These were my favorite passages from his book.
Eat a Peach: A Memoir
by David Chang, Gabe Ulla
“The downside to the term tiger parenting entering the mainstream vocabulary is that it gives a cute name to what is actually a painful and demoralizing existence. It also feeds into the perception that all Asian kids are book smart because their parents make it so. Well, guess what. It’s not true. Not all our parents are tiger parents, tiger parenting doesn’t always work, and not all Asian kids are good at school. In fact, not all Asian kids are any one thing. To be young and Asian in America often means fighting a multifront war against sameness.”
“Like I said, my dad would get upset, but it didn’t make a difference. I wanted so badly to please him and my mom. I was simply incapable. What happens when you live with a tiger that you can’t please is that you’re always afraid. Every hour of every day, you’re uncomfortable around your own parent.
I’m only telling you all of this because it’s what a memoir calls for: tea leaves. Selected stories that foretell the person I would become. But I’m reluctant to put too much stock in these anecdotes. People have survived much worse suffering and much tougher parents. If you grew up as a first-generation Asian American, there’s a good chance you’re saying to yourself, “Whatever. Big baby.”
“Gradually I got more comfortable asking, “But why?” I suppose that’s important to the person I would become, but doesn’t every kid do that? There was one Sunday school session, when they brought out a felt backboard with little cutout figures to illustrate how everyone in heaven is able to look down at the nonbelievers in hell. For the first time, I felt bothered by the idea that someone would burn eternally for not accepting Jesus Christ as their lord and savior.”
“One of my second cousins, another prep school kid, once beat the shit out of me because I wouldn’t join the Korean clique. I wasn’t Asian enough to hang with the other Asians, and I wasn’t book smart or talented enough to keep up with anyone else. I internalized the atmosphere of superiority and processed it into an overwhelming awareness of my own inferiority. Everything was a struggle for me there, with the exception of my religious studies. By that time, I’d read the Bible enough to teach the classes myself.”
“I made it a point to learn as much as I possibly could about religion, partly so I could defeat Esther during our arguments. In my sophomore year, while studying abroad in Europe, I met up with her in Switzerland. I hadn’t seen her for a while. I should have told her about being moved by Buddhism, or explained how I had finally discovered that the right faith for me was secular humanism. But the security Esther had in her own beliefs made me angry. She wasn’t exactly smug about it, but she was so damn sure. In my anger toward her, I felt righteous. I came prepared to unload all the worldly wisdom I had picked up in two years of college. I told her that if her omnipotent God had allowed for all the famine and tragedy in the world, for Stalin and Pol Pot and genocide, I would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven. I topped it off by saying that if I had been alive two thousand years ago, I’d probably be crucifying Christians, too. I don’t think she had ever viewed us as combatants. The battle was completely in my head.”
“If you’re so inclined, you could stretch and say that running through the woods of Wolf Trap Park in the years after the move is how I learned to use my imagination. Being alone and unmonitored by my working parents meant a lot of solo play: forts and guns and video games and Transformers. I never really got bored.”
“the modern shopping destination in the D.C. area, but within a few years, that’s what happened. Eddie Pak came to envy my dad’s location. It helped that Joe Chang was tireless, a man who believed he could bend reality to his will if he tried hard enough, but he was also very lucky. Good fortune beats any plan.”
“This was before Tiger and Vijay and Michelle Wie and K. J. Choi hit the stage. Golf was very much a white sport and something of a weird niche for a Korean kid. On the other hand, traveling around the South to play in tournaments showed me a side of American culture that I couldn’t see in suburban Washington, D.C. I learned to eat and love Brunswick stew, country-fried steaks, and redeye gravy. I got to know the other kids on the golf circuit, and I really enjoyed being around them. We were bound together by this incredibly uncool sport that we were all somehow good at.
“constantly compare me to Richie, a nationally known phenom at the top of the amateur level. He qualified for a PGA tour event when he was sixteen, and was essentially everything I couldn’t be. Be more like Richie Yu was a constant refrain in our house. When I coincidentally met Richie Yu a couple of decades later, I told him that he had ruined my whole childhood. I was joking, mostly.”
“Golf is ten percent physical and ninety percent mental,” Dad would always say. The takeaway for me was far simpler: I wasn’t good enough.”
“I should have quit, too. The last couple of levels before graduation at FCI were basically unpaid jobs in the school’s restaurant. In other words, I was paying them for the privilege of cooking food for customers. (Why anyone would want to go to a cooking school restaurant in the first place is beyond me.) But I was hooked. There was no romantic, come-to-Jesus moment about cooking, but I had at least found something I didn’t hate doing. I became captivated by the industry, talking my classmates’ ears off about restaurants—most of which I’d never visited. In New York, I loved Danny Meyer’s and Tom Colicchio’s Gramercy Tavern.”
“He is an OG, who was embracing techniques like cooking over wood fire long before they were trendy. He helped define the modern American culinary sensibility, and my first preference was to work for him over any Eurocentric chef. I was all in on Americana.”
“My dream was obviously a proper cooking job at Craft, but they certainly didn’t need—or want—my help, so I took a position as a reservationist. At age twenty-two, I felt so behind people who had been cooking since they were sixteen. I was scrambling to get experience under my belt as fast as humanly possible. I was stationed next to the prep kitchen, where I’d gawk at the products coming into the restaurant. Foie. Rabbits. All kinds of mushrooms—hen of the woods, bluefoot, St. George’s, lobster, morels, chanterelles. I marveled as the cooks transformed raw product into mise en place.”
“Some time during my first year at Craft, Marco asked why I hadn’t come into the restaurant for a meal yet. Most cooks never dine at the restaurants where they work, because either it isn’t encouraged or it simply feels too awkward to be served by one’s superiors. Here Marco was urging me and I didn’t have a good excuse, so I made a reservation for when my brother was in town. We ordered within our budget, but the kitchen crushed us with extra food. I mean crushed. More dishes than any VIP table ever got. When I opened the check at the end of the meal, I found a handwritten note from Marco: Thank you for all of your hard work. This meal is on us. I wept like a baby.”
“I was still so bad at my job. Everyone knew it, yet they showed me patience. I recall crying another time at the restaurant after getting passed up for a position on the hot line—I’d be stuck on garde manger, the cold appetizer section. I was sobbing in the boiler room when Marco walked in to console me. I was good at this, he said, but I needed to get better. He told me I’d be fine. For some reason, I believed him. He left me to get myself together and then Benno came in.”
“Mom was sick. During college, I’d taken the fall semester of junior year off to look after her after she developed breast cancer. Now it had returned. I’m convinced the relapse was a psychosomatic response to an ugly business dispute between my dad and my brother Jhoon. Everyone was acting like a jackass. It was a very shitty time that broke the Changs apart and confirmed what I had always suspected: even your loved ones will let you down.”
“I was embarrassed. I didn’t feel justified in seeing a therapist or taking pills. For one thing, I didn’t know any other Asian people who saw therapists. A lot of my friends had shrinks in college, but their situations were different. They were wealthy kids with actual bad shit going on at home in Westchester or whatever northeastern enclave had produced them. Rich kids are always the most fucked up. I didn’t recognize my issues in anyone else.”
“I’d hoped to find something in Japan—a sense of belonging, maybe. No such luck. The women in Japan were no more inclined to date me than the women at Trinity. All the Japanese girls seemed to be paired up with a white guy. If not, they certainly weren’t going to stoop to dating a Korean.”
“When I returned to New York from Tokyo, I started my dead-end job at the financial services company. I would ride my Gary Fisher bike all over Manhattan, weaving in and out of traffic and blowing through stoplights as if I were the only person on the street. I once went skiing with friends who had to tell me to cool it because I was getting too close to the trees. I defied them and completely obliterated myself in the foliage. One day I stepped off the curb in Central Park as a bus was backing up; it hit me and it hurt a great deal. There was a New Year’s Eve party in 2000 that began with Valium, speed, pot, this, that, and the other, washed down with around twenty drinks and ended with my falling through a giant glass table. Blood everywhere. Shards of glass embedded in my wrists. The ER doctors said I narrowly missed an artery. I wonder if my recklessness was a cry for help disguised as youthful indiscretion, or if maybe I was hoping that at the bottom of a bottle would be the courage to step in front of the train.”
“Our early sessions were uncomfortable. He barely spoke at all and I barely said anything of substance. I kept asking how the sessions were supposed to be structured as he stared at me blankly. No matter how hard I forced the issue, I’d get no response. I was smart enough to know that he was leaving these silences for me to fill in, but back then, articulating the most basic sentiment—I’m not even talking about feelings, I’m talking about stuff like ordering off a menu at a restaurant—took immense effort.*7 But the few words Dr. Eliot did say at the end of our first session made me want to stick around. “Hey, I’m really concerned about you. I think we should get into a rhythm here in my office and consider starting you on some medication.”
“I spent a lot of time resisting Dr. Eliot’s questions about my childhood, but it all came out eventually. There was the fear of abandonment, generated from being left alone so much as a kid. There was the toll of constant exposure to my dad’s intensity and conflict with my mom. The God stuff came up a lot, especially how and why I took it so seriously. And there was the most consistent theme of not fitting in: not in my family, not among other Koreans, not in a WASP-y high school or college, not in the kitchen. I told him that I felt inadequate when I stood next to blue-blooded white Americans or in a French-style brigade. I talked about 9/11 and my classmate who killed himself with his dad’s pistol in third grade, and the three friends I’d lost right after college—one to suicide, one to an overdose, one to a freak accident. I felt surrounded by death.”
“For me, depression manifests itself as an addiction to work. I work hard to control what I can. Thus, my conversations with Dr. Eliot weren’t restricted to abstractions. We talked about restaurants—a lot. I floated opinions that had been bouncing around my head for a few years. I’d always been somewhat nervous about discussing them with anyone because I didn’t want other cooks to laugh at me. Don’t get me wrong, I thought the ideas were brilliant. I was an egomaniac with low self-confidence.”
“I’d become a cook because it was the only job available to me. Somehow, my grades and disposition had landed me—a former golf prodigy with a liberal arts education—in the same place as the other misfits, ex-cons, alcoholics, and newly arrived immigrants that the kitchen tends to attract. At the same time, I’d also become a cook because it was real, honest work that I could understand and control. Like so many impressionable college students, I’d been captivated by Emerson and Thoreau, who helped plant the seeds for American Pragmatism. I interpreted their writing to mean that one’s goal should be to live as an embodiment of philosophy, to test one’s beliefs through one’s actions rather than through study or discussion. Cooking was my way of making that happen. If I wasn’t cooking food I believed in, then what was I even doing?”
“passed by the shop every day, watching it longingly, carefully. People were eating well for cheap and they were having a good time. There was no pomp and circumstance, no smoke and mirrors. There were no barriers to entry, none of the artifices that make restaurants so difficult to run and so expensive to enjoy. The working stiff could sit next to a billionaire and neither of them would feel out of their element. The food would be carefully and thoughtfully prepared, while everything else—the decor, the plating, the service—was about fun and comfort.”
“The first floor had been converted to an izakaya, which was run by a Japanese chef who was married to a Korean woman, a union that was still deeply frowned upon. The other head chef was schizophrenic. The whole building was a haven for broken people for whom there were very few resources in Japan. Their skill level was unbelievable, and the food they cooked was absolutely delicious.”
“But amid all those gigs, the most eye-opening eating experiences took place in homes, on the street, and at McDonald’s (which was cheap and consistently great). After paying rent at the ministry and tuition at school, I was scrounging to make ends meet, but I could still eat like a king. That was the real epiphany. I could eat extraordinarily well in places that weren’t punishingly expensive. I don’t just mean “cheap eats.” I’m talking about restaurants driven by technique and respect for ingredients and chefs who were just as devoted to their craft as those in the Western fine-dining kitchens that I had come to think represented the only legitimate path. Why didn’t I see this in New York? Even Europeans had embraced Asian-influenced egalitarian dining at restaurant chains like Wagamama. Why hadn’t the majority of people in America bought into this way of eating?”
“As I imagine other big Asian boys can probably attest, there’s a faint promise that separating yourself from the cliché of Asians as small, meek creatures will somehow make it easier to fit in with white America.”
“My relatives began to look at me like a monster, while continuing to ply me with food, as is the Asian way. In the same breath they would tell me I was getting fat while imploring me to eat more of whatever homemade Korean dish they’d put in front of me.”
“Thoreau said, “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.” I took that very much to heart as I contemplated suicide. Elevation through conscious endeavor. Work toward something. Open a restaurant. If it doesn’t pan out, there’s always the other path.”
“Somehow, garde manger has been recast in the modern era as a lowly salad station, but in the history of the world’s most esteemed restaurants—I’m talking about places like Kikunoi in Japan and La Maison Troisgros in France—garde manger was a position of strength and honor. It teaches you more about being a cook than any other job in the kitchen, because the variety of techniques and preparations there go far beyond, say, learning to grill a steak to medium rare sixty times a night.
“We’re not talking about grass-fed cows here. My family bought the cheap, chemically enhanced stuff. When people ask me about my disproportionate size, I tell them that I’m a product of bovine growth hormone.”
“For starters, one needs to understand contracts, real estate, management, and publicity—not to mention the craft of cooking good food. This is what people call a “compound art.”
“Sometimes, if the conversation is private and I have more time, I’ll ask pointedly, “Do you really want to open a restaurant?” Then I give the following recipe: Invite all the people who have agreed to give you their money to the home of one of the investors for a private and very special preview of your restaurant. Do not forget to mention that they will each need to bring a check in the amount of $5,000. When they arrive, place a big bowl in the center of the table. Kindly instruct your guests to place their checks into it. Set the contents of the bowl on fire.”
“But who am I to warn people off this business? I knew nothing about what it takes to open a restaurant when I began, and I often cite that ignorance as the primary reason for my success.”
“I’ll do this without you, Dad. This is a courtesy—your last chance to invest in me before I move on. The fact of the matter was I had nowhere else to turn. Over the phone, I blurted out the forceful-sounding material I’d rehearsed without letting him get a word in. I outlined my case, to which he replied with one word. “Okay.” “What do you mean, okay?” “How much do you need?” Dad agreed to help me out with a loan and an accountant referral. In short order, he conferred with his inner circle of Virginia-area Korean movers and shakers and loaned me 100,000 bucks. Together with the twenty-seven grand I’d saved, it would get us open.”
“When I think about why Dad was so quick to agree, I wonder if he wasn’t longing for a distraction from his ongoing struggles with my brother. Dad and I began a new routine—a schedule of check-ins about construction progress and nuts-and-bolts business stuff. There was no one else who could help me out with project management. This phase of our relationship turned out to be the closest thing to therapy I ever experienced with him: a reason to be in touch and on the same side, though I’m not sure that either of us was able to recognize it as good for us at the time.”
“My friend the artist David Choe summarized it best for me: work is the last socially acceptable addiction.”
“When I set out to open Momofuku, I remember being paralyzed by each and every task ahead of me. How do I get a permit? How do I get an air-conditioning system? How do we make noodles? Where can I buy a pasta cooker? Why the fuck doesn’t anybody want to work with me? Every problem was an impossibility. The sensation of gritting my teeth, bearing down, and somehow doing what needed doing gave me a primal high. I crave that resistance, whether it comes from the city, my landlord, my staff, or my own shortcomings. It’s not just helpful, it’s necessary. You think a salmon really wants to swim upstream and die? They have no choice. That’s how I feel, too.”
“As with any addiction, the deeper I got, the higher the dosage I needed. Drug addicts don’t get the same pleasure that a random party kid gets from doing a bump in a bathroom stall. They need much more. Sex addicts continually need to up the stakes of their pursuits—more partners, multiple partners, married partners. Marathon runners graduate to ultramarathons and Ironman competitions. It’s no different for workaholics.”
“When I’m able to take a step back, I realize that I’ve created my own prison. I physically cannot take on any more responsibilities. There’s no room to do more, and I’m afraid of what that means for my addiction. I want so much to quit and walk away, but I don’t know that I have the courage to give it all up. Recovering alcoholics talk about needing to hit rock bottom before they are able to climb out. The paradox for the workaholic is that rock bottom is the top of whatever profession they’re in.”
“Then there was the end of service one night, when a man came in asking if we were still open. We weren’t. He walked right up to Quino and clocked him in the face. I chased the perp down First Avenue for a few blocks until I finally caught up to him. My brief high school wrestling career ended with me making a mistake that put our star player out for the season, so I wish my former teammates could have seen me perform a flawless suplex on Quino’s assailant in the middle of traffic. Blood pooled on the white lines of the crosswalk. Quino followed shortly after with a stool held over his head like a WWE superstar taking the brawl outside the ring. The cops showed up. Bambi, my apartment landlord from across the street, spoke to the police on my behalf and convinced them not to arrest me or the perpetrator, who had just been released on parole. For months, Quino and I survived on Stromboli Pizza and Popeye’s. We simply didn’t have the time to make a family meal. I’ll never forget the day we finally cooked something for ourselves. It felt like the greatest accomplishment of my life. It took so much just to pull it off once.”
“NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING, SO DO WHAT YOU WANT. The way I grew up eating is more or less the same way as millions of other Asian American kids. A big part of that was hiding our food from white friends out of shame. Of course, I preferred Mom’s kimchi jjigae to pot roast or meatloaf, but I suppressed the hell out of that in order to fit in.”
“At Noodle Bar, I also learned that Asian people drank the ramen broth. White people only ate the noodles. If we served the soup lukewarm, Asian customers would complain. If it was too hot, the white people wouldn’t touch it until it cooled down. By then, the noodles would be soggy. As a cook, you’re in a never-ending dance with your diners.”
“FORGET EVERYTHING YOU THINK AND EMBRACE WHAT YOU SEE. Quino and I also made improvements to the menu that were grounded as much in chance as in creativity. We’d been braising pork in stock as we’d been taught to do, but it took ages and wasn’t all that good. One day I made the error of blasting the pork belly at 500°F. It ended up nicely browned on the outside, but undercooked and swimming in rendered fat. I lowered the temperature and let it continue to cook in the oil, like a confit. The process was quicker and the result was far superior. You simply can’t rely on common wisdom in the kitchen. Most of it is built on half-truths and outdated assumptions. Be open to every idea.”
“Obviously we didn’t come up with the idea to mix cuisines, but during that era in American kitchens, whenever a chef tried to mingle Asian and European culinary ideas, one of two things tended to happen. If a French trained chef added a stalk of lemongrass to a soup, the result would be deemed “French food with an Asian accent.” In the reverse case, whenever a little thyme made its way into an Asian dish, it was called “fusion.” I hated the way that the Asian side was always subsumed by the Western one.”
“We say yes for fear that saying no could mean upsetting the wrong people or passing up valuable exposure for our businesses. A good chef never forgets that this is a business. All the extracurricular shit we do outside the restaurant should be in service of putting asses in seats. When we do events for the sake of ego, we usually pay the price in cash money. (A good chef also never forgets that awards and events organizations are businesses, too, and that their first concern is their own bottom line.) But that night, we were exhausted. Our defenses were down. Ego won out. Quino and I were 100 percent certain that the woman had never actually eaten at Noodle Bar. She was doing the rounds at industry events, trash-talking us based on something her boss told her. In fact, she was doing it so often and with such glee that she didn’t even realize whom she had stumbled into.”
“My belief in Momofuku had been based on two suspicions: (1) The way people ate in train stations, shopping malls, back alleys, and strip malls in Asia was superior to the way we ate in upscale New York restaurants; and (2) cooking was a job that rewarded repetition and grit more than natural talent. Now I had some proof of both. Maybe, I began to think, it was everyone else who was crazy.”
“I didn’t know how to teach or lead this team, but I was getting good results. My method, if you can even call it that, was a dangerous, shortsighted combination of fear and fury. My staff was at the mercy of my emotional swings. One second, we were on top of the world. The next, I would be screaming and banging my fists on the counter. I sought out and thrived on conflict. My arrogance was in conflict with my insecurity. Our restaurant was in conflict with the world.”
Asian names that could be misinterpreted as swear-words in English. The EPA tried to shut us down because they were getting complaints of pork smells emanating from the restaurant, which is not an uncommon grievance leveled against Asian establishments in gentrifying neighborhoods. PETA picketed the restaurant on the few occasions that we served foie gras. When we started getting complaints about the noisiness of our HVAC unit, I swear it was the vegans trying to bleed us dry. We spent thousands changing the fan belt and proving that the noises coming from the exhaust were inaudible to human ears.”
“To keep going, you must buy into codes that give meaning to your existence: You are part of a centuries-old continuum that you must honor and preserve at all costs. Every action in a kitchen, every job, every recipe, is the next line in a story that connects back to the previous dinner service, and to the chef who used to work your same station, and to another chef across the ocean, probably long dead, who was the first to figure out how to slice that vegetable in the manner you are now called upon to re-create. Every service is an opportunity to respect that previous contribution and expression and to potentially interpret it in your own way, adding a new pattern to the fabric of culinary history.”
“In the best cases, all this pressure can lead to decent behavior, to professionalism. In many other instances, it encourages unchecked insanity and abuse. All manner of hazing is fair game when it’s done in the name of making sure the person next to you is part of the same fellowship. There’s physical punishment—impossible assignments, sabotaging mise en place, kidney punches—and there is psychological torture. Astute chefs keep a running log of all the insecurities they detect in a subordinate, so that they can exploit them later. In a calm, unthreatening voice, they’ll say, “Hey, I don’t understand what’s going on with you. I’ve seen a lot of less talented people do better at this station.” Or, more bluntly, “Don’t tell anyone you work for me.” They cut into your heart and brain, and if you ask them later why they did it, they will say that it was for your own good. They were breaking you down to build you back up. Because they care about you. Because it’s how they were taught. Critical thinking, calm communication, rationality, levelheadedness: none of these traits has traditionally been valued in a kitchen. Or maybe they were, but we weren’t listening. It’s not so different from a locker room, where viciousness and anger are glamorized as part of a winning culture.”
“Personally, I don’t know whether this behavior actually pushes others to do their best, or if it’s purely the release valve for a broken system. All that stress and fear and negativity have to go somewhere.”
“I’m tempted to blame han. Throughout this book, I will argue against the validity of various cultural truths, but I believe in han. There’s no perfect English-language equivalent for this Korean emotion, but it’s some combination of strife or unease, sadness, and resentment, born from the many historical injustices and indignities endured by our people. It’s a term that came into use in the twentieth century after the Japanese occupation of Korea, and it describes this characteristic sorrow and bitterness that Koreans seem to possess wherever they are in the world. It is transmitted from generation to generation and defines much of the art, literature, and cinema that comes out of Korean culture.”
“I will not deny that there are benefits to being part of what is often described as a “white-adjacent” or “model” minority. I grew up trying my damnedest to integrate into white society. But among the many problems with the myth of the model minority is that it erases the nuances of the Asian American experience. It also sows division, both within our community and with others. Now, if you will forgive a little bit of self-directed racial discrimination, I am what you might call a “twinkie.” Yellow on the outside, white on the inside. There are various factions within the Asian American population, and I definitely reside in the one that looks Asian but lives like a white person. When I visited Korea as part of a program with students from multiple colleges, I found myself excluded from all of the Korean-born, Korean-speaking, and generally more Korean social groups that formed. Then, once we landed in Seoul, the locals knew immediately from my size that I was a gyopo, or foreign-born Korean, so I gravitated to the other twinkies. I didn’t yet know how to embrace my Korean heritage, which, ironically, only deepened my experience of han.”
“I’d promised them that entering the Momofuku universe meant no systems or hierarchies. They could cut the line, just as I had. I used to tell them, “We don’t have titles, because if you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing, you don’t belong here.” It’s the sort of off-brand Confucian saying that covered up my own lack of clarity. I do believe that putting too much stock in titles and org charts can stifle a company. At the same time, not everyone thrives in an environment without structure or direction or a clear chain of command.”
“chefs would want to eat after work. Roll your eyes all you want. God knows it sounds clichéd. But at that time most chefs in America were giving their customers different food than they were eating themselves. What we ate after service was uglier, spicier, louder. Stuff you want to devour as you pound beer and wine with your friends. It was the off bits that nobody else wanted and the little secret pieces you saved for yourself as a reward for slogging it out in a sweaty kitchen for sixteen hours. It’s the stuff we didn’t trust the dining public to order or understand: a crispy fritter made from pig’s head, garnished with pickled cherries; thin slices of country ham*2 with a coffee-infused mayo inspired by Southern redeye gravy. My favorite breakthrough never made the cookbook: whipped tofu with tapioca folded in, topped with a fat pile of uni. So fresh, so cold, so clean, and so far outside of our comfort zone. There were so many ideas on the menu that we’d never seen or tried before. The only unifying thread was that we were nervous about every single dish we served.”
“We started charging for bread and butter, because we were serving better bread and butter than you were getting elsewhere. It was a decision that was not only antithetical to common restaurant sense, it’s actually illegal in parts of France.”
“It’s the velvet-rope effect. If something seems exclusive, nobody wants to feel excluded. We tried to tap into that emotion at Ssäm Bar. While our namesake burritos eventually disappeared from the menu, the pork shoulder we filled them with was too delicious to let go. In its new incarnation, we chose to serve it whole rather than shredding it, with all the fixings needed to make little handheld wraps: rice, lettuce, kimchi, sauces, and fresh oysters. It was our spin on a Korean bo ssam. At first, we just gave it away to friends. Right in the thick of the dinner rush, we’d drop this monstrosity on a table in the middle of the dining room. Just like that, we started hearing the exact question I was hoping for: How do I get that?”
“None of this is what I had in mind for Ssäm Bar, but I won’t complain about the steady, enthusiastic business that followed. I rolled with it, although, as always, I was constantly vacillating between extreme confidence and paralyzing self-doubt. I was comforted by the revelation that coming up against failure head-on is a powerful motivating tool.”
“By confronting failure, you take fear out of the equation. You stop shying away from ideas just because they seem like they may not work. You start asking whether an idea is “bad” because it’s actually bad or because the common wisdom says so. You begin to thrive when you’re not supposed to. You just have to be comfortable with instability, change, and a great deal of stress.”
“This digital brain trust was nothing like the top-down systems you’d see at most places, where the leader usually keeps only a few trusted operatives aware of what’s truly going on. The emails allowed us to pause at the end of a crazy night and reset for the following day, equipped with new goals. The ceaseless chain of messages—if you slept in, you’d have to go through at least fifty replies—exemplified the aforementioned philosophy that there’s no idea we won’t consider. Everything is a data point we can use. TMI for most people is never enough for me.”
“No one knew when work ended or began. We were part of something we couldn’t appreciate until much later. Together, we were building a world, and while that task could be overwhelming, I realize now what a privilege it was to be able to focus all of our attention on it. The older I get, the more distractions get in the way—the more I’m drawn from the stove and the thing I’m best at. To this day, whenever I get together with Quino to catch up over dinner or a beer, we always say that the beginning of Momofuku was the best time of our lives. Nostalgia is funny that way. I don’t want to put words in everyone else’s mouths, but I hope they all look back on this period as fondly as I do.
If there was one moment that was supposed to do it, it was the Beards. Being nominated for a Beard Award was the signal that I’d arrived, but it only generated more anxiety. I felt like I was hiding a shameful secret—that I didn’t deserve to be in the same company as my mentors, some of whom had been passed over for years by the Beards. The only coping strategy in my repertoire was to laugh it off. Or, as I suggested to the team, we’d just get too drunk to worry about winning or losing. They seemed on board.”
“It is an aspirational and intensely ceremonial event, and with good reason: a Beard Award is the highest honor you can receive as a chef or restaurateur; joining the class of winners or even nominees can change a career. People take it very seriously. I respected the awards deeply, I just didn’t respect myself, which made it all the more difficult to picture myself in a tux, strutting past those pretty fountains in Lincoln Center Plaza and into the room where Simon and Garfunkel, Miles Davis, and Leonard Bernstein had performed—not to mention thousands of extremely talented classical musicians. I wasn’t especially looking forward to chitchatting with all my highly respected peers from around the country. Everybody goes to the Beards.”
“If you looked at our menu, you might easily mistake what we were doing as being bold or visionary, but in fact almost all of it was informed purely by necessity. That dynamic extended beyond menu creation, too. The most significant infrastructure problem at Noodle Bar was that by late 2006, the restaurant had become so popular that we often ran out of electricity for our water heaters. ConEd did not heed our requests for more juice; they didn’t believe that a restaurant of our size could feed as many people as it did. The obvious solution would have been a gas heater. No chance it would fit, and no way to run the necessary gas pipes to our side of the building. As a consequence, and in the most unscientific manner, we figured out when exactly to turn on and shut off certain appliances to make sure we’d have enough charge to survive. We were like a family hiding out in a boarded-up house during the zombie apocalypse, staying ever mindful of the emergency generator.”
“So, as nice a story as it would have been, we didn’t decide to open Ko so that we could challenge what it meant to serve a tasting menu in America. We did it because we were backed into a corner by a meddling bureaucracy and had to find a way to make money serving far fewer people each night. Momofuku Ko wasn’t a stroke of great ambition or business genius. It was the only option.”
“the city’s history when you’d literally have to mind broken glass and other unsavory detritus as you walked down the sidewalk to dinner there. More radical than opening on the pre-gentrification Lower East Side was the unapologetic, forward-thinking creativity of Wylie’s cooking. He wasn’t concerned with pleasing everyone, a form of courage almost completely absent from New York kitchens at the time. His restaurant was called 71 Clinton Fresh Food, and the meals I had there while I was in culinary school changed how I think about food. It was my favorite place to eat in New York.”
“Wylie never compromised his vision for the sake of publicity or even business. His persistence did earn him more praise, but it didn’t keep the operation going for as long as it should have. He is New York’s culinary Prometheus. If people—I’m looking at you, food media—had taken the time to understand what he was doing, New York would be a completely different place to eat.”
“In theory I knew how to treat myself without medication. It’s almost too obvious to state: adjust my diet, exercise, find meaningful companionship, slow down, don’t drink more Pappy than water. (And I did try. I started working with a yoga instructor, for instance, but I was still drinking my face off.) I could have taken stock of how much had changed in three years.”
“I often wonder aloud to my friends if I’m living in a computer simulation or cosmic reality show. It honestly sounds more logical than the unbelievable string of luck I’ve had. Perhaps my memory is editing the most hectic moments of my life so that they’re easier to digest. Or maybe I’m just a bullshitter.”
“Be careful with the bloggers.” That was the general sentiment among the industry’s veterans. At first, the Internet had been a curiosity to most chefs, who were flattered by the interest from this new, ultra-passionate audience. But once the bloggers started taking a critical stance, flattery turned to extreme suspicion. Chefs that had been playing the publicity game for years did not trust the blogs at all. According to them, the only outlets worthy of respect were the major print ones, organizations with history and journalistic integrity. These chefs had come up when The New York Times, New York magazine, Gourmet, and Food & Wine held all of the power in food.”
“On the other end of the spectrum were the websites that most old-school chefs detested. As the Internet supernovaed into the global consciousness, more and more voices were elbowing into the discussion. Communities formed around the subject of restaurants, in primordial corners of the Web where no detail was too small or too dorky to discuss in excruciating detail. Their members had the passion and obsessiveness of cosplayers and Comic Con attendees.”
“All of a sudden I could stay in my underwear and visit some dude’s blog to see pictures of every single dish from the latest menu at Pierre Gagnaire in Paris. Not all of the bloggers knew what they were talking about, but some of them were even more knowledgeable than writers working in the New York bubble. “But the writing is so bad” was a common complaint. So long as there were pictures of the food, it didn’t matter to me.*2 It was a giant leap forward.”
“I respect Chang’s obsession with his product, and his CIA and Craft background were evident in the kind of attention-to-detail, always-prepared kitchen philosophy he was dictating, but he demonstrated complete ignorance in one culinary aspect: the customer’s experience.”
“We’d built no separation between the kitchen and the dining room at 163 First Avenue—Noodle Bar’s original home and Ko’s soon-to-be new digs. Everything we did was within full view of anyone who walked in our doors. With the megaphone of the Internet, any mistake we made was a public one.”
“This is beyond ridiculous—hero worship of a guy who serves a few hundred meals a day? How about a press blackout for a few months so people can actually get in the restaurant and judge it on its merits, not on a cult of personality build up by the media?”
Momofuku’s magic had always been based on underselling and overdelivering. The risk for Ko was raising expectations too high. It was such a hard seat to get that diners who got lucky would inevitably be let down or, worse, convince themselves that the experience was greater than it actually had been. When people spend a bunch of money on something or go through a prolonged hassle to get it, they tend to do all sorts of mental gymnastics to convince themselves it was worth it. Otherwise, buyer’s remorse can sink in and you can’t brag about it to your friends. Instead of talking about the menu, the critics were writing about how they had to enlist legions of interns to try to get them in, and how they still failed. No plan of attack worked. The risk was that if the critics couldn’t reliably get into Ko, they might not be able to give the cooking a fair shake. The rule of thumb for food criticism is that you eat at a restaurant three times before assessing it.
I loved that just when people had decided we were media darlings, we flipped the story to our advantage.
The only benefit to tying your identity, happiness, well-being, and self-worth to your business is that you never stop thinking about it or worrying over what’s around the corner. If I have been quick to adapt to the changing restaurant landscape, it is because I have viewed it as a literal matter of survival. I have never allowed myself to coast, or believed that I deserve for life to get easier with success. That’s where hubris comes from. The worst version of me was the one who, as a preteen, thought he had what it took to be a pro golfer. I believed my own hype, and I was a snotty little shit about it. The humiliation and pain of having it all slip through my fingers is something I’d rather never feel again.
And chefs have become the exact same kind of celebrity as, say, the stars of the movie Serenity: incredibly popular to some, completely unknown to most. Seriously, do you know who Nathan Fillion is? Well, he has 3.5 million Twitter followers. I wasn’t the only one. Tom Colicchio was an early adopter, too. He cooked for bloggers when no one else would give them the time of day. *3 Though, to be fair, I would go on to have a few feuds.
Deathwatch was an early Eater feature that disgusted a lot of people in the industry: whenever they identified a restaurant that looked like it was on life support, they would put it on the “Deathwatch” and track every moment of its painful collapse. People’s dreams and livelihoods were being mocked while they were in hospice.
The idea of taking on a large investor had always been a prospect I kept on the far back burner, but it was coming up more and more as Momofuku grew. Thus far, I had said no to anyone who came knocking, out of fear of being screwed. Even a good deal can come with unforeseen complications. So I did the best I could with Dad’s input and an accountant on Long Island. I handled all the numbers myself with an unconvincing mix of constant worry and laissez-faire affect. I didn’t hesitate to make Quino a partner in Momofuku or give many of the cooks a piece of the restaurants where they worked—not that their equity amounted to anything. Every dollar of profit went straight back into the company. That’s not to say I was uninterested in making money. Money would mean we could plan longer term, open more restaurants, take better care of people. I wasn’t ready to yield to the suits in New York, but the one path I’d seen other chefs walk with some degree of success was very appealing to me: Vegas.
The Casino Boss flew us in and showed us the over-the-top hospitality we had come to expect. (But honestly, if you’ve seen one giant suite with floor-to-ceiling windows and TVs built into the mirrors, you’ve seen them all.) A lackey accompanied us everywhere we went. I found myself holding my pee because I was sure someone was watching me in the bathrooms. Everyone we met spoke incessantly about the Casino Boss and his ways.
I had dinner with the Developer at a gaudy Japanese restaurant. Over the course of our meal, three different women joined us at different times. They ordered drinks but left without eating. None of their visits overlapped. “I apologize for the interruptions,” said the Developer. “But I’m fucking all three of them.” He told me he had spent years racked with guilt—not about the philandering, necessarily, but because all the travel kept him from seeing his kids. “That’s one of the reasons I don’t think I’ll ever be a good parent,” I told him, trying to relate. “I’m married to my work.” “But you know what I did, Dave? Do you know what happened?” He milked the silence for dramatic effect. “One day I decided I was no longer going to feel guilt. And you know what? My life has never been better.” I suspected he was a sociopath before we met. Now I was sure of it. The Developer wanted me to take over a small space on an exclusive piece of real estate in one of the hottest markets in the United States.
Although I had heard about chefs in Europe developing relationships with local directors, getting lunch together, eliciting regular feedback, I didn’t feel comfortable going any deeper than pleasantries. “Chef,” he continued. “I must ask: do you desire the third star?” I mumbled something about how I didn’t know how to answer that question and how we were thrilled with what we had. I shrank back into the kitchen. I glanced over at Naret and his companion as often as I could during their meal. I noticed that they were only picking at the food. They seemed pleased but not euphoric. They weren’t exactly devouring a dish of hand-torn pasta with chicken-and snail farce, fines herbes, butter, and a nice little chicken-skin crisp on top—one of Serpico’s classic dishes. How could we be a two-star restaurant if we couldn’t get the Michelin director to lick his plate clean? It was such a good dish and I wanted so badly for him to like it. I was upset, not because we’d failed as a kitchen but because of how much his approval meant to me. This is the power of organizations like Michelin or the World’s 50 Best, and it’s the reason why chefs loathe and curse them behind closed doors.
It’s not just the fact that Michelin can make or break your business, it’s the control they have over how you approach or even enjoy your work. So do I want a third star? Absolutely. Do I want my team to feel the elation of reaching the very top of the food world? Of course I do. I also fear it. I fear the inevitable fall from the top. More than that, I fear what it means for people to think they’ve reached the pinnacle of their profession. What happens to a cook’s motivation when the job becomes about maintenance and not improvement? With a third star, you do everything you can to avoid disturbing the delicate balance you’ve created. No grind. No friction. You’re trapped by your own self-confidence, scared to abandon what you know already works. I know that not everyone benefits from this kind of emphasis on perpetual struggle, but a lot of people in the culinary world do.
You know why Noma continues to be the best restaurant in the world? I’m fairly sure it’s because they’ve never gotten three stars. To me, it’s actually a blessing.
A decade later, chefs are still figuring out how best to use our platform to support the causes we believe in. It’s tricky because of all the ways that restaurants can serve the greater good, perhaps the most important is being a space where people come together. My big dream for Momofuku has always been to emulate the classless dining I’d experienced in Asia, where if you want to eat, you have to be comfortable rubbing elbows with people from all walks of life. As a restaurateur, I aim to feed everyone, even those I disagree with. Within reason, of course.
If your only idea of the Michelin Guide comes from the movie Burnt, here’s a quick primer: it was originally developed as a tool for motorists traveling through the French countryside. (This would be the reason why a tire company is involved with food at all.) The official guidelines describe a one-star restaurant as “high quality cooking, worth a stop.” Two stars is “excellent cooking, worth a detour.” And three is “exceptional cooking, worth a special journey.”
elBulli was only a restaurant for half the year. The rest of the time it was a full-on research-and-development program and dedicated culinary lab. The chef-brothers behind elBulli, Ferran and Albert Adrià, would close up shop for six months of the year and move into a workshop in Barcelona to come up with an entirely new menu for the following season. People often reduced what elBulli did to the term molecular gastronomy, which I think is a bit of marketing mumbo jumbo that unfairly paints their approach as somehow unnatural. It also misses the point. At elBulli, Ferran and Albert called every assumption about cooking into question. While other chefs were more or less convinced that everything under the sun had already been done, the Adriàs unlocked astounding new methods of cooking and serving food year after year. All that science was a means to a much greater artistic end. The Adriàs’ charisma made it so that every chef of the era felt that they needed their own stage on which to perform in front of an audience. Pretty soon there was a full-blown circuit of festivals, sort of like fashion week for food freaks.*1 If they wanted to, chefs could spend the entire year away from their restaurants, attending gatherings and cooking collaborative dinners, usually on the local tourism board’s dime.
“The unspoken rule in Copenhagen was that a nice restaurant had to serve caviar, foie gras, and wines from Bordeaux in order to be taken seriously. But why give diners what they could find a short flight away, where it would no doubt be better?”
Iñaki Aizpitarte didn’t have a fancy restaurant. He hadn’t gone to culinary school. He didn’t train at any Michelin-starred palaces of gastronomy. He was a dishwasher who taught himself how to cook. He owned a bistro in Paris that was turning heads all over Europe.
Iñaki began pulling ingredients from Barbot’s garbage. From a pile of mushroom and eel scraps, he made a consommé, then Cryovac’d it with pieces of raw lobster, putting the package through the vacuum sealer multiple times to force flavor into the shellfish. He grated pistachios and mixed them with orange zest and a handful of sea salt to produce what seemed to me a psychedelic furikake. He puréed squab liver and sliced the lobster into thin medallions. He hit the consommé with a squeeze of lemon. He put it all together. It was one of the most outrageously good dishes I have ever tasted, and I would bet almost anything that if you asked him today, Iñaki would have zero clue what he cooked that night. People sometimes ask if you can be born a great chef. If Iñaki didn’t exist, my answer would be no, but the guy is a natural culinary genius.
Tony never worked in the upper echelon of restaurants. That gave many of us in the industry reason to thumb our noses at him, but it’s also exactly what made him remarkable. He was a lifelong line cook—the kind of guy who never aspires to climb the ladder of fancy restaurants. He represented the majority of cooks, and he wrote about our world with extraordinary intelligence and empathy.
Highlight (Yellow) | Location 2162
When he visited The French Laundry for A Cook’s Tour, the full weight of Tony’s genius dawned on me. Maybe he couldn’t keep up with a chef like Thomas Keller in the kitchen, but he understood what made Keller special and he masterfully communicated it to his audience. He was the guy you wanted to hang out with because he was, first and foremost, a fan of food and restaurants. Many of the stories he championed in his writing and television shows were the ones that chefs care about: camaraderie, honesty, creativity, and the Latin American cooks who prop up the whole business. The person who may have done the most to legitimize our profession was the one we originally didn’t think had the chops.
I could sense that the audience was thirsty for more blood. Not wanting to disappoint them, I offered a consolation: “I will call bullshit on San Francisco, though.” “Okay. What’s wrong with San Francisco?” “There’s only a handful of restaurants out there manipulating food.” “What does that mean?” “Fucking every restaurant in San Francisco is serving figs on a plate with nothing on it. Do something with your food.”
had given rise to a culinary approach that prioritized ingredients above all else. A San Francisco chef’s only job was to amplify the intrinsic qualities of what they found at the market or harvested from the garden.
New York was where real cooking happened. We might have inferior ingredients, but we made do, putting them through multiple stages of enhancement before reaching the plate. Everyone in the Bay Area was relying on their crutch. I wasn’t the only person saying this. Years earlier, Daniel Patterson—one of the only chefs I could cite as doing any proper cooking in San Francisco—made a similar observation in a New York Times op-ed, and he was vilified for it. This part of the world that had embraced so many forward-thinking movements—from the Summer of Love, to the beatniks, to the Grateful Dead, to Harvey Milk, to the tech boom—was set in its boring foodways.
That’s the person I remember being. Following the book tour, I detected a shift in how other people saw me. There was more scrutiny, more attention. Part of it was due to the continued success of my restaurants, but food media was also expanding. Eater was now a full-fledged national operation. Their strategy for meeting the requirements of a twenty-four-hour news cycle included publishing every offhand remark I made in the vicinity of one of their reporters. Beyond that, it seemed that whenever anyone needed a comment on a story vaguely related to the culinary world, they called me. A writer could be doing an exploration of Peruvian corn varietals and think to herself, What this article needs is a quote from David Chang. Figs on a plate did not die, either. Almost a year later, a website published a roundup of restaurants in San Francisco that were serving cheeky variations on the dish—the city’s chefs were making hay out of my affront.
writing about me and talking to me. It’d be a lie to say I didn’t I enjoy the attention, but chefs, generally speaking, are about as well equipped to deal with fame as child actors, which is to say, not at all. I was stressing out, questioning what was real. Later on, I’d ask Dr. Eliot if there was a chance that I was schizophrenic, which he assured me I was not. That was a disappointment. What an easier explanation that would have been.
There would be more reverberations. I did a cameo on Treme, David Simon’s follow-up to The Wire. I started doing segments on Jimmy Fallon. I showed up on Letterman. Time chose me for its annual list of the 100 most influential people of 2010, along with Barack Obama, Ben Stiller, Serena Williams, Steve Jobs, Alice Munro,
Zaha Hadid, and ninety-three others, in whose company I felt like a total phony. Later they gave me a TV show, and then another one. They gave me a podcast. They asked me to write another book. Most of the time, I feel like I’m barely holding on.
Quino was never excited about Ko. He wasn’t interested in chasing anything fancy, while I’d come around to the idea. He had his style and interests and they didn’t extend to making Riesling gelées and dishes that referenced Alain Passard. Quino was focused on pursuits like perfecting the art of cooking over open fire.
I’m bad at letting people go, whether by their choice or mine. I scream and shout a lot—too much—but I always have a hard time firing anyone. I like knowing that everybody is around. I yearn for the acceptance and comfort of friends and family. I hate the idea that they’ll leave me. It drags up all manner of old hurts. I feel foolish for trusting that they ever cared about me or Momofuku.
He was gone and we’d convinced ourselves that it was the natural evolution, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d taken him for granted or used him for my gain. Had I really done everything I could to give him the shine he deserved? Why hadn’t we opened the taco place, really? Perhaps I was fooling myself into thinking I was an honorable person when, in fact, I’d have no problem leaving behind a trail of bodies as I forged ahead. Was my loyalty to the staff dependent on their own fealty to me? I didn’t want to believe it. I thought there was plenty of room for all of us to succeed together, but maybe that was a lie, too.
“These were the same guys who had said things like “I need to take a shower to wash the gook off” after hooking up with Asian girls in school. Now there was a class reunion coming up and they were inviting me to hang out. That sort of interaction really screwed with my head. I didn’t become famous for being handsome or athletic or musically gifted. I was just a cook.”
“She developed her fluency in Americana into a cheery rebellion at Milk Bar, which started out as a bakery in the back room of Ssäm Bar selling confections like birthday cake truffles and “Compost Cookies.” There were no canelés, macarons, or mille-feuilles on the premises. The point of Milk Bar was to challenge the notion that a great pastry chef had to be a French-trained dude. People caught onto Tosi’s brilliance quickly.”
“Our plan was to lean into the country’s bounty, rather than fall back on European ideals. (Ben Shewry was pioneering this approach in Melbourne, but generally speaking, Australian chefs still seemed uncomfortable embracing how special their country is.) We would eschew luxury products from around the globe in favor of local and native ingredients.”
“Australia is home to some of the finest Chinese, Thai, Malaysian, and Vietnamese restaurants in the world and has a knowledgeable dining public that appreciates them. What better place to upend people’s preconceptions about fine dining? It would be a big heartfelt love letter to their country, with a little fuck-you on the side.”
“Earlier in this book, I mentioned how I originally didn’t want to employ any waiters at Ko. I’d always felt there was a huge imbalance in the way that servers were compensated with tips while cooks were not. It was my opinion that the kitchen made the only truly essential contribution. Wine lists and waitstaffs were affectations of Western dining. I fully believed that a restaurant with good enough food could win without any of that junk.”
“In Sydney, I lucked into an all-star service team: Richard Hargreave, a Brit, had won several top sommelier awards working for renowned Sydney restaurants. I still didn’t understand what a sommelier really did, but I’d watch him chatting up guests who would inevitably buy whatever he suggested, and I’d think, How did he just do that? Charles Leong, who also helped set up our wine program, was like Buddha incarnate. He brought calm and serenity to the room whenever he walked in.”
“Every morning in Sydney, Su and Greeno would have coffee to analyze the previous day and brainstorm. Their rapport inspired the kitchen and the dining room to form the kind of bond that’s rare in restaurants, where it can sometimes feel as if there are two opposing teams working toward the same goal.”
Davidson Hang is currently in Sales at Cheetah Digital which is a Marketing technology company located in NYC.
Davidson is an avid networker, personal growth- life and business coach.
He loves spreading the love and regularly helps people create and design the life they want for themselves.