Interview with Momofuku Chef David Chang

David Chang, pictured with Serious Eats writer, Leslie Kelly

The brainchild behind New York’s hottest restaurant group, Momofuku, was in town. On tour with his first book, David Chang fielded questions from a group of reporters at Mark Fuller’s restaurant, Spring Hill. (Props to Kim Rickett’s Cooks & Books for organizing the event.)

While David spoke, we were treated to dishes from the book. As the first course arrived, he noted “It’s surreal having someone else make your food.”

Prior to his visit, research on David ran the gamut from “One Who Drops F* Bombs” (as a cook, is that really surprising?) to a deep sense of humility. Among the reviews, the common thread was an uncanny reverence.

I posed the question on Twitter, “What’s the big deal about David Chang?” The response confirmed: chef worship.

Call me suspicious, but I didn’t see the point in worshiping a guy whose restaurant is 2,000 miles away. After our me a convert! I heart David Chang….here’s why:

Writing fast & furious, my notes from our group chat....

Why did you write the cookbook?

My first thought was, “We have to document this because I don’t think we’ll be around in a year!”

Tell me about how your develop recipes. I understand you have a group of cooks who e-mail each other recipe ideas.

We hit our sweet spot with that about a year ago.”

“Our cooks are constantly talking about food and ripping ideas apart. It’s not just criticism for the sake of criticism--you have to have logical approach to why a dish will or won’t work.”

As we’ve grown, the group [who weighs in on new recipes] has gotten larger. Everyone is contributing to the group and eventually, it splintered off into smaller groups.

“The creative process is a big struggle. It’s not just about new ideas, but improving existing ideas. It’s frustrating when people stop critiquing ideas that have already been accepted.”

As we’ve gotten bigger, it’s been difficult. We now have 300 employees and will be opening our 5th restaurant soon.

“We need to be our own harshest critic. There’s always a way to make it better.”

“If we just meet expectations, we’ve failed.”

When [New York Times Food Critic Frank] Bruni came in…I said, “Who cares?” We have a level of accountability on the team. I want our standards higher than a Michelin three-star restaurant. When Bruni leaves our restaurant, I want him to think, “Good Lord, what the fuck just happened?”

“Having high standards has always been synonymous with fine dining. Why? Why not us? Why not now?”

Ko is a 12-seat restaurant. We have a duck dish on the menu that’s dried for 24 days. We make forcemeat out of the legs and stuff it under the skin. The duck is then roasted and basted on a spit. As a diner, you see the meat roasting…and by the time the meat course is ready, the duck is done.

That dish is a good example of our collaboration process. I presented it as a challenge [to the cooks]. The staff came up with that technique and I thought, “Why didn’t I think of it?” It’s incredible!

Any foods you don’t like?

“I’ll try anything once, but I really don’t like farmed salmon.”

[In the book, he profiles meat/bacon purveyor Allan Benton.] How did you find him?

I was at an event and I tried his bacon. “Good Lord, what is that?! Who is this? Where did you get it? Oh my God!”

“I don’t even think I asked. I went into the walk-in and stole myself a slab of bacon!”

For all of our purveyors, if I can’t visit the farm, I want as much information as possible. When I asked Allan to send me some information, I got a ripped piece of butcher paper. It was an incredibly long letter—in pencil. I thought, “You’re the man!”

Allan became instrumental in our food. His bacon is deep and smoky…“Allan’s bacon is a real slap in the face. We use it as a flavoring agent—like a flavoring vehicle. It allowed us to open new doors in terms of what we were serving.”

His story should be told. He also makes country smoked ham. It’s a unique product and I’ve grown to appreciate it. It’s like jazz or baseball. It’s American & we need to support it. There’s nothing like country smoked ham.

Momofuku's signature dish: pork buns. What is it about them that resonates with people?

It was an 11th hour dish added to our first menu. I don’t know what the appeal is, but I do know…I’ve seen more vegetarians converted off that dish! It’s a riff on Peking duck. At the time, I had no idea that steamed red was so prevalent in China.

[That dish is] about creativity and working within the limitations of what you have. We had 600 square feet. The menu was limited to ramen, pork belly and pork shoulder. We had to outsource the buns. But in that limited space, we came up with different variations on the pork bun---deep fried, buns with eggs. We had all these mushrooms, so we created a mushroom bun. We had all these chicharrones…

At the restaurant, we have a bun station and they do nothing but make buns all night. I don’t care who it is—everyone starts out there. If they don’t work there, we weed them out. It’s one of the most important stations.

Cooks on TV. What’s your take on it?

“I didn’t start cooking to be on TV.”

I know why certain chefs do it—they do it to put asses in seats. Those shows (like Iron Chef) are so important to keep restaurants busy.

“Alex Lee is probably one of the greatest chefs in America, and he’s one of the most intimidating people. Alex lost to Cat Cora! That’s TV.”

“They should have a show on why [Alex Lee] is so important. But it’s TV and there’s not a vehicle for that right now. I understand it, but I also have the flexibility to say ‘no.’ If the right opportunity presented itself, sure, I’m interested.”

“I already feel like I’m becoming a caricature of myself. I want people to learn. I’m struggling [with TV] – I know it will open doorways for people. I’m just saying, if I do it, I hope it’s the right call.”

When Heston Blumenthal agreed to do TV, he said the only way he’d do it is if it would help finance research and development. [His show] helped pay the bills.

Thoughts on up and coming cooks?

I would question cooking as a career…it’s a very different thing these days. I tell my cooks, “Dude, if you go on Top Chef, I’m going to be so pissed off!”

The standard of cooking is softer these days. It’s become more of a white collar profession. As a chef, it’s become more difficult. You can’t yell at a cook anymore. Cooking is more civil now.

Jeremy Fox (Executive Chef/Partner in Ubuntu restaurant, Napa, CA) told me that one of his cooks has a journal of every hour she worked at the restaurant. Can you believe it?”

“If you’re in this business to make money, you’re the dumbest person alive!”

I never asked how much I got paid. I just thought, “Thank God I got a job working for the chef I wanted to.”

Young cooks say, “I want to learn how to butcher.”

I tell them, “Sure, come in on your day off.”

They say, “What? Then I have to work 7 days in a row!”

My thought is…“Yeah, and ?”

When I was a young cook, that’s just what you did. I’d work for weeks without a day off. I didn’t care if I got paid. I was there to learn.

What’s your hiring criteria?

Ko is like the Special Forces. New cooks make 3 dishes and family meal. Family meal is the most important meal in a restaurant.

I’ll ask about their knife skills. “If you tell me your knife skills are great and your knives aren’t even sharp? Their knives are so dull…I can scratch my back with them...Fuck you!”

“Knife skills in America can’t begin to compare to those in Japan.”

“The most dangerous person in the room is the one with nothing to lose. I want my staff to know everything is against us. I’m looking for drive and tenacity. Push, push, push.”

I can tell who is going to be a great cook but never a great chef. Great cooks don’t have to struggle. They’re just better at it. I ask them, “How the hell are you doing this?” There cooks who are so talented, they fall apart when they have to teach it. It’s frustrating when the person standing next to them doesn’t get it.

“I’ll take a team of scrappy cooks any day. They’re the ones who screw up and can’t sleep because they’re trying to figure out how to do it better.”

The best food comes from a team effort.

It used to be that cooks would stay 5 years at a restaurant. Now you’re lucky if they stay 1 ½ years. 2 ½ years is great.

Are you cooking on the line much?

I don’t cook in my restaurants anymore.

I have to learn how to dial it back. “I don’t know how to keep service from affecting my health and my mental space.”

“In the early years, I could work in a ‘focused rage’. I can’t do it now.”

“We built this open kitchen and I thought, ‘What am I doing? I hate talking with customers!’ I used to be rude.”

People would ask, “What’s this?”

“And I’d say, ‘Look buddy, I’ve got a full board [of orders]….’ I don’t want to talk to customers when I’m working.”

It’s difficult because “as a line cook—that’s how you measure a good day at work. You feel like you accomplish things: you do your mise en place, have a good service, go out for a couple beers, sleep, and go back and do it again. As a line cook, you know what a good day is.”

Now that my role has changed….”I don’t know how to quantify what a ‘good day’ is.”


By David Chang and Peter Mehan
Clarkson Potter, October 2009