It was the shot heard round the culinary world. David Chang—the man behind New York City's Momofuku noodle joints, who sprinkles F-bombs the way other chefs sprinkle salt—and Anthony Bourdain came together at the NYC Wine & Food Festival last fall for a discussion on a topic well-suited to both men: "I Call Bullshit!" The duo proceeded to call bullshit on everything from pork belly to blogs, but they paid special attention to the city of San Francisco. "Fuckin' every restaurant in San Francisco is just serving figs on a plate," Chang declared. "Do something with your food."
Hell, it turns out, hath no fury like a NorCal foodie scorned. The Bay Area, after all, is the crucible of the eat-local, eat-organic movement, and its patron saint, Alice Waters, has plated single tomatoes, peaches, and, yes, figs, at her legendary restaurant, Chez Panisse. Her trusted lieutenant, David Tanis, has even published a cookbook, with a foreword by Waters, called A Platter of Figs. Following Chang's remarks, the blogosphere—its denizens not limited to the Bay Area, by the way—quickly spun into a rage. As the vitriol flowed online, the Northern California chapter of the Asia Society went so far as to cancel a book signing Chang was scheduled to give. Fig-gate was born.
Although partisans have been mounting broadsides on the Web ever since, East and West haven't truly faced off. That will change September 24 and 25 at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York City, when chefs from both coasts compete at an event sponsored by the Paris-based culinary organization Le Grand Fooding. Some of the best chefs of New York and San Francisco will cook for a crowd of about a thousand each night (buy tickets here) to defend their regional honor. (A similar competition last year, also held at P.S.1, pitted New York against Paris.) The delicious results will be yours for the eating—accompanied by drinks from warring mixologists, with ambience provided by DJs from both cities.
In anticipation of the match, we checked in with a few of the competitors to find out what they're bringing—literally and figuratively—to the table. To a chef, they insisted on the amity of the event. (Many are friends, and almost all said they agreed with the spirit of Chang's injunction, if not the phrasing.) But a little competitive spirit does enter the picture, too, even if all involved say they're in it for fun and charity and are ready to put Fig-gate to bed. Right after this next meal.
Name: David Chang
Affiliation: The Momofuku Empire: Ssäm Bar; Noodle Bar; Ko; Milk Bar; Má Pêche
City: New York
Making: "Beets—because every restaurant in San Francisco has a beet-and-goat-cheese salad. Even if they don't find it funny, I find it funny."
On Fig-gate: "I said it as a fucking joke. I can't believe I'm the guy saying it got taken out of context, but that's the reality of it. I'm sure I didn't help. I was fucking taken aback by how defensive San Francisco took it. I was just, like, fuck. I told them all to chill out and smoke more dope. That pissed them off even more."
On San Francisco vs. New York: "For a city that prides itself on the diversity of culture, all aspects—music, art, sexuality—is the food scene as diverse as everything else in San Francisco? I don't think anybody can fucking tell me yes, it is. They can't. Objectively, they cannot. I think what we need to be doing instead of bickering, talking shit, is trying to develop a food culture for America that's not just hamburgers or French fries."
Name: Daniel Patterson
City: San Francisco
Making: "Everything is going to be all vegetables. Everything's going to be finger foods. Everything's going to be things that people have seen before." No figs on a plate? "No, interesting things, hopefully. I call it vegetables on a plate. But it's not really going to be on a plate, anyway."
On Fig-gate: "Well, it's fun, you know? And kind of funny. It's almost, like, kind of old news. I mean, c'mon—I basically wrote the same thing that David said in the New York Times five years ago, so it's not like I disagree with him."
On San Francisco vs. New York: "First of all, they can't compete with us on ingredients—they just can't. We can't compete with them on size, money, anything else that allows a city to have extraordinary restaurants. So it devolves into this ridiculous comparison. Yeah, they're playing with the San Francisco vs. New York idea, but I don't think there's a real rivalry there. We're using this conceit that's very tongue-in-cheek. It's an excuse to get together and have a party. And by the way, our food is going to be much better than theirs—did I mention that?"
Name: Nate Appleman
City: New York
Making: "I'm doing a beef cooked in beef fat cooked medium-rare, thinly sliced, over a crostone of brioche with anchovy, parsley butter, and fried garlic. Originally, when we were talking about the event, I said, 'Why don't I cook a whole cow?'" How? "There's two ways to do it. You can take two old box springs and two pieces of metal and finagle this system of fires. Or you can put a stake in the ground and rig up a pulley system. It looks like a huge cross. You put the cow up there and cook it that way. As it turns out, P.S.1 didn't want an open flame or something that large going on there. I was secretly kind of relieved when they said no."
On Fig-gate: "I think the whole thing is stupid."
On San Francisco vs. New York: "I appreciate both. San Francisco has these best products in the world, the best produce, some of the best artisans in the world. New York doesn't have that produce. What it does have is great restaurants. New York is a great restaurant town, not a food town."