I have had a small obsession with David Chang’s culinary creations since 2014 when I first set foot in Momofuku. The vibe is lively and hip. The tables are a rustic pine and run along the restaurant to allot for family-style dining. This appeals to me; I love turning to the stranger next to you and finding out they just flew in from London or just finished a tour in Afghanistan or were in town for a particular show. New York is filled with stories, and places like Momofuku bring them to the surface for everybody to share. The food told its own story of commingled cultures and paradoxical flavor profiles. I have been back every time I travel to NYC. I also own and cook from his Momofuku cookbook, a present from my daughter to commemorate our shared love of Chang ramen. When his memoir, Eat a Peach was announced, it immediately went on my to-buy list.
Chang weaves a narrative of a person always on the outside, never quite belonging. He was not the “typical” Asian American model student, but he points out not every Asian is good at school or any one thing. They are individuals as much as any other ethnicity. He brings to bear his own issues coming to terms with his heritage,
“While cooking has enabled me to fight battles and explore subjects I am too afraid to approach in real life, I couldn’t overcome the shame and anxiety I’d felt about Korean food since I was a kid.”
Majordomo was where Chang took the initial steps integrating Korean identity, it was Kawi where he really embraced Korean food. He makes a point throughout of addressing the cultural racism existent in the restaurant business. Many ethnic chefs stay in their lane and do not upset the stereotype of what a non-caucasian chef should be cooking. White chefs have been appropriating and reinventing for always.
“I think the reason why minority chefs in America find cultural appropriation so upsetting is that we feel obliged to uphold these arbitrary proscriptions, while white chefs do whatever they want. We’re following the rules and they’re not. Most of the time, they didn’t even bother to learn the rules. I decided rather than getting upset about it, I should just start playing the same game.”
Momofuku almost went out of business early on because Chang was cooking what he thought people wanted out of a noodle bar instead of cooking what he wanted to eat. He came up with some tenets he lives by with his restaurants:
- Gather from Everywhere- appropriate, but give credit for inspirations
- The Dining Room is Your Classroom- watch your diners, learn from them, allow your food to evolve
- Forget everything you think and embrace what you see- don’t rely on common wisdom, be open to every idea sometimes the best dishes happen from accidents
- Merge- the most interesting ideas come from bringing together worlds that seem so different. Everything can be Korean, Italian, Japanese or Mexian and American food can be anything
A lot can be found about Chang’s journey to chef stardom, his restaurant secrets, and how he made it despite the odds within these pages, but a more sensitive and poignant narrative emerges from this memoir about depression, the stigma of mental illness in the culinary world, and addictions. Chang self-medicated for years by throwing himself headlong into work.
As Chang writes in the book, “work is the last socially acceptable addiction.” As a former restaurateur and educator this resonated with me. I always attribute it to the need to be busy. Society reinforces this idea of working hard as a sign of success, and it becomes almost a competition for who can work harder and longer. I still feel agitated if I do not have a full plate. For Chang it was like heroin. Getting things done, fully immersing yourself in the work allows you to ignore what is going on inside yourself. “I found meaning in repetitive tasks, as long as I did them with intent and purpose. Many chefs opening restaurants talk about the rush. It’s not only a rush to me.” Towards the end of his stint at Cafe Boulud, Chang had his first full-blown depressive phase of bipolar disorder. He had used work as an outlet to keep his depression at bay, but the confluence of personal issues broke his fragile control of day-to-day routine.
Following this Chang sought out professional help, and found it in the form of Dr. Eliot. Through his sessions with him, Chang finally verbalized his struggle with fitting in and constant feelings of inadequacy. Eliot’s office was also the first place he admitted that the only thing that could make it better was to turn it off. Self-medication with drugs and alcohol are common for suicidal people, and Chang readily admits suicide was always on his mind. He says, “Nothing took the thoughts of suicide away. If anything, the drugs were a gasp of air between the waves crashing down on my head.”
Chang also talks emotionally about losing one of his mentees to a drug overdose. He does not go into gory details out of respect, but he does give us an intimate portrait of the guilt and failure he felt for not saving him, not being the one to recognize he had a problem. Drug abuse is one of those things that does not have an easy fix. As we see people we love struggling with addiction, we can confront them, offer them resources, but ultimately we cannot save them unless they want to be saved. Chang explores this notion of culpability with his therapist.
He also spends some time talking about his relationship with Anthony Bourdain whose death brought to light the issues with mental illness in the restaurant industry. “Tony never worked in the upper echelon of restaurants. That gave many of us in the industry reason to thumb our noses at home, 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 wrote about our world with extraordinary intelligence and empathy…He was the kind of guy you wanted to hang out with, because first and foremost, a fan of food and restaurants.” As a reader, you can feel the emotional toll Bourdain’s suicide took on Chang.
He poured out everything to Eliot, and through their conversations Chang’s desire to move away from fine dining and move towards the idea that all people, regardless of economic class, could appreciate good food. He drew inspiration from his own experiences abroad. Momofuku was born out of this drive to democratize restaurants. Chang’s journey to restaurateur included stints at Craft and Cafe Boulud. He trained under great chefs, and worked hard. Keeping Momofuku and then his later restaurants alive was an exercise in constant refining and reinvention.
In some ways the endnotes of each chapter are the most entertaining. Chang fully gives himself over in these and provides a glimpse of his wit. One of my favorites was his note on what he ate growing up. “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 I’m a product of Bovine Growth Hormone.” His self-deprecating tone is on full display in the endnotes.
As a reader and ardent fan of Lucky Peach, I was glad Chang spent some time on what happened to the publication. He provided a recounting of the inception and ultimate demise of the insane magazine. Chang wrote a great deal about how careful he was about investment opportunities and financial snags with his restaurants, but with Lucky Peach it was a passion project and it became so twisted up with Momofuku that it threatened both ventures. Chang beautifully writes about some of the people he lost through the Lucky Peach endeavor including his longtime collaborator, Peter Meehan. He also addresses the intense criticism he took from people about his perceived role in Lucky Peach’s failing. You can feel his remorse at its demise. He saw the magazine as an extension of the insurgency he tried to create with his restaurants. Momofuku means lucky peach. By giving the magazine the moniker of his first restaurant, a business he poured himself into, he showed his love. I miss the publication, as do many others, but I know what a tough time it is for any publication, print or otherwise.
Insurgency is a recurring theme in Chang’s life and professional pursuits. He always seems to be looking for a way to disrupt established stereotypes, cultural norms, and hierarchies. When planning Ko and Fuku, Chang set out to upend racism and classicism in restaurants. With Ko he strove for ultimate democratization of the restaurant experience. When talking about Ko’s reviews Chang said, “I’m not afraid to tell you I was proud about this one. Not the awards, necessarily, but the insurgency of it all. I loved that just when people had decided we were media darlings, we flipped the story to our advantage.” Ko did not take reservations, no special treatment, anybody could get a table if they were willing to wait. The policy put off the critics and dining literati, but Chang showed you don’t have to pander to the wealthy and influential, you just need a good product.
Chang in true insurrectionist fashion outlined his plan for FUKU, his statement restaurant poised to exploit the Asian American racism in the United States with a menu modeled after Chick-fil-a, a co-opter of Southern African American foodways. Nishi presented an opportunity to challenge the culturally constructed worth of a noodle. We expect pasta to be expensive while noodles have to be cheap, even if the noodle dish takes many more ingredients and preparation. Chang sought out to change our perception of what worth we assign to “ethnic” cuisine.
He found like-minded individuals along the way. Christina Tossi, amazing pastry chef and organizer extraordinaire, started Milk Bar in the back room of Ssam Bar. She rejected the notion that you had to be classically French trained to be a good pastry chef. Instead she took the places that shaped her, like Dairy Queen, and created desserts like the McDonald’s-inspired deep fried apple pie for Ko. When last I went, the desserts at Momofuku were products of Milk Bar and Tossi’s whimsical style.
His book ends with addressing the issue of sexism, and misogyny in the restaurant world. He acknowledges his own privilege in the time of #metoo as he references a photo of three men as “Gods of Food,” when it came out it didn’t occur to him to question why no women were featured. “It’s not about the glass ceiling or equal opportunity. It’s about people being threatened, undermined, abused, and ashamed in the workplace. It’s embarrassing to admit how long it took me to grasp that.” Chang spends some time giving voice to his own complicity.
“I’ve talked alot about failure as a learning tool, but it’s really a privilege to expect people to let us fail over and over again. There are too many dudes in my story in general, and you can still sense my bro-ish excitement when I tell old war stories. Almost all the writers and artists I mention are men, and most of the movies I reference can be found in the DVD library of any frat house in America. It’s my truth, which is why I am leaving them in here, but I wish some of it were different. I’m trying to be the person I want to be. I’m trying to build a company that is better than I am and an environment where the next generation will have better answers to the questions we’re facing.”
The book fittingly closes with David Chang’s 33 Rules for Becoming a Chef. I love this because he is dead on. It is not romantic. It is a lot of work, and a lot of menial work. A couple of my favorites are:
- Being a chef is only partly about cooking- there is also dish washing, mopping floors, taking out the garbage etc. I worked every position in the restaurants I came up in. There is no glory in cleaning grease traps or any of the other unromantic tasks a chef does.
- Make great family meal. I love his story about chef Akhtar Nawab making samosas for everybody at Craft. We always did a rotating Sunday Supper at my place. A different person prepared each week something they would eat at home, something simple, something comforting. It was about the fellowship and the family stories. It made all those ridiculous hours spent together a little easier.
- Immerse yourself in all the awful, boring shit- learn the language of health departments, payroll, heating and air conditioning etc. This is absolute gold for people hoping to open their own place. You must speak the language of all those people who have to sign off on you actually opening and running successfully.
- Save something for the swim back. “I gravitated towards the notion that is you worked like you had nothing else to live for, you could overcome whatever obstacles came your way…I have no doubt if I had given anything less than everything, Momfuku would not have made it…I’m so lucky this business did not kill me.” This is part of that addiction to work. If you pour all of yourself into the buildup, you will use yourself up before you can have a happy ending. This one is going on my wall as a reminder there is more than just the now.
Eat a Peach is not a light read. There are moments of personal darkness and cultural criticism that spare no detail. Chang talks intimately about the stigma against mental illness and therapy redolent in the restaurant industry- a world celebrated for long hours, high stress, verbal abuse, and addiction. His humility in discussing these issues, as well as his personal journey with racism opens the door for some important conversations that have needed to happen, especially in the culinary world, for a long time.
I leave you with one last thought. This memoir will come out as we are fully in the throws of a pandemic. Even in the small space of time since Chang finished writing it, the restaurant world has been turned upside down. He has given a few interviews about the prospects for the industry where he has become a cornerstone. His decision to fully close two of his restaurants, and fold another two into each other rocked the culinary world and sounded the call for what could be coming.
“All restaurants operate on razor-thin margins, but some are thinner than others. In the case of Nishi and CCDC, the margins were particularly challenging,” Mariscal writes in an open letter to the company posted on Momofuku’s website. “Nishi and CCDC underwent many iterations—renovations, menu overhauls, service changes—on the path to profitability. But as we looked at new realities, neither restaurant had enough cushion to sustain the shock of this crisis. We investigated every scenario to make the math work—negotiating with our landlords, changing the service model, and more—but with increased investments in health and safety, huge reopening expenses, and the lack of rent relief, the financial picture of these wholly-owned restaurants no longer made sense.”
I am certain David Chang and his team are exploring every avenue to weather this in some fashion, but I worry for all those small mom and pop places with only one location operating on that razor-thin budget. What will survive Covid-19, and how will the landscape of dining out shift? Like the cover art on this book, we will be facing a sisyphean task as we try to climb out from the current devastation.