Q&A: Momofuku’s David Chang talks about his new L.A. restaurant, opening this fall in Chinatown
It’s hardly a secret that David Chang, whose Momofuku Restaurant Group now includes 12 restaurants around the world, plus the delivery platform Ando, has long been considering opening a restaurant in Los Angeles. The chef’s social media is often a catalog of his meals in this town. One of the last issues of his late, lamented food magazine, Lucky Peach, was devoted to Los Angeles. Milk Bar, Christina Tosi’s dessert shop and part of the Momofuku group, is opening soon on Melrose Avenue. And the chef’s love for L.A.’s Koreatown is near legendary.
Chang recently confirmed plans for his Los Angeles restaurant, which will open later this year in the northeast corner of Chinatown, not far from Dodger Stadium. Chinatown has been going through a food renaissance lately, despite the recent closing of Pok Pok, with a slew of restaurants going into the two-story food hub of the Far East Plaza. And Los Angeles itself is in the middle of its own culinary renaissance, one that’s either recent or recently recognized, depending on who you talk to.
Chang, 39, who says he’s house-hunting in L.A. with his wife, describes his future as bicoastal, trekking between New York and the new restaurant, as well as his other outposts of empire. We chatted with him about the space (address: 1725 Naud St.), what he thinks about L.A.’s restaurant scene, moving to this town at last and, yes, sports.
So you’re finally coming to L.A.?
Yeah, we’ve been working on this for a long time — well over a year. Over all the years of looking in L.A., it was the place that I thought was the most interesting, the most cool, close to Chinatown, Koreatown, the SGV. It’s a little bit off-the-radar, a little bit unexpected. There are a lot of amazing spaces throughout L.A., but that just felt right, when we thought about where we’d want to be in 10 years.
Are you a Dodgers fan?
I’m gonna lie if I say yes. I will learn to appreciate the Dodgers.
What kind of place is this going to be?
Don’t be offended if I tell you that it’s a work in progress. And it’s probably going to be like this until the day before we open up, a constantly shifting thing. We’re very excited about the produce and the farmers markets; I am chomping at the bit to use that product. We’re going to try and make something very delicious and very new. I don’t want to do something that we’ve done before for L.A.
Has it been harder to open here than in other places?
It’s different, you know. Everyone tells you how different it’s going to be, and one thing I’ve learned having opened up restaurants is it can be a humbling experience if you think what you’ve done in New York is going to work someplace else.
People have wanted you to do this for so long.
If you look at the growth of Momofuku, it’s been this weird, organic journey. Our first restaurant outside the East Village was in Sydney, Australia. And then the next one was in Toronto. And everyone was, like, why don’t you do Las Vegas, why don’t you open in London, why don’t you do this? You know what? They should open their own … restaurants. I feel like we’ve always wanted to open in Los Angeles. I’ve always loved Los Angeles. I love K-Town — it’s probably the most exciting place to eat in America.
Are you worried about what happened to Pok Pok?
Yeah. I think you should always be worried. Just because it happened to Andy [Pok Pok chef-owner Andy Ricker] doesn’t mean it can’t happen to us, or anyone else. Listen, there’s more competition than ever before in Los Angeles. By no means do we want to seem like East Coast carpetbaggers. That’s just the reality: A lot of people from New York have opened in Los Angeles in the last five to six years. There’s been no collusion with any of those chefs; I have no idea what they’re doing.
Why do you think so many people are opening in L.A. these days?
It’s not one reason: It’s the weather. It’s the produce. It’s so multicultural, and things seem possible. There’s a greater sense of optimism here, a greater sense of risk-taking, and maybe that has to do with some of the economics, where you have younger chefs doing more interesting things. And I don’t think it’s because there aren’t interesting things happening in New York; it’s just becoming harder to find them. There’s an infusion of things that are happening here, and it’s not a surprise that people are wanting to open up — I’ve always been shocked that it didn’t happen years ago.
By no means do we want to seem like East Coast carpetbaggers.
— David Chang
The weather, the produce and the diversity are hardly new.
It’s also ride-sharing — people don’t have to drive anymore. I can’t think of a town that’s changed more because of the technology. People go out a lot more, there’s a lot more drinking going on.
What about things like the new minimum wage law, the shortage of good cooks?
These are issues that everyone has to be worried about. I look at this very much like a sports franchise, like a basketball team or football team. They all have the same talent; they all have the same salary cap and rules and regulations. And what separates some teams from the others is that they’re just better teams. So most of that responsibility is on us, to be the best incubators of talent and educators of hospitality possible. That’s on us.
We’re thinking it’s just going to be North Spring. I mean that should tell you a little bit, right? That we’re thinking of something that’s different from what we’ve done. It’s definitely going to be a Momofuku, but I do not want anyone to think we’re just mailing it in. We’re going to work very hard to create a restaurant that adds to the neighborhood, that adds to the vibrant food scene. I know this sounds like a … politician, but it’s the … truth.
We want to do it right. It’s quite possible that we may not get it right, but we chose a place and an area where we hope that we’re going to make the right kinds of mistakes, and we’re going to try and push ourselves out of our comfort zones.
Where are you now?
I’m in K-Town. Listen, I don’t think people understand how … amazing the food in Koreatown is; it’s mind-bogglingly good. Honestly, I get in a lot of trouble, because everyone’s always, like, Why don’t you eat outside K-Town? But there’s so much stuff here, it’s hard for me to ever leave. I already had Sun Nong Dan this morning, you know. I got my spots, it’s a lot. I gotta get out.
(This interview has been edited and condensed.)
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