Industry Insiders: David Chang, Chef Afire

A few years ago, a little restaurant called Momofuku Noodle Bar tucked itself into an East Village storefront. There was buzz over noodles, pork buns, a consistent gaggle of wait-listed patrons out front, and an of-the-minute, Pitchfork-grade music selection. The proprietor? This David Chang guy, this chef who couldn’t complete an interview without being self-depreciating to a fault, or throwing in an expletive or nine. Cut to present: Chang’s interview style hasn’t changed. His business has.

He conquered the East Village via a Ssäm Bar, a Milk Bar, and Ko—one of the hottest reservations in town, moved to the old Noodle Bar space—with his next mission being midtown, he’s gone from chef to full-on restaurateur. He recently took part in the “Four Fucking Dinners,” hosting some of the world’s most acclaimed chefs in his kitchens. He’s got a cookbook coming out, co-written by former New York Times $25 and Under critic Peter Meehan. And he’s participating in French food movement/magazine Le Fooding’s takeover of New York next week. We caught him for a few minutes to wax poetic on Le Fooding, fried chicken, the cookbook, cooking critics, and how Chang’s holding up between it all.

How’d you get involved with Le Fooding? I heard about Le Fooding through my friend Mauro Colagreco, who is a chef at Mirazur in France. He’d done some events with them and they approached me in New York last summer. I was pretty amazed that [Le Fooding’s] Alexander Cammas had moved his entire family here to make sure that it would take off.

How will this food festival will differ from others in New York? It’s a different spin. I hate doing events where you basically just serve something, and then people get drunk. They’re almost all the same. This one’s a collaboration of artists, musicians. It has a lot going on for it. Food’s the afterthought, but not really. It’s more of an event to get together and do something cool. On our end, it’s been organized very well.

What will you prepare? We’re trying to keep it simple. We’ll probably do a pulled pork, put it on some lettuce, and figure it out from there. Some type of variation of a Bo Ssäm. There needs to be some ease to what we do, but it still has to be delicious.

Tell us about the Four Fucking Dinners. In French, it translated to something like, ‘to eat fucking dinner.’ That was how it happened. It was a literal translation. It was all set up by Omnivore. We just figured out where was best to put who. Wylie has the beautiful kitchen, so at wd-50, they’re getting the Godfather, Michel Bras. We thought Ko is small, so it was perfect for Pascal Barbot. It really wasn’t that hard for us to decide. It’s exciting to have these chefs; I just hope we don’t fuck up their food.

How would that happen? Anytime you’re cooking in someone else’s kitchen, it’s tough on both parties. We’ve never worked together and I think everyone’s bringing their sous chefs, which is a challenge, logistically. Everyone wants to serve the best product possible. You have five chefs coming, that all have incredibly high standards, so we’re going to try to be of assistance to them and not a hindrance.

Are you surprised at the way the fried chicken dinners took off? Very much.

Locanda Verde now has a fried chicken dinner, did you ignite a trend? No, I know that they were all doing it independently. I had no idea that Andrew Carmellini was going to do it. I didn’t think that the other chicken we wanted would be an Old Bay spiced chicken. I knew that it would draw inevitable comparisons to Andrew’s chicken that he cooked at Café, which was amazing.

You told Alan Richman, GQ Food Critic, to ‘open up his own fucking restaurant’. Do you think he could? No, it was more just to be like, “I love you, Alan, but shut the fuck up.”

How did you get set up with Peter Meehan for your cookbook? Pete and I became friends over the years. I never knew who he was when he started coming into the restaurant, until Mark Bittman accidentally told me. Then I was like: “You’re the motherfucker who reviews restaurants.” He’d always come in for lunch on Saturdays and Sundays. He looked familiar, but I never knew that he was the Peter Meehan. I don’t know if we’d actually be friends if it weren’t for Mark Bittman, but we might have bumped into each other at a concert because we have similar musical taste. That’s how I met Peter Meehan, or at least figured out who the hell he was. Most things I do get a lot of attention, the less I do, the better it turns out. Pete really took charge (with the cookbook). Everyone helped, and Pete had a tremendous amount of work and he put it all together. If it’s a great book, it’s all Peter. If it’s a dud, it’s all my fault.

What’s up with Momofuku Midtown? We’re trying to get it ready and still trying to find a name. It’ll open late-Fall or early-Winter.

Are you over-extended? I do feel over-extended. We have a great staff, I’m not working the line every night. The midtown show is really Tien Ho’s project. I’m just going to be there in a supporting role for whatever he needs. I’m not necessarily bored, I’m just constantly trying something new with the rest of the restaurants. This year’s particularly trying in terms of events and scheduling, but that’s just how it goes sometimes. I don’t plan on having this hectic of a schedule again. Ideally, I’d like to not do so many events. But this might be how it is for the rest of the time, no one’s told me how things are supposed to be. I don’t know if it’s over-extended, but we want success, and I didn’t realize the baggage that came with that. It’s certainly surreal and weird.

What’s the key to keeping the dynasty afloat? I think that we need to hold ourselves to a high accountability, don’t believe the press, and we’re only as good as our last dish. We just need to keep pushing to get better everyday, and stay as humble.

What’s your fall drink? When fall and winter come around, I hit the brown stuff. Bourbon, usually Pappy Van Winkle‘s. 15 year and if I’m lucky, 20 year.

Where are you going out? I go to bars less and less these days. I always try to keep up to date with what Wylie is doing at wd. 15 East is great for sushi. I’d go to Sushi Yasuda all the time if it wasn’t in midtown, and Oriental Garden.

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