kottke.org posts about David Chang
Ian Parker wrote about the NY Times’ restaurant critic Pete Wells for the New Yorker this week.
Wells is generally a well-mannered critic, if not an overly respectful one. In his first years on the job, he was sometimes faulted in the food press for being too generous in his appraisals; he had made a point of publishing fewer one-star reviews than his immediate predecessors. “No one likes one-star reviews,” Wells told me, in a conversation at his apartment, which is in a Clinton Hill brownstone. “The restaurants don’t like them, and the readers don’t like them. It’s very tricky to explain why this place is good enough to deserve a review but not quite good enough to get up to the next level.” He added, “I’m looking for places that I can be enthusiastic about. Like a golden retriever, I would like to drop a ball at the feet of the reader every week and say, ‘Here!’”
Parker covers Wells’ most notable reviews — Per Se, Fieri, Senor Frog’s, Momofuku Nishi — as well as the reactions of the restaurants to the reviews.
“I can’t ever read that review again — I’ll get so fucking angry I’ll die,” Chang said. “I made a lot of that food! I tasted it! It was delicious. And… fuck! I believe in the fucking food we make in that restaurant, I believe it to be really delicious, I believe it to be innovative, in a non-masturbatory way.”
I love David Chang. Never change. But back to Wells, I had a conversation last night with a friend who worked in a restaurant that Wells reviewed and he said that Wells is perhaps not physically suited for undercover restaurant dining — “he’s an odd looking dude” was the quote. And I have another friend in the restaurant industry who, after living in Clinton Hill for a few months, told me, “I think Pete Wells is my backyard neighbor.” Several months later: “Yeah, Pete Wells definitely lives behind me.” We joked about Wells talking over the fence in the style of Wilson, the neighbor in Home Improvement whose face is always partially hidden.
Chef and Momofuku founder David Chang spends a lot of time thinking about food and he’s arrived at what he calls the Unified Theory of Deliciousness.
My first breakthrough on this idea was with salt. It’s the most basic ingredient, but it can also be hellishly complex. A chef can go crazy figuring out how much salt to add to a dish. But I believe there is an objectively correct amount of salt, and it is rooted in a counterintuitive idea. Normally we think of a balanced dish as being neither too salty nor undersalted. I think that’s wrong. When a dish is perfectly seasoned, it will taste simultaneously like it has too much salt and too little salt. It is fully committed to being both at the same time.
I’m not sure his observations are exactly unified, but they are interesting and also why I enjoy eating at his restaurants so much. A meal I had at Ssam Bar shortly after they switched away from the initial Korean burritos menu is in my top 5 meals of all time and a pair of dishes at Ko (both somehow simultaneously familiar and new) are among the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten.
From the New Yorker Food Issue,1Lauren Collins examines how the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list comes together. I haven’t eaten at any of these sorts of restaurants in years (for a lot of reasons), and this bit gets to part of the reason why:
The restaurants in the upper reaches of the list tend to fall into a certain mode. They are all the same place, Giles Coren once conjectured in the London Times, “only the face changes, like Doctor Who.” Just as there is Oscar bait, there is 50 Best bait. “It’s opening up in Beijing,” David Chang said, imagining the archetypal 50 Best restaurant. “It’s a Chinese restaurant by a guy who worked for Adrià, Redzepi, and Keller. He cooks over fire. Everything is a story of his terroir. He has his own farm and hand-dives for his own sea urchins.” Hearing about 50 Best winners, and having eaten at a few of them, I started to think of them as icebreaker restaurants — places that create moments, that give you prompts. This can be exhilarating, or it can be infantilizing. It is the dining experience as Cards Against Humanity.
David Chang has an opinion — several opinions really — about the proper burger.
My ideal burger is bun, cheese, burger. Sometimes bacon. Ketchup on the side, so I can control it. Pickles — yes! Obviously. And the cheese thing has to be very clear: American cheese only. American cheese was invented for the hamburger. People talk about it being processed and artificial and not real cheese — you know what makes it real? When you put it on a hamburger.
But much of his burger manifesto is about what a burger shouldn’t be.
Grass-fed beef does not make burgers, in my opinion. It’s too lean and the fat content is not evenly distributed, so it can get a little mealy. But the dumbest burger in the world is the wagyu bullshit. It’s like 70 percent fat content — it’s disgusting. Would you eat a ground bacon burger? That’s what you’re doing with a wagyu burger. Or the idiots that have “kobe beef wagyu sliders with like a trio of ketchup” on their menu — that drives me insane. The inventor of the kobe beef slider is right next to the inventor of aluminum siding in the Dumbest Thing I’ve Ever Seen Hall of Fame. And you know what’s even more stupid? The fucking customer that buys it because he’s like, Oooohh, kobe, and it’s like $21. God have mercy on their souls.
I love that Chang loves White Castle; I do too1 and make a trip to the one in Hell’s Kitchen about once a month without ever telling another living soul I do so. I agree with most of the rest of his list, 1 but would add one thing: no super-thick burgers, aka most burgers at fancy restaurants. They are too difficult to eat and the massive patty throws everything out of proportion and you end up with a mouthful of burger with very little of anything else. Blech. Balance, people!
David Chang is exactly right: when dining at a restaurant, often the best option is to sit at the bar.
When everyone’s so close, it changes the dining experience. Out on the floor, you’re a dickhead if you overhear a conversation and chime in. Not at the bar. You connect, trade stories, then trade bites. I’ve never shared as much food with strangers as I have at the bar. You meet great people that way — you’re part of this band of outsiders within the restaurant. And for me, that’s the best possible dining experience of all.
I almost always eat at the bar at my regular place.
Lucky Peach, the publishing arm of the Momofuku restaurant group, recently launched their new web site with a bunch of online content. Among their offerings is a series of videos featuring David Chang making various foods, including this omelette flavored with an instant ramen seasoning packet:
See also Chang making tonkotsu broth and gnocchi from instant ramen noodles.
Momofuku’s David Chang cooks up some gourmet space food for celeb astronaut Chris Hadfield.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out so well. Who knew that gravity was so useful? But stay for the best part of the whole thing…right at the end, Hadfield feeds himself asparagus like a fish.
In case you missed it a few months ago on PBS, the excellent The Mind of a Chef is out in downloadable form on iTunes and at Amazon. The first episode is available for free on the PBS site for try-before-you-buy purposes.
Writing for The Awl, Jeb Boniakowski shares his vision for a massive McDonald’s complex in Times Square that serves food from McDonald’s restaurants from around the world, offers discontinued food items (McLean Deluxe anyone?), and contains a food lab not unlike David Chang’s Momofuku test kitchen.
The central attraction of the ground floor level is a huge mega-menu that lists every item from every McDonald’s in the world, because this McDonald’s serves ALL of them. There would probably have to be touch screen gadgets to help you navigate the menu. There would have to be whole screens just dedicated to the soda possibilities. A concierge would offer suggestions. Celebrities on the iPad menus would have their own “meals” combining favorites from home (“Manu Ginobili says ‘Try the medialunas!’”) with different stuff for a unique combination ONLY available at McWorld. You could get the India-specific Chicken Mexican Wrap (“A traditional Mexican soft flat bread that envelops crispy golden brown chicken encrusted with a Mexican Cajun coating, and a salad mix of iceberg lettuce, carrot, red cabbage and celery, served with eggless mayonnaise, tangy Mexican Salsa sauce and cheddar cheese.” Wherever possible, the menu items’ descriptions should reflect local English style). Maybe a bowl of Malaysian McDonald’s Chicken Porridge or The McArabia Grilled Kofta, available in Pakistan and parts of the Middle East. You should watch this McArabia ad for the Middle Eastern-flavored remix of the “I’m Lovin’ It” song if for nothing else.
And I loved his take on fast food as molecular gastronomy:
How much difference really is there between McDonald’s super-processed food and molecular gastronomy? I used to know this guy who was a great chef, like his restaurant was in the Relais & Châteaux association and everything, and he’d always talk about how there were intense flavors in McDonald’s food that he didn’t know how to make. I’ve often thought that a lot of what makes crazy restaurant food taste crazy is the solemn appreciation you lend to it. If you put a Cheeto on a big white plate in a formal restaurant and serve it with chopsticks and say something like “It is a cornmeal quenelle, extruded at a high speed, and so the extrusion heats the cornmeal ‘polenta’ and flash-cooks it, trapping air and giving it a crispy texture with a striking lightness. It is then dusted with an ‘umami powder’ glutamate and evaporated-dairy-solids blend.” People would go just nuts for that. I mean even a Coca-Cola is a pretty crazy taste.
I love both mass-produced processed foods and the cooking of chefs like Grant Achatz & Ferran Adrià. Why is the former so maligned while the latter gets accolades when they’re the same thing? (And simultaneously not the same thing at all, but you get my gist.) Cheetos are amazing. Oscar Meyer bologna is amazing. Hot Potato Cold Potato is amazing. Quarter Pounders with Cheese are amazing. Adrià’s olives are amazing. Coca-Cola is amazing. (Warhol: ” A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.”) WD50’s Everything Bagel is amazing. Cheerios are amazing. All have unique flavors that don’t exist in nature — you’ve got to take food apart and put it back together in a different way to find those new tastes.
Some of these fancy chefs even have an appreciation of mass produced processed foods. Eric Ripert of the 4-star Le Berdardin visited McDonald’s and Burger King to research a new burger for one of his restaurants. (Ripert also uses processed Swiss cheese as a baseline flavor at Le Bernardin.) David Chang loves instant ramen and named his restaurants after its inventor. Ferran Adrià had his own flavor of Lay’s potato chips in Spain. Thomas Keller loves In-N-Out burgers. Grant Achatz eats Little Caesars pizza.
Friendly reminder: ten episodes of Anthony Bourdain and David Chang’s Mind of a Chef are available to view for free on the PBS website. I am through two episodes so far and it’s my favorite cooking/food show since The Naked Chef.1 Here’s the first episode, all about ramen:
[I removed the embed because it was autoplaying for some unlucky people. You can watch the first episode here.]
The first four episodes will be taken down after Friday so act now.
 No joke, those first couple seasons of Oliver’s show were really good. It’s not the original Iron Chef or anything, but still. ↩
How had I not heard about this before now? The Mind of a Chef is a PBS consisting of sixteen half-hour shows that follows David Chang through his world of food. As far as I can tell, this series is basically the TV version of Lucky Peach. Episode one is about ramen:
In the series premiere, David dissects the roots of his passion for ramen dishes and tsukemen on a trip to Japan. Learn the history of this famous noodle as David visits a ramen factory, has a bowl of the original tsukemen, and examines how alkalinity makes noodles chewier and less prone to dissolving in broth.
Check out an excerpt here, in which Chang reveals how he used to eat instant ramen noodles right out of the bag with the pork flavor powder sprinkled on top. The series starts this weekend…check your local listings, as they say. (via ny times)
4 things I’m interested in: The Roots, David Chang, fried chicken, and Twitter feuds between chefs and musicians, which is why I was so excited to see Questlove of the Roots and David Chang of Momofuku go back and forth last Wednesday. In the past, Questlove has criticized Momofuku’s fried chicken game, and now that Questo’s in the game himself, Chang feels a competition on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon is in order. The specifics and timing of the throwdown have not been defined, but one thing is clear, in a fried chicken battle between Questlove and David Chang there is at least one winner (wait for it): all of us.
Instead of getting his own TV show, David Chang is making a series of iPad apps and printed journals (published by McSweeney’s no less).
Mr. Chang said that he had talked to television networks about doing a program, but that this offered more freedom and more possibilities, as well as providing research and development for his restaurants. “We were able to go a little deeper than we could have on TV, without being constrained by the networks,” he said. “They wanted yelling. They wanted everything but education.”
Your move, Kokonas.
David Chang and Wylie Dufresne will be hosting a series of dinners at their restaurants featuring the talents of some of France’s up-and-coming chefs. It’s part of a number of events put on by Omnivore, a French restaurant guide.
There will also be one large meal, a free picnic in Central Park where eight chefs will each contribute a dish to what Luc Dubanchet, the founder of Omnivore, calls a “bento box performance.” Then there will be a series of demonstrations at the Alliance Francaise, master classes held by an impressive roster of French and American chefs (the final program is still being decided).
Get yer clickity fingers ready: you can pre-order the Momofuku cookbook on Amazon. Publication date is October 27, 2009. It is likely to include the several recipes that David Chang shared with Gourmet magazine in Oct 2007 like the brussels sprouts and the still-amazing pork buns. (via serious eats)
Update: NY Times food critic Frank Bruni also has a book coming out soon: Born Round (weird title).
As part of their monster 40th anniversary celebration, New York magazine has some notes from the past four decades of food and dining in NYC. Gael Greene remembers her favorite meal as a restaurant critic and also lists the 14 most important NYC restaurants over the past 40 years. No Union Square Cafe? Meyer deserves some credit for taking the stuffiness out of NYC dining.
Legendary chef André Soltner and David Chang share a conversation about the state of food in the city. When Soltner was asked if he did interviews, he replied:
If they came to Lutèce, if they came to my kitchen, yes. I would not go out. If they asked me to go to Chicago to do a fund-raising dinner, it was, “No.” If they asked me to come to give me a prize or whatever, I said, “Only on Sundays, when I’m not in the kitchen.” I was sort of a slave to my restaurant. And my wife too. I don’t say it was right. Today, I maybe say it was wrong. Years ago, in Paris, we had no money. But when we were more comfortable, maybe twenty years later, I said, “Simone, you know, you’ve paid your dues and everything, I buy you whatever you wish.” I was thinking to buy her a ring or a necklace or something like that. “Whatever you wish, tell me.” She looked at me and said, “Take me to a movie.” For twenty years, I hadn’t taken her to a movie. I woke up. I said, “Oh my God, what did I do to my wife?”
And finally but wonderfully, a timeline of food in NYC. The first McDonald’s opened here in 1972 and Starbucks in 1994. Hanger steak was big in 1990.
David Chang, AKA Captain Fucking Pork Bun, and his food producers are growing uneasy about the breakdown of the sustainability of the “Crazy Eddie abundance of the American agricultural industry”.
The machinery that’s pumped so much meat into our lives over the last half century was never built to last, and now it’s breaking down big-time. Feed is more expensive. Gasoline is more expensive. Milk, rice, butter, corn — it’s all going through the roof. And for the foreseeable future, it’s not coming back down.
British architect David Adjaye observed that not only are public buildings built for “the public” but they also create “the public” by establishing a space for it to exist. I guess by the same token, buildings built for private citizens also create private citizens…hence, eventually, gated communities and the like.
Adjaye also described his native Africa as layered combination of its different eras: colonialism + nation building + European + Islam + urban/capitalist.
The chefs panel, with Bill Buford interviewing Daniel Humm, Marc Taxiera, and David Chang, was the most entertaining of the day. Right at the end, David Chang told a short anecdote about a customer who complained to him about the amount of fat in the Momofuku pork bun…pork as in pork belly and pork belly as in mostly fat. Chang told him that’s the way it came and that he wasn’t getting a replacement. Shrugging, he told the audience he had a different idea about hospitality than most restaurateurs…”the customer is not always right”.
Michael Novogratz, the 317th richest American, explained the current financial crisis. Goes something like this. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening up of China and India for both trade and labor laid the groundwork for globalization. Lots and lots of cheap labor available made for cheap goods and low inflation. Between early 2003 and late 2007, globalization kicked into high gear and people thought, this is it, this is the end of inflation forever. But the workers in Eastern Europe, India, and China gradually became consumers. They bought TVs and cars and better food and whaddya know, inflation is back. The bubble burst.
Amy Smith challenges her students to try living on $2 a day for a week…that includes food, transportation, and entertainment. This video of a talk that Smith did at TED in 2006 covers much of what she talked about today at the New Yorker Conference. The NY Times covered her clever inventions back in 2003.
I required redemption. When I arrived home two weeks ago after work, I was informed by my wife that I’d forgotten our anniversary. Eep. To partially make up for my cliched gaffe, I put my efforts towards getting a reservation at Momofuku Ko…the notoriously hard-to-get-into Momofuku Ko.1 We’re big fans of the other two Momofukus, so I logged into their online reservation system and happened to get something for last Friday night.
But this isn’t a story about their reservation system; too many of those have been written already. Bottom line: the food is wonderful and should be the focus of any Ko tale. Two dishes in particular were the equal of any I’ve had at other more expensive restaurants. The first was a pea soup with the most tender langoustine. The second dish, the superstar of the restaurant, was a coddled egg with caviar, onion soubise, and tiny potato chips (photo). Didn’t want that one to end. And I didn’t even mention the shaved foie gras (with Reisling built right in!) or the English muffins amuse or the nice wine pairings.
For the full food porn treatment, check out Kathryn’s photoset, a review at Goodies First, Ed Levine’s preview, Ruth Reichl’s first look, and a review by The Wandering Eater.
 Two quick notes on the reservation process.
1. I spent all of five minutes on a Saturday morning making the reservation on the Ko web site. It can be done.
2. Chang and co. are serious about the web site being the only way to get into the restaurant. As we were leaving after our meal, a friend of Chang’s and bona fide celebrity stopped in to say hi. After some chit chat, the fellow asked if he could get a reservation at Ko for the next evening. Chang laughed, apologized, and told him that he had to go through the web site. They’re not kidding around, folks. ↩
This week’s New Yorker has a profile of David Chang, chef/owner of the Momofuku family of restaurants. The profile isn’t online but Ed Levine has a nice write-up with some quotes.
Just because we’re not Per Se, just because we’re not Daniel, just because we’re not a four-star restaurant, why can’t we have the same fucking standards? If we start being accountable for not only our own actions but for everyone else’s actions, we’re gonna do some awesome shit. […] I know we’ve won awards, all this stuff, but it’s not because we’re doing something special — I believe it’s really because we care more than the next guy.
Reading the article, it appears that Chang is using Michael Ruhlman’s The Soul of a Chef as a playbook here. Caring more than the next guy is right out of the Thomas Keller section of the book…with his perfectly cut green tape and fish swimming the correct way on ice, no one cares more than Keller.
If you can handle just one more, GQ has a long article on David Chang, the chef/co-owner of NYC’s Momofuku restaurants.
Three years ago, David Chang was an obscure cook with a failing Manhattan noodle bar. Now he is being hailed as the most innovative and exciting chef America has seen in decades.
Decades? Please. I’m not backing down from my effusive review of Ssam Bar (Ssam Bar is one of my favorite restaurants of all time), but this decades business is bollocks. Just let the man (and his collaborators) cook and open more yummy restaurants.
The nominees for the 2007 Beard Awards were announced this morning. I’m disappointed that Alinea and Grant Achatz aren’t on the list more (Achatz got a lone nomination for best chef in the Great Lakes region) but am happy to see David Chang, Ssam, Thomas Keller, and Wylie Dufresne on the list.
Taking advantage of a burst steam pipe in our bedroom and the slushy weather, the wife and I finally ventured out to Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Due to the icy sidewalks, the place was less than jam-packed so we were seated immediately. From our seats at the bar, we could see David Chang slicing ham and utilizing the one-for-me-one-for-you plating technique. Hholy Ccrap, what a place!
I could go on and on about the food — it’s some of the best I’ve had in the city — but equally impressive is how the place feels and how fun it is to eat there. The staff seems imported wholesale from one of Danny Meyer’s restaurants…the service is friendly and enthusiastic and genuinely loves when when you’re excited about the food. The music ranged from the Pixies to Metallica to Bob Dylan while we were there and was at just the right volume. The vibe is more relaxed than at the Noodle Bar…the food is less “street” and “on-the-run” so you feel less rushed in your meal. The beverages are a casual and interesting mix; we had a taste of a sparkling Shiraz from The Black Chook…fizzy like champagne and red like, well, red wine. In the opening paragraphs of his recent review of Ssäm Bar, Frank Bruni does a great job capturing what’s so good about the place:
It has also put a greater premium on service, distinguished by attentive young waiters with more knowledge and palpable enthusiasm about the menu than many of their counterparts at more conventionally polished establishments.
And it has emerged as much, much more than the precocious fast-food restaurant it initially was. By bringing sophisticated, inventive cooking and a few high-end grace notes to a setting that discourages even the slightest sense of ceremony, Ssäm Bar answers the desires of a generation of savvy, adventurous diners with little appetite for starchy rituals and stratospheric prices.
They want great food, but they want it to feel more accessible, less effete. They’ll gladly take some style along with it, but not if the tax is too punishing. And that’s what they get at Ssäm Bar, sleek, softly lighted and decidedly unfussy. Most of its roughly 55 seats are at a gleaming dark wood counter that runs the length of the narrow room, though these seats afford more elbow room than exists at the much smaller Noodle Bar.
And ok, a word or two about the food. Is it even Asian? It’s more like food that tastes fantastic and you can eat with chopsticks. I would describe it as truly international food, drawing upon many influences without being obvious about it. And who cares anyway…Chang could put Swedish food on the menu and make it work. I have no real evidence or experience to back this up, but the approach to food at Ssäm seems like a new one to me, a new type of cuisine, an approach that values the tastiness and the end result over regional influence and style1. We’ll see how that prediction works out.
 Maybe I like this approach so much because it reminds me of the way in which I edit kottke.org. This isn’t a tech site or a design site or a pop culture site or a news site…I’ll put anything on kottke.org as long as it’s interesting, topic be damned. ↩
David Chang of Momofuku and Ssam tells us about the “money piece”, the ticket in the kitchen of a restaurant that gets randomly upgraded to VIP (or soigné) treatment for the evening. Nice idea.
Profile of “radical chef” David Chang and his restaurants, Momofuku Noodle Bar (one of my favorite restaurants) and Momofuku Ssam Bar, an Asian version of Chipotle. After a vegetarian customer threatened to sue Chang for not offering vegetarian broth, he took all but one of the veggie options off the menu. “We added pork to just about everything[…] Fuck it, let’s just cook what we want.”