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...


  1. c'mon, new article please?


  2. Heh yes I'm still writing... Started a new job recently so been slightly preoccupied.

    Trying to work something up on the Mikanowski French coffee table books (Egg, Potato etc). Or perhaps finally get my hands on the Square Books and give them a good going over. Well shall see...

  3. c'mon Jon, it's almost 2014 ;0 )