think this adds much to the dish, but each to their own…

Once you have your meat, steamed buns and sides all you need to do is put them together. Voila!

The Book

An Ode to the Pig

To finish off, a few thoughts on the Momofuku cookbook:

If I had to sum this book up it would be: Ode to the Pig. Just as Alain Ducasse books bang on endlessly about truffles & foie gras, Chang bangs on about pork and everything you can do with it. From the Bo Ssam (roast pork shoulder in lettuce wraps) to the pork buns to the English muffins smeared in bay-leaf butter (made with lard), this book yells: COOKED PORK PRODUCTS.

What’s not to like?

Every chapter tells a story

But beyond that it’s a great book because it tells a story – a strength it shares with the Nobu cookbook.

That book was the story of how Nobu struggled back from the fire that consumed his original restaurant to fame, fortune and multiple-Miami-based spinoffs. This book is the tale of how David Chang (if you believe the hype) blundered from short-order soba chef to world-spanning culinary deity.

The story is told via three restaurants, which make up the three chapters of the book (Noodle Bar, Ssam Bar, Ko). Each chapter starts with a great intro which basically runs 1) initial struggle to start restaurant, 2) stroke of genius involving cooked pork products, 3) success and moving on to next venture. Above all though it’s a story about Chang and his struggles – with his audience, with the his critics but above all himself. As he wryly comment on Ko, his failing burrito bar: “I was Ahab, and the burrito was my white whale”.

This is undoubted lubricated by his co-writer and partner-in-crime Peter Meehan. As Anthony Bourdain points out, journalist Meehan is a mix of thermostatic regulator and consigliere for the notoriously volatile Chang. I suspect many of the books finer moments from Meehan’s pen as much as from Chang’s mouth. But at the end of the day there’s no difference.

Brussel sprouts, chicken wings, and other things

And like all great books this packed with iconic recipes, and remarkably approachable ones. “Molecular” touches such cryofiltration or transgultaminase feature, but they’re there for a reason rather than just to show off. Mostly it’s just good old-fashioned cooking.

For example the Momofuku Ramen recipe on page 39 goes on for a good seventeen  pages – the most comprehensive treatment of the subject this side of Tokyo (although the upcoming Ivan Ramen book might give it a run for its money). The Chicken Wings on p86 and the Fried Chicken over the page have spawned a generation of down & dirty gourmet chicken imitators. The Brussel Sprouts Kimchee Puree & Bacon on p94 are pure Chang and proof that his fallback strategy runs “If in doubt add bacon. If that doesn’t work add kimchee”.

The Bo Ssam on p168 is a monster of a recipe which has received its own separate write-up in the NY Times. I’ve cooked it for 40 people. It works. The Ghetto Sous-Vide set-up on p170 is the forerunner for any number of DIY sous-vide set-ups (from Cooking for Geeks to the upcoming Codlo). Also noteworthy is the caprese salad on p95 which subs tofu and shiso for mozzarella and basil. Jean-Georges Vongerichten says it’s the best dish Chang ever came up with.

If there’s one weakness it’s that the book has very little in the way of dessert and sweets (apart from the Momofuku Shortcakes and an homage-to-McDonalds hot apple pie). This has of course been remedied with Christina Tosi’s Momofuku Milk Bar book, although I personally don’t find that volume nearly as engaging as the original.

Appendix: The following buns were harmed in the production of this article...

Field work for this article was primarily conducted whilst on a trip to Sydney. Preparatory research had already taken place in London and New York.

  • Momofuku Noodle Bar (New York): Original and best.
  • Momofuku Seiobo (CBD, Sydney): Slightly out of place in a multi-course tasting menu. Felt daintier than the original - pork just warmed through. Cucumber fresh not pickled.
  • Yum Bun (London): Three trips. The first time (from the market stall) underwhelming. Second time much improved - bigger and juicier all round. Third trip pork ugh overcooked with a bark-like exterior. Needs to be more consistent. 
  • Leong's Legends (London): Slightly skimpy Taiwanese Guabao (listed on the menu as "Taiwanese Mini Kebab with Pork"). Pork much more pulpy and shredded + could be more of it.
  • Ippudo (CBD, Sydney): Distinctly different variation with lettuce and mayo. Makes it lighter and soft-sweet, but still very more-ish.
  • Bao Dao (Chatswood, Sydney): Superior version of the Taiwanese Guabao. Meaty and filling.
  • Ryo's (Crow's Nest, Sydney): Peerless Niku-man Japanese bun with a minced pork filling. Juicy and tasty, but more a traditional Chinese baozi than an actual pork bun.
  • Peking Inn (Pymble, Sydney): Somewhat thuggishly prepared tea-smoked duck and buns at the local Chinese. A touch overdone, but it gets the general idea across.