We live in a historical era in which a real obsession has been created around food. We see it constantly on social networks, cities are teeming with all kinds of gastronomic establishments and most of us update endless lists of restaurants to try, marking them on Google Maps or in the iPhone Notes. TV shows with gastronomic competitions and dozens of cookbook titles have become the norm, as well as considering chefs as real rock stars. One of them is David Chang.
Nominated Man of the Year by GQ, "one of the most influential people of our century" by Esquire, awarded two Michelin stars for the Momofuku KO restaurant, protagonist outside the lines of numerous successful TV programs, he is the symbol of a new generation of gastronomy and foodie insiders, or those who have developed a mania for food. The man of the new millennium who has changed the way people approach cooking, think about it and consume it.
His story is an American story, but it is also the story of a globalized and glocalized world. The story of a well-rounded man and his excesses.
David Chang was born in McLean, Virginia in 1977, the son of Korean parents who emigrated to the United States in the 1960s. His early years are characterized by a simple and community life linked to the Presbyterian church.
The entire family then moved to Vienna, Virginia when Chang was nine. The father wants his son to train professionally in golf: Chang was indeed a prodigy, but over time he abandoned this practice.
After completing religious studies in college, Chang undertakes various office jobs, then moves to Japan to teach English - in the Rising Sun he felt unfit due to the profound contradictions in society and not being accepted as a Korean. . It was at that time that he began to think about a career as a cook, although his father was strongly against it. Despite this, Chang attends the French Culinary Institute (FCI) while working part-time at Mercer Kitchen in Manhattan. After the course, he wants to work at Craft, where he is put on reservations. However, he manages to break into the kitchen, working for free the morning before the service.
Back in Japan, where he was fascinated by ramenya (he remembers that there was literally one on every street corner, ramen there was the food of the moment) he works in one of the many. After being fired, he works in an izakaya and then in a soba joint. Thanks to acquaintances, he manages to get hired at the Park Hyatt's New York Grill restaurant where, as he himself reports, "they cooked American food with Japanese products."
Back in the States he works at Café Boulud, where he concretely develops the very complicated techniques of French cuisine. During this time, he feels totally dissatisfied with the fine dining scene and has his first heavy depressive phase before he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder: Chang had started suffering from depression already in school, a conflict period characterized by low self-esteem and bullying related to racism. The fact of not fully accepting his Korean origins accompanies him into adulthood, creating internal conflicts with repercussions on his working life as well. He is also known for his temper tantrums and angry episodes towards employees. Having hit rock bottom due to suicidal tendencies and extensive use of medicines and drugs, he begins going to therapy. Following his mother's illness, he left Café Boulud after five months.
Once the situation has normalized, Chang thinks about cooking and how that choice could save his life. In his mind, the world of gastronomy is divided into two large macro-worlds, outlined according to the common school of thought since the 1960s: French-inspired cuisine (refined and consumed in high-class restaurants) and "ethnic" ( Asian, African, Latin American and the humblest and simplest places on the planet). There is nothing in between: there is no cooking style that does not derive from France, which is both cheap and high-level.
Opening a ramen shop in a city today is pretty normal but in 2004 it wasn't at all. Despite the bizarre idea, the father agrees to finance Chang in this venture. He finds a small place in the East Village, not elegant, where he wants to offer an open kitchen with good food at reasonable prices.
So he opens his first restaurant, the Momofuku Noodle Bar (the name translated from Japanese means "lucky peach", but more properly refers to the inventor of instant noodles, Momofuku Ando).
The result? A disaster.
The menu consisted of gyoza, some ramen and a range of snacks. Nobody understood what he was doing, the criticism demolished him by asserting that he had no respect for traditional recipes. The EPA (the US agency for the protection of the environment) wanted to have it closed due to the strong smell of cooked pork that could be heard along the road when the restaurant was open, the PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) accused of serving foie gras and vegans criticized him for not having created dishes without animal proteins.
On the edge of the abyss, with stress at the highest levels and with a brigade that seemed like a commune, Chang decides to abandon everything he knew and to rely only on what he saw from his clients. For example, he noted that Asians used to drink broth from soup, while Westerners ate only noodles. Based on this and many other observations, he kept changing the recipes. So, while he starts writing his cookbook, many clubs in the city had already started copying him.
Chang called his first restaurant "bad pseudo-fusion cuisine", a place where he tried to serve "American food". He never wanted to call it "ramen shop", his idea was from the beginning a pop conception of making food, and so the choice fell on "Noodle Bar".
Like all Koreans, Chang has always eaten large quantities of noodles: as a child he ate jjajangmyeon with his father, during a period in London he used to go to Wagamama, at university he ate Sapporo Ichiban Original Flavor instant ramen and in Japan he ate ramen almost every evening.
He almost wanted to pay homage to one of the most popular dishes in the world, ramen, whose great revolution took place in 1958, when Momofuku Ando invented instant noodles making them accessible to millions of people. In the 1980s the basic recipes were then "institutionalized", the same ones that Chang studied with great zeal.
Momofuku Noodle Bar signatures
MOMOFUKU RAMEN The broth is made with pork bones, seaweed and bacon (instead of seafood). The noodles are made with an alkaline dough (like in Japan) and the basic garnishes are always roasted bacon, nori seaweed, bamboo, egg and spring onion. For the making of dashi, Chang used bacon instead of katsuobushi (difficult to find at the beginning), in order to recreate the smoky aroma. As for pork, it is present in two ways: sliced bacon as a garnish (and as a filling for bao) and braised pork shoulder.
MOMOFUKU PORK BUNS Probably the dish the Noodle Bar is really famous for! Chang has become a great bao enthusiast since his first trips to Asia, to Beijing (where he often bought char-siu bao) and Tokyo (where he bought nikumans in the various konbini).
GINGER SCALLION NOODLES Tribute to the $ 4.95 plate from the Great New York Noodletown in Bowery, Chinatown. The secret? The sauce with the addition of some vegetables for those who do not eat meat.
ROASTED RICE CAKES In Korea, tteok (rice dumplings) are extremely common and are eaten from a very young age. Chang's father often cooked them for him, in fact, when he was a child. The Momofuku recipe requires that they have a delicious crust (practically they are fried and not boiled) and that they are seasoned with the exclusive Korean Red Dragon Sauce.
KIMCHI STEW WITH RICE CAKES AND PORK Another childhood dish, which Chang's mother often cooked with the addition of Spam. At Momofuku it is made with ramen broth as a base, kimchi made in the restaurant aged two weeks (it is also served as pickles, among many artisanal ones), roasted onions and mirin to give sweetness. Tteok are used instead of tofu.
CHICKEN & EGG Inspired by the oyakodon (whose translation from Japanese means "parents and children") he often ordered at a yakitori in the Kappabashi district of Tokyo. It is a bowl of rice with tare sauce, chicken cooked on charcoal, Japanese pickles and Italian salt.
FRIED CHICKEN Certainly the most contemporary Korean-inspired dish that could be included in the menu.
After the success of the first restaurant, Chang decides he wants to open another one. He initially thinks of a "Noodle Bar II", so it would have been very easy to find investors. This idea was then discarded for a search for greater simplicity: ssäm as a base combined with the North-Californian style of the burrito. The "burrito-ssäm", or the "Korean version of the chiplote". Once again Chang is inspired by the "periphery of the kitchen", by the typical dishes of fast and street food.
While finding a dilapidated venue to renovate near the Noodle Bar, the James Beard Foundation names David Chang "Risining Star Chef of the year" and Food & Wine magazine "Best New Chef" of 2006. At the height of these successes the business passes from "a family business" to doing business with many large companies.
Ssäm Bar signatures
BO SSÄM Ssäm means "wrapped" in Korean. There are a series of dishes to put in the lettuce to make a roll: kimchi, oysters or pork shoulder (cooked like the Noodle Bar but with more sugar, for this more crunchy). To all this is added the Ssäm Sauce, consisting of gochujang, ssämjang and vinegar.
MARINATED HANGER STEAK SSÄM, RED KIMCHI PUREE AND GINGER SCALLION Beef ssäm, hanger cut ("loin"). For the marinade, Chang was inspired by the one her mother used for kalbi, containing apple juice.
MOMOFUKU SHORTCAKES Dessert (first with rhubarb, then with strawberries) that was previously served at Momofuku. It was created, among many others, by the pastry chef Christina Tosi.
In 2007 Chang decided to focus on fine dining. After moving the Momofuku headquarters (renamed "a mess turned into a success"), KO ("son of" in Japanese) opens its doors in place of the same.
Chang opts for a place with very few seats, two shifts, no VIP and exclusively online reservations: every morning at 10:00, reservations for the following week open. So many requests came in that the site crashed numerous times and food critics were not writing about the cuisine but about the difficulty in finding a place for dinner!
Right at that moment, among other things, the chef faces for the first time a new form of gastronomic criticism: if in the past the opinion of the New York Times, New York Magazine, Food & Wine and Gourmet was expected, now the scene is taken by foodbloggers - more aware and much more receptive than journalists.
Since the beginning the kitchen had to present apparently simple dishes but where there was all the previous knowledge of the two previous premises. The result to date is a Japanese-Chinese-Korean fusion.
The first menu was an interpretation of kaiseki cuisine seen through the American lens: in doing so, Chang realized that he had the opportunity to destroy the notion of what it meant to eat in a New York fine-dining establishment.
It earned three stars in the New York Times and two stars in the Michelin Guide in 2009.
KO KIMCHI CONSOMME', PORK BELLY, OYSTERS & NAPA CABBAGE
SOFT-COOKED HEN EGG, CAVIAR, ONIONS & POTATO
CEREAL MILK Pastry chef Christina Tosi wanted to make something that tastes like milk when left with the cereals inside. She thus prepared a pannacotta with avocado purée and hazelnut chocolate on the side as a pairing. This dish was the pre-dessert.
FRIED APPLE PIE Singular combination of apples and miso (very popular among NY pastry chefs at the time), in this case miso butter scotch - appreciated for its salty note. For the base, Tosi made a dough similar to that for wontons, suitable for deep frying.
MOMOFUKU MILK BAR
Christina Tosi is the pastry chef, founder and CEO of Milk Bar, Momofuku's "sister bakery".
Her pastry style has its roots in everyday life and in the imagination: her desserts are imperfect to the eye, homemade, but incredibly innovative, so much so that they influence the entire confectionery industry of the country. In 2014 she was included in the "Most Innovative Women in Food and Drink" list by Food & Wine magazine.
Since 2005 Tosi has started working for Momofuku. In 2008, when the place next to Bo Ssäm was available, he opened his own shop: the Milk Bar.
Before long, he made acclaimed great classics: Cereal Milk, Compost Cookie and Crack Pie (now called Milk Bar Pie, the name was changed after critics deemed it reminiscent of cocaine addiction).
Subsequently she opened other offices in the USA, so much so that she had sixteen in 2019. The Milk Bar is one of the most innovative ovens in America, Tosi has been awarded over time, as well as being chosen as a Masterchef judge.
David Chang's personality has always been very "particular". From his writings and from his interviews there is a strong self-criticism mixed with numerous childhood memories related to bullying, as well as anger and the inability to manage his own staff. Despite this he was able to create a new cult style for foodies: he made customers eat the food that Asian chefs ate after the service, something unthinkable at a time when French-derived haute cuisine was in force.
Eclectic and curious, in 2008 Chang embarks on a trip to Europe, whose gastronomic climate is very sparkling by virtue of the numerous events related to food: in Spain (where the gigantic legacy of the Adrià brothers from elBulli dominates) there are Gastronomika and Madrid Fusiòn , in Italy instead Identità Golose and in France Omnivore.
However, general attention is entirely dedicated to René Redzepi and his sous chef Christian Puglisi from Noma, who opened its doors in Copenhagen the same year as Momofuku. Chang goes to visit Redzepi and is fascinated by him during his participation in Cook It Raw (a sort of cooking show in which Albert Adrià and Massimo Bottura also participated).
In 2009 Anthony Bourdain invited him to participate in the New York Wine & Food Festival: the two became very close friends.
Love, on the other hand, finds him with Grace: she is also Korean, raised by immigrant parents in the Seattle suburbs. She has been close to him during manic-depressive episodes, club openings and reviews.
When Grace discovers she is pregnant, Bourdain dies the next day. This, for Chang, is one of his biggest losses.
In 2010 he opened Ma Peche in Manhattan (then closed in 2018), in 2011 he founded Lucky Peach (food magazine that changed the way of talking about food by seeking new talents - closed in 2017) and Momofuku Seiōbo in the Star City Casino in Australia.
In 2015 he launched Fuku, a fast food chain specializing in fried chicken sandwiches.
In 2016 he launched the first digital-only restaurant with delivery-only menus in Midtown East, accepting orders only with an app he invented, called "Ando".
LA Majordomo opens in 2019 and the following year Majordomo Meat & Fish, a 250-seat venue at The Venetian in Los Angeles.
In 2020, all Momofuku premises remain closed due to Covid. Subsequently, some clubs permanently close, including Majordomo and Seiōbo.
Over the years, David Chang has participated in many television programs such as Treme (on HBO), Top Chef: All Stars, The Mind of a Chef (produced by Anthony Bourdain), Ugly Delicious, The Chef Show and in 2011 was a judge of Masterchef Australia .
There is no doubt that David Chang is a trend setter: he has influenced the cooking style of many chefs around the world, just as the structure of his restaurants can be found in a certain way in many other places as well.
In Milan, for example, there are two places, in particular, that personally remind me of Chang's places, both in the kitchen and in the furnishings.
Here too the protagonist is the revisited ramen, but no less are the dishes that enrich the menu with a strong fusion contamination: bao, kakuni meat, temaki to be assembled directly at the table that is very reminiscent of Korean ssäm and colorful desserts , with a homely and imaginative air.
The same wake of the pop reinterpretation of Japanese cuisine in a ramen key was also undertaken by Zazà Ramen, complete with strongly revisited "side dishes" perfect for sharing, in addition to the massive use of natural wood for the furniture and a open kitchen.
Documentaries on Japanese food (article including Ugly Delicious and The mind of a chef documents)
Eat a Peach: A Memoir, by David Chang, Clarkson Potter, 2020
Momofuku by David Chang (2010)
Casa Ramen, by Luca Catafalmo e Chiara Patrizi De Francisci (Giunti Editore, 2022)