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Before David Chang...

Momofuku Ko

Photographs by Andrew Hetherington

Chef de cuisine Max Ng and two sous chefs at Momofuku Ko work to prepare lunch in March.

David Chang        

Before David Chang, you probably thought of ramen as a rather pedestrian food, a hangover-helper in a cup, stashed on the dusty shelves of college dorm rooms. Then came the Momofuku Noodle Bar and that dehydrated mass of sodium and noodles was transformed into a glorious meal-in-a-bowl: slow-simmered chicken and pork broth stocked with melting slabs of pork belly, seasonally rooted vegetables—a sprinkle of sweet Greenmarket corn in summer, charred Brussels sprouts in winter—all swimming in a tangle of long and lovely slurpable noodles and served with firecracker garnishes like Perigord truffles and sides such as kimchi and spicy cucumber.

Before David Chang, you likely ordered takeout from neighborhood restaurants that happened to deliver—not a handcrafted meal from Chang’s revolutionary new online food delivery restaurant, Ando, where a brigade of classically trained chefs have studied not only what you want to eat—brilliant riffs on classics such as cheesesteaks, caesar salad and chicken Parmesan sandwiches—but how to get it to you so it’s crispy, hot and unspoiled by the wear of transportation and assault of the elements.

Before David Chang, you (along with most of the culinary world) were coddled into believing that the most inspiring food could be found only in a serene temple of quiet culinary contemplation, not in a slick, graffitied room run by a radical group of young gangster cooks with sleeve tattoos working dishes like charred razor clams in a broth of pineapple dashi; Maine sea urchin with fermented chickpea “Hozon” and grated lemon; and 60-day aged beef strip loin with a spicy green peppercorn chervil and Armagnac sauce, all to the sounds of Wu-Tang Clan and Metallica.

Before David Chang, you loved food, but you didn’t live for it. And now, well, you do. You see? David Chang changed everything.

The 39-year-old chef and founder of one of the world’s most daring and dynamic restaurant empires, which includes cult favorites such as Momofuku Noodle Bar, Momofuku Ko, Nishi and Fuku, did not set out to change the world. Really, the guy just wanted to cook (even though his dad wanted him to play golf). And while he toiled at culinary kingdoms such as Craft and Café Boulud, what really spoke to him, the food that whispered softly in his ear while he slept at night, was ramen. And no doubt, if you’ve had his ramen, it’s in your dreams, too.  

I sat down with Chang, who has been honored with five James Beard Foundation awards (Rising Star Chef of the Year; Best Chef New York City; Best New Restaurant—Momofuku Ko; Outstanding Chef; and Who’s Who of Food and Beverage), to find out a little more about his journey from sauté cook to ssam master, what he thinks is so great about fly fishing, why meditating is stressful and whether heaven is in the cards.

You were a religion major at Trinity and your dad wanted you to play professional golf, yet here you are, a chef with acclaimed restaurants whose names are an indirect nod to the founder of instant ramen. What was the “Aha!” moment for you? When you realized, I should be in the kitchen?

My dad tried very hard to make sure I would never enter the culinary profession, but I knew that I had to try something different. I actually tried to drop out of college my sophomore year. I was in London doing a semester abroad, and had I known that Marco Pierre White was at Harveys, I probably would have walked out of school and gone straight over to that kitchen.

So what happened?
After I graduated from Trinity in 1999, I moved to Japan to teach English, and I lived in a small town where there was only one ramen shop. I didn’t have the balls to go in there until the end of my time there, and when I did, it was a revelation. That was the first time I had real ramen. After that, I traveled to Osaka and I just fell in love with ramen. When I came back to New York City, I got a crap job in financial marketing and I just hated it. I looked around and thought, if this is what it is, I can’t do this. I essentially had a midlife crisis at the age of 22 and quit my job and enrolled at the French Culinary Institute. It was about finding something that was honest and meaningful to me, and I found that in cooking. I burned all my bridges to make sure I could not go to a desk job. I was all in.

While in culinary school, you were on a mission to get a job at Craft, Tom Colicchio’s groundbreaking restaurant devoted to seasonal American cooking. They had no openings in the kitchen, so you took a job answering phones. Why?

I was a huge fan of Gramercy Tavern because it was essentially the only American restaurant trying to do something serious. Tom was getting ready to open Craft, and the team he had assembled there was one of the best teams that has ever been assembled in the history of restaurants. You had Jonathan Benno who cooked with Thomas Keller, along with Marco Canora, Damon Wise, James Tracey, Akhtar Nawab, Karen DeMasco and Liz Chapman. These are people who had the most impressive training in the business. So I took a job answering phones there.

When did you finally get to cook instead of take reservations?
It took about three months, and during that time, I just kept asking Marco, and he kept saying no. I thought I’d just badger him until space became available. Finally, he said, OK. So, I quit my other job at The Mercer Kitchen and started working full-time at Craft as a stage [a stage works for free, like an intern]. I’d work there as much as I could, leave for a few hours to answer the phones and make some cash and then go back.

That sounds intense.
It was, but it was great. One of the first things I remember was Akhtar [Nawab, chef of the newly opened Alta Calidad in Brooklyn] asking me to do the mirepoix for the braised short ribs dish. It was six quarts, two quarts each of celery, onion and carrot. You could easily do this in 20 to 30 minutes, but it took me eight hours because I was so nervous. I remember being heartbroken that I could not do it fast enough.

Did the folks at Craft become your mentors?
Definitely. I won the lotto working at Craft. They took me under their wing and gave me a lot of work, but I learned so much about everything because I was so willing. I showed up early, I mean really early. On prep days, it was just me and Akhtar prepping together and we would do all the mise en place. I looked forward to Saturdays because I could fabricate terrines, do butchery, work on pasta. I staged for about six months and then I finally got a job there. And it was full on. I worked with a dream team.

How did you come to open a ramen shop?
At Craft, my hobby was ramen. I would get every ramen book, every Japanese cooking magazine and just read them. I actually hired someone off of Craigslist to translate all the books and magazines for me so I could learn. I sent letters to every ramen shop in Japan and just begged to come and wash dishes and learn. I got no response. After two years at Craft, I finally got a job through my aunt to go to Tokyo and work at a ramenya [a ramen restaurant]. It was 2002, and I was 24 years old and I spoke no Japanese, but I learned so much. I came back and picked up some shifts at Rai Rai Ken. I told the owner I was going to open a ramen restaurant and he had nothing good to say about that.

But instead you ended up at Café Boulud?

Yeah, my friends told me I needed to work with AC [Andrew Carmellini] at Café Boulud, because he had this amazing team and was so talented, so I did that. I worked for AC for six months, which were the hardest days of my life. It was a culture shock to come back and make French food after cooking in Japan. I didn’t love the food at Café Boulud, but I loved the intensity. Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone [now owners of Sadelle’s, Parm and Dirty French, among others] would make fun of me because I was always saying, “I don’t want to make this food, I want to make noodles.” That was our daily conversation. At that point, I knew I would open a noodle bar. And everyone was like, whatever.

When you assembled your team for Momofuku, did you bring people with you from Café Boulud and Craft?
Not at all. It was 2004, a banner year for restaurants and no one wanted to work for me. Why would they? Benno was assembling a team to open Per Se, Masa had opened, Hearth was opening, so were Cru and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. How do I compete? I actually wanted to work at those places, even though I was opening this stupid noodle bar. It was hard. I had no one. I asked my friends to help me. I put ads on Craigslist. Nothing. Finally, my brother had a friend who said, “Use Monster.com and you will find someone,” and that is how I found Quino [Joaquin Baca, Chang’s opening sous chef who now runs his own place, Brooklyn Star], and then we opened.

Tell me about the early days of Noodle Bar.
The restaurant was not an overnight success. We almost went out of business in the first six months. I did not think we would make it. I remember Rob and Robin [Rob Patronite and Robin Raisfeld, reviewers from New York magazine] came in, and I was so embarrassed by what we were doing. I didn’t think it was good, I didn’t know, I had no perspective. I would not let them put my name in the review. [Indeed, they refer to Chang only as a “veteran of Craft who is an ardent student of Japanese cuisine.”]

Thankfully, we had the culinary community on our side. They are the reason we stayed afloat. The entire teams of Per Se, Jean-Georges, Café Boulud, Babbo and Casa Mono came to eat after work. They backed us and that was vital. When we needed a dishwasher, the Café Boulud guys came and did dishes. When we needed a convection oven, Mario Batali gave us one he didn’t need at Casa Mono. Daniel Boulud would send his best clients our way for lunch to keep us busy. They kept us going and then spring rolled around and we just found our voice and we started to cook. Those are the seeds that were planted and came to fruition.

You have spoken a lot about your temper. How have you dealt with the stress of running all your restaurants.  
I had a lot of rage, and that rage got us through a lot of stuff. That fuel can be used very effectively, but you can’t run on that fuel forever. And as I got older, I was falling apart. I was sick for many years and would just slog through it. I knew I had issues, but I had to do more than know about my issues, I had to act upon them. Thanks to yoga and meditation and running, I am in a much better place. But I have to get back to meditation. It just got too stressful to clear the time to do it. It’s not good, because lately I am too stressed out to meditate. I don’t have the time.

We are all addicted to our phones. I imagine you must be inundated with texts, emails, tweets, calls and more. Do you ever shut off your phone and just rest?
I never turn it off. It’s on all the time, even when I sleep. Maybe that’s why I like long flights. Like to Australia. I can do 21 hours on the plane and just zone out and not even turn on the TV. I need to go to a place with no Wi-Fi connection.

Do you take vacations?
Not often, but I am going fly-fishing next week, which is really my only hobby. It’s perfect for me because it’s very competitive. It’s like some kind of weird combination of hunting and playing chess with Mother Nature. And if I think about anything else other than what I am doing in the moment, I will [mess] it up. All I want to do is fly-fish, because it can consume me in a way nothing else does. I have no other hobbies. I used to read, a lot. Now I have a stack of New Yorkers piling up.

Let’s talk about Fuku, your fried chicken sandwich shop that opened in 2015 and led to “Fukusanity,” the longest lines since the release of Star Wars in 1977. This is an epic sandwich—chicken thighs marinated in habanero purée and buttermilk, dredged in spices, deep fried and tucked inside a steamed Martin’s potato roll, slathered with puréed pickle and garlic butter. When did you wake up and say, “I have to do a fried chicken sandwich shop”?
Fuku really started with Mario Batali. He was always saying, “Why aren’t you delivering?” But we didn’t deliver because our food didn’t deliver well. We developed the fried chicken sandwich to create a deliverable product. We were never going to do a brick-and-mortar store, it was just going to be for delivery, but we had an empty space when we moved Ko, and so we decided to open Fuku there. And then it just happened.

Tell me a little bit about Ando, your new food delivery and online restaurant that launched in May 2016. Why get into delivery?

I wanted to make delicious food, but not just for foodies, for everyone. I want to cook for people who may not even care about food. To me, that’s really exciting. The menu is a work in progress. No one has really sat down and studied how to deliver food. We are trying to figure it out—and figure out how to do it in a cost-effective way.

You now have 13 restaurants, as well as a magazine, an online restaurant and cocktail bar. When you’ve grown in the past, you have not had investors. You have done it on your own.

Yeah, up until recently we have financed every new restaurant and concept ourselves, from Lucky Peach [the food magazine that will print two more issues before reconceptualizing] to Booker and Dax [the innovative cocktail bar that’s in the process of moving]. But in December, we closed a fundraising round that included RSE Ventures, a media, sports and entertainment company. This is the first time we have taken a strategic partner on board other than friends and family, and it’s something we’re very excited about. The main goal has always been to find and develop ideas and give other people an opportunity to grow. It also creates diversity in our business, which allows us when times are tough in one segment to have smooth sailing in another.

What’s your take on restaurant critics? Given the power of social media and word of mouth, are they really relevant anymore—if you have hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter and Instagram?
They still matter, of course, but I don’t think food critics are as important as they used to be. Populism has won.

I love this question from Inside the Actor’s Studio, so let’s end with this one: If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?

He’s probably gonna say, “I made a mistake!” But I think hell may be more fun than heaven anyway.


The Chang List

Where the chef eats and drinks when he’s not at his restaurants.

“I don’t usually eat breakfast, but I guess if I do, I’d like it to be at Balthazar for an omelet and fries.”

PDT, Dealer’s Choice. But I don’t really go out that much anymore. I am very similar to Ken Friedman—mainly I drink crappy white wine with ice.”

“Spicy pepperoni square pie at Prince Street Pizza.”

The Spotted Pig.”

Sushi Seki. I am a sushi snob.”

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