The Most Important Chef in America
Expletive-spewing 32-year-old David Chang just might be having more influence on American cooking than anyone else, with a chain called Momofuku that’s inventing an entire cuisine.
Few fine dining restaurants could get away with using a four letter word on their menu. But David Chang, who runs New York’s cult favorite restaurant family, all called Momofuku, is an exceptional restaurateur. Nearly every one of his sentences contains an expletive, often more than one, and every one of his four Manhattan restaurants—his temple to ramen, Momofuku Noodle Bar; his idiosyncratic laboratory, Momofuku Ssam Bar, his 12-seat haute cuisine counter, Momofuku Ko and his bakery, Momofuku Bakery and Milk Bar--has become wildly irrevocably successful. So when Momofuku hosted world famous guest chefs for one-off events early this week, Chang called the dinners, Four Fucking Dinners.
Woven into the name are the seeds of Chang’s genius: Four Fucking Dinners is at once poetry understated, iconoclastic, straight forward, modest and mind blowing. For David Chang brings to the kitchen not just considerable culinary knowledge—he’s worked under chefs Marco Canora and Daniel Boulud, studied at the French Culinary Institute, traveled to Japan to learn the art of making ramen—but a personality at once brash and vulnerable. Chang is painfully aware of the pressures incumbent upon him as a James Beard-winning chef and also the absurdity of the world he helped create. At every opportunity, in every profile piece, Chang bares his tortured soul. So much so that judging his mental state has become a cottage industry to itself. Nonetheless, he’s dragged up the restaurant totem pole, racking up anxiety and awards as he goes.
David Chang’s dishes don’t have titles. They have names, intuitive and meant to be shouted above the clamor of an all indie rock soundtrack.
So even as he organizes Four Fucking Dinners, he can’t help but to poke holes in the project’s self-importance. And know this: Despite the willfully informal name, the import of such a convocation was immense. Though there were only three dinners on Momofuku premises—one chef, the Basque Frenchman Iñaki Aizpirtarte, cancelled at the last moment while a fifth dinner, hosted by WD-50, starred French chef Michel Bras—there was a total of six Michelin stars among the remaining chefs. That’s not counting the two Michelin stars Chang has for Momofuku Ko. That such a constellation of chefs gathered at the behest of a 32 year old Korean-American chef who opened his first restaurant in 2004 not confirms Chang’s position as the Sun King of Kitchen but illustrates why he got there.
French chef Alexandre Gauthier’s seven course menu at Ssam bar is a useful counterpoint to what David Chang isn’t. The first dish was entitled une tasse d’eau de mer, a cup of seawater. In a small ramekin, a slice of black sea bass, an oyster and a few herbs limply floated in a salty broth. The second course was a grilled pickle, huddled at the corner of the plate like a wall flower, sitting on a thin blankie of taramasalata. The night continued thusly with tiny dishes asymmetrically plated; the dinner cost $100 a person. David Chang’s dishes, on the other hand, don’t have titles. They have names, intuitive and meant to be shouted above the clamor of an all indie rock soundtrack. He rose to fame on a simple steamed pork bun and a simple expertly sourced ramen at Momofuku Noodle Bar when it opened in 2004 and stayed there with Momofuku Ssam which opened in 2006 as an ill-fated Asian burrito joint before settling into its meter as an personal playground for Chang’s invention. A recent dish combined crispy tater tot size rice cakes with spicy pork sausage, Chinese broccoli and crispy shallots, a dish that at once evokes lunch period and Chang’s time spent under master chef Daniel Boulud at Café Boulud.
“It may sound cheesy” he tells me, “but I still run my restaurants on the same platonic ideals that I had when I was ten, or when I was in college. I try to run a moral enterprise.” Chang’s morality is remarkably punctilious though it involves copious consumption of alcohol. The hard-partying Chang is a reluctant but natural born leader. “It’s fucking ridiculous that I’m the one running things but it needs to be done so I do it,” he says, with a natural Trotsky-ite touch for demagoguery. Calling a high-powered chef event Four Fucking Dinners is just the beginning of it. His restaurants are democratic, even while incredibly difficult to get into. Even at Ko he refuses to take reservations. Diners are forced to contend with the egalitarian vagaries of an Internet reservation system, that fills up every day within seconds. His food—even at its most fine dining--tacks along the way of kaiseki chefs: like a marble slab, Chang chips away at a dish until he’s left with only those flavors he deems necessary. This culinary ethos is borne from the man himself. “I’m always questioning myself,” he says. “You have to to stay on top.”
Chang and his restaurants are in a constant state of flux. “I think my restaurants are as neurotic as I am,” he admits. Noting that Koreans are the Jews of Asia, Chang echoes millions of Diasporic Semites when he says, “I’m constantly struck by the fear that all of this will be taken away.” Instead, his empire grows and grows. Momofuku Midtown, headed by Tien Ho, chef de cuisine at Ssam bar, is slated to open in late fall. There’s talk of a Momofuku Las Vegas, so that a larger cross-section of America can see what he’s about. This may be good news for any one interested in pork buns and Chang’s brand of strong-willed strongly flavored food but it’s a mixed bag for the Chang’s restless soul. “I always felt like an underdog,” he says. “Now, I don’t have that anymore.”
Joshua David Stein is the editor-at-large of OUT magazine. He covers travel for The Guardian, fashion and food for The Moment and arts for the New York Press.