Since opening a humble noodle bar in Manhattan's East Village nearly seven years ago, David Chang has rapidly become one of America's most talked-about chefs, building a mini-empire of Momofuku restaurants in New York City, each of which combines Asian and American influences to create a new kind of cuisine that's both adventurous and accessible. Now he's taking his celebrated pork buns and fried chicken international by launching a new Momofuku in Sydney later this year and a pair in Toronto in 2012. Plus there's Lucky Peach, a just-launched quarterly iPad app and accompanying McSweeney's-published journal. The volatile chef spoke to Details about his plans for global domination, anger management, and why "farm-to-table" is a bunch of baloney.
DETAILS: You've talked about your food being quintessentially American. What do you mean by that?
David Chang: We don't have a rich food culture. If you ask what people say what American cuisine is, they cannot really do it. I don't know what it is. So yeah, this is what I say American food is. I think we get so single-minded about trying to categorize things that we forget about the big picture, and that is, does it taste good?
DETAILS: How has your routine changed in the nearly seven years since you opened Momofuku Noodle Bar?
David Chang: It's changed so much. I did everything, from cooking to dishwashing to doing the books… Now I'm doing this interview with you. You couldn't ask for a starker difference. There's no way I would have been able to think that, yes, this is where I'll be one day.
DETAILS: But I've also heard that you're pretty ambivalent about the idea of celebrity chefs—is that true?
David Chang: Everyone tries to compare cooks to rock stars. I see more comparisons to the fashion world. In fashion, you have one to two to three designers who actually do something new. Everyone else just fucking regurgitates and copies and steals and takes esoteric ideas from 20 or 30 years ago. And when there is something better, not everyone embraces it.
DETAILS: In the past, you've pushed yourself so hard that you've made yourself ill. Are you still a workaholic?
David Chang: I think it's different for New York chefs, because you have to do two, three, four turns of your entire restaurant to stay in business. That's just for dinner. I make the comparison to the one-running-back system in the NFL. You don't see that anymore. It just chews people up too fast. In other places you can do a one-running-back system because you're not getting that many carries, but this place just fucking runs you into the ground. I really feel that every time you serve a customer, finish a ticket, a bit of your fucking soul goes with it. After a while, you just get fucking burnt out.
DETAILS So how do you combat that?
David Chang: About 2009, I realized I needed to make some changes. There were points in my life where I literally would be like, "I would kill this person—is it worth going to jail for the rest of my life to rid them from my fucking consciousness?" Because they were fucking up so bad. I'd be yelling at the top of my lungs and I'd get so angry that I might die. I was getting these terrible migraines. Now I can't get angry. It takes too much energy. I would wake up angry, go to bed angry. I was so full of fucking hate and rage—for six years straight. I remember the day very clearly. I had just turned 32 and I was like, "If I keeled over and died at 32 because I was yelling at a fucking kid who wasn't condensing food properly… that is the dumbest way to go out."
DETAILS: But part of you does thrive on getting a rise out of people, wouldn't you say, by doing things like making fun of Bay Area cuisine?
David Chang: No, I wasn't making fun! I feel like I'm that dude who can't believe everyone misquotes him. I don't try to get a rise out of anyone. I say something and people seem to find that makes good print or copy or whatever the fuck you guys do. It was totally taken out of context. I had gone on at great lengths about how much I appreciate San Francisco cuisine and how much I adore Alice Waters. And do I stand by what I said? Absolutely! Is the culinary scene in San Francisco as diverse as the rest of the culture there—sexually, artistically? I don't think so. I'm not a fucking politician, I'm not a fucking speechwriter, but if I could go back and articulate it a different way, that's what I would fucking say: Do something to your fucking food.
DETAILS: People have been clamoring for you to open in L.A. for years. It seems like you'd have a lot of fun with the produce out there.
David Chang: Absolutely! I think the best restaurants in America should be in California. It's the land of fucking everything… but everywhere you go, everyone wants rustic Italian shit. I have nothing against that. Chez Panisse is one of my favorite restaurants. But does every restaurant have to be that? No! And everyone's opening up these fucking farm-to-table bullshit restaurants. How else are you supposed to cook? You're supposed to get the best ingredients possible. Do you want a pat on the back?
DETAILS: You're expanding to Sydney this fall. How did you choose that city for your first restaurant outside of New York?
David Chang: I was there last year and just fell in love with Australia—holy shit, the produce, the proteins, the fish. This place is insane. Why wouldn't you want to open a restaurant out here? We're going to try to use only Australian ingredients, with the exception of some fermented products from Japan and some wines from France. We're also going to open Momofuku Toronto in 2012. I will always love New York, and it will always be my home, but why wouldn't I want to explore the amazing bounty of Toronto?
DETAILS: Restaurants are a low-margin business, so you're probably not rolling around in piles of cash. Do people assume that you're loaded because of the accolades and the success?
David Chang: It's a misconception that chefs are rich. Some are, and goddamn it, they deserve it. And our business is growing. But did I get into this business to make money? No. Anyone who gets into this business to become rich and famous is a fucking moron.
DETAILS: So no plans for a David Chang line of frozen pork buns?
David Chang: I'm not going to say that's not going to happen. That arc's going to happen. I've turned down deals that potentially would have made me a lot of fucking money. It would be nice to have money in the bank. I don't. I leverage everything. All my shit's on the line.
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