David Chang on restaurants and his own life: ‘The old ways just don’t work anymore’
When journalists analyze David Chang’s influence on American dining, we tend to focus on how his first two New York restaurants — Momofuku Noodle Bar, opened in 2004, and Ssäm Bar, which followed in 2006 — crumpled divides between formal and casual settings and blew up conventions around mingling flavors from many traditions.
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The motive behind his iconoclasm might best be summarized on page 58 of his memoir “Eat a Peach,” written with Gabe Ulla and published this month. Noodle Bar was new and nearly bankrupt; Chang was struggling to hone a perspective for the menu. Chef buddies were dropping by to eat. “We were at our best when we were feeding these people who really knew their s—,” he writes. “That realization saved our restaurant. At the last possible moment, we erased the line between what we thought we should be serving our customers and what we wanted to cook for our friends. We threw out anything that smelled of fear, and started shooting from the hip.”
That passage resonates with me. In nearly 20 years of reviewing restaurants, my most thrilling meals have come from chefs serving dishes that reflect who they really are, whether it’s the food of their heritage or an unusually astute and respectful melding of cuisines. (On the other hand, restaurants attempting to replicate others’ singular triumphs, including the endless Changian pork belly bao rip-offs, rarely electrified.) Chang’s success helped push our dining culture — from the vantages of both liberated cooks and fervent diners — to redefine notions of excellence.
“Eat a Peach” is a timely read on several levels. The world is a mess, and beyond the heartbreak of ongoing business closures caused by the pandemic’s economic fallout, we can’t know what the restaurant industry will look like on the other side of this. At the end of his book, Chang includes 33 rules for becoming a chef: Prompts like “Start a cult” (“you need to kill the critics with the strength of your convictions”), “What worked in the past won’t work in the future” and “Always plan for worst-case scenarios” may provide inspiration in the post-apocalyptic landscape ahead.
If you’ve ever listened to his podcast, “The Dave Chang Show,” you’ll recognize his voice in the prose: blunt, often funny, questioning and critical of himself and the world. He doesn’t flinch from the personal. He discusses his difficult relationship with his father (who died in June); his feelings of otherness, from every angle, growing up as a Korean American; his ongoing struggles with depression; and his diagnosis of bipolar I disorder.
What will the restaurant industry look like when the COVID catastrophe ends?
There’s also plenty that addresses or provokes further thought around the cultural reckoning ablaze in the restaurant industry. He touches on culinary appropriation and how America’s chromosomal racism and classism bleeds into the food environment. While considering a deeper synthesis of Korean and Mexican cuisines, he writes, “As an Asian chef, I tend to get away with posing such scenarios more than I would if I were a white guy explaining why his Nashville hot chicken doughnut is actually an homage to Black cooks. Yellow privilege, baby! It’s one of the few perks of being Asian that makes up for, you know, your skin color being referred to as ‘yellow.’”
Chang could also be verbally and psychologically abusive when he was in the kitchen leading cooks; he owns it and does his best to detail his steps to growth without disavowing the consequences of his actions.
We spoke this week about … well, about a whole lot of things.
The interview was edited and condensed for length and clarity; a slew of profanities have been removed.
In the book you express an overall reluctance and allergy to the genre of memoir — in part because, even though you’re candid about your struggles with depression, you still don’t feel like you have all the answers. How does it feel now that the book is out in the world?
I was telling my shrink, it’s almost like I let out a sex tape — something that’s so personal. It’s like, how do I explain this to Hugo [the son he and Grace Seo Chang, his wife, welcomed in March 2019]? I worry about the repercussions. Because of the complexity of the emotions, I’m simultaneously ignoring that it’s even out there and yet I’m doing this — I’m doing press. But I’m detached too. It’s just weird.
If the book was going to be a memoir, I wanted it to be something that was useful for people too.
You give the impression in the book that focusing on usefulness was a gateway into getting down the more painful parts of your life.
Yes. I signed up to do the book 7 ½ years ago, and I didn’t take it in earnest, probably, until Tony [Bourdain] passed [in June 2018]. Before I sort of had some ideas, but I was not comfortable talking about any of this stuff.
You can’t ever predict the climate into which you’re going to release a memoir. A lot rings true to the current reckonings around restaurant culture. You try to reconcile the ways you were abusive in your kitchens with your own self-hatred around your behavior, and the ways you’ve tried to get in front of and mitigate your actions.
I’ve been honest about it from the get-go, I think. And it wasn’t because I was trying to be genuinely altruistic and transparent. I was too busy to craft a PR narrative. I didn’t have a PR person at the beginning. We didn’t have a closed kitchen. So it was like, I’m just gonna be me, mostly warts and all. There was no separation of life and work. [The cooking] saved me, but I also was becoming something I never was before — or maybe it was always there.
While there’s progress, when I think about it via the book, there are moments where I thought I was a better person than I actually was. And that’s been hard, even after the book is done. It’s a feeling of a shame. I’m ashamed that I wasn’t better.
It’s like when my dad died, I didn’t think there would be any revelations. Then it dawned on me that I treated people in my life — employees and family members and friends — like my dad treated me. I love my dad in some ways more than ever, and I frankly hate him in some ways more than ever. I think my dad just wanted forgiveness. And I was not able to give it to him in a movie sort of way.
That’s when it hit me: I have to do the same thing. I can’t just say “forgive me” — for treating people poorly, for yelling, for having this crazy anger. I can rationalize all of it with my mental health, but I have to spend time on their perspectives, and on how my actions have affected them. I’ve talked to some people I’ve hurt over the years and it’s hard. I have to work on getting better and have it be actionable. We could talk about this forever. I just want to be better. And in some ways, I just don’t want to be me.
How do you see a way forward in this time when we’re questioning auteurship — the chef as the lone figurehead — and how to change restaurant culture systemically?
My answer for this could change every day. It’s such a huge topic. There was this assumption for so long that restaurant environments simply were what they were, right? Like, why? Why did we accept it? No one in positions of authority ever questioned the intrinsic rightness — whether it was a magazine, or a newspaper publishing recipes that were clearly racist, you know? People knew that there were problems, but it was so hard that nobody wanted to talk about it.
There was that era that I embodied: Are you willing to sacrifice everything to the service of food? To submit yourself to this methodology, from wearing whites to buying the right knives to finding the right clogs to treating people a certain way?
How in 2020 could anyone say that was a good idea? I remember cutting myself once in a kitchen and not being able to go to the hospital because we were short-staffed.
I worked in restaurants, and I remember when line cooks would have the stomach flu and vomit in buckets they kept next to the stove because they were never given the option to take time off.
I’ve seen that too. I look at how stupid that monoculture was, and I drank the Kool-Aid as much as anybody.
And now? In the midst of COVID-19? The stress levels are just too much right now. Everyone knows the proverbial metaphor for broken cars: We need to overhaul every day, but we keep on just getting a paint job when we need to literally stop the car and fix the whole thing — or we ask, do we junk the whole f— thing and start riding a bike?
It’s hard to resist asking a question like: What do you think is the next evolution of the food industry, or food media, or restaurant culture? But how can anyone know right now?
Here’s the thing: If this industry were really deemed essential, there would be legislation and stimulus bills for restaurants. But there aren’t.
It’s easy to talk about fixes, but they’re almost impossible to implement. To start it all off, if you want to get benefits and health care and higher living wages, it starts with the consumer: Everything needs to be way more expensive. And it’s not gonna happen. McDonald’s ain’t raising its prices. They don’t have to. The independent restaurant industry is battling against publicly traded restaurant groups. It’s a losing battle.
And as an industry, we have to assume responsibility for being this fragile for this moment. I’ll be honest: We just didn’t innovate enough. Too many people were encouraged by the status quo. I tried two delivery-focused businesses before the term “ghost kitchen” was even a thing. Everyone laughed at me! That’s the only thing I really screwed up business-wise, and I knew delivery was going to be something we needed.
You know, the thing about this book, and why it’s so hard to talk about all my deficiencies as a person, is because everything I am as a person is tied to my work. And it brings intense sadness that my life is reduced to restaurants and restaurant culture and innovating and making it different. I’m like, for what? Why am I doing this to myself? I’d rather focus that energy on being a better dad.
And I think that’s where I’m at right now. I’ve got to deprogram myself across the board. Of course I want to be involved, but this mountain needs a new way of climbing it. The old ways just don’t work anymore.
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A different kind of Food Bowl
The Los Angeles Times Food Bowl will celebrate 2020 Restaurant of the Year award winner Orsa & Winston and its chef, Josef Centeno, with a special virtual dining experience at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 26. The ticket price, $175 per person, includes a three-course meal prepared by the restaurant — which can be picked up the day of the event. In addition, participants can tune in to a conversation with Centeno and L.A. Times food writer Jenn Harris. Tickets can be purchased atEventbrite.
Have a question for the critics?
— I wrote an elegy for Koreatown’s Beverly Soon Tofu, which closes tomorrow after 34 years, with some other thoughts on the state of the industry six months into the COVID crisis.
— Lucas Kwan Peterson wrote a series of columns exploring ways to fix the broken restaurant system, the trickiness of recipe ownership and credit for restaurant dishes.
— Patricia Escárcega writes about the phenomenon of free-food community fridges — especially Brenna Burlingame, a USC grad building what may be L.A.’s first community solar fridge.
— What happens when restaurants can’t pay the rent? Jenn Harris investigates the answer.
— Jenn also reports on South Angeles Beverage Company; its owners, Craig Bowers and Samuel Chawinga, are on a mission to expand the craft brew culture in South Los Angeles.
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