• Momofuku founder David Chang reveals his inspiration in his memoir Eat a Peach. (Supplied )Source: Supplied
David Chang's new book delves into his Korean roots, unlikely success, and how Asia's democratic food culture inspired his culinary brand Momofuku.
By
Lee Tran Lam

15 Oct 2020 - 11:44 AM  UPDATED 15 Oct 2020 - 2:06 PM

When chef David Chang was growing up, his grandfather took him on sushi-eating excursions in neighbouring towns and his grandmother would offer him sweet potato that she'd cooked in the fireplace.

This was a family that cared about food – but Chang would snack on microwave burritos and mozzarella sticks in his childhood American home in Virginia, and found his mother Sherri's Korean cooking somewhat embarrassing.

Nowadays, the chef has a different perspective. He's since become famous for the bo ssäm at his Momofuku restaurants and other dishes that draw on his Korean heritage. Momofuku's kimchi recipe is, after all, adapted from the version his mother made.

If Chang could time-travel back to his childhood, he'd be more openly grateful for his mother's food. So is there a particular dish he'd revisit with more appreciation?

"No question here: my mum's oxtail soup," Chang tells SBS Food.

The chef explores his childhood and identity in Eat A Peach, the new memoir he's co-written with Gabe Ulla. And as any child of immigrants would recognise, a rejection of your parents' culture is something you're taught by the world around you.

When kids in Chang's neighbourhood came over to play with his in-demand Transformer toy, one of them jeered at his mother's kimchi and (unfortunately) said: "No wonder you people eat dog."

Chang was punished for his Asian roots by people who misunderstood his cultural background – yet one of his own cousins "beat the shit out of me" for not hanging out with the Korean-American schoolkids. So he also lost out by not being weren't "Asian enough".

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Settling on a level of "Asianness" that feels right can be a lifelong challenge – how does Chang deal with it today?

"It was really difficult and still is. I'm still trying to figure out that balance," he says.

It's an ongoing theme throughout Eat A Peach – and his career.

At Momofuku Nishi, he served noodles at the higher prices usually reserved for pasta, because Asian cuisine is usually undervalued compared to Italian food. At his first Fuku restaurant, he framed the walls with problematic depictions of Asian characters (like Mickey Rooney's yellowface caricature of Mr Yunioshiin Breakfast At Tiffany's) as a whipsmart comeback to pop culture's racist stereotypes.

Eat A Peach also covers Chang's unlikely path to becoming a chef and successful restaurateur.

His father Joe banned his children from following his career path of working in restaurants. And when Chang decided to pursue a chef's life, he was a "disaster" as a culinary student. One of his earliest jobs, at New York's Craft, was a simple 45-minute task of dicing mirepoix that ended up taking him all night – and was ultimately unusable. At Cafe Boulud, he "struggled every day" and experienced his first depressive episode of bipolar disorder. The one job he ever wanted ­– at a soba shop in Tokyo – was also the one job Chang was fired from.

"I had to be honest with myself about my skills and constantly work to improve," he says. "My openness to failure, though, may have propelled me forward."

Luck also helped Chang become a mega success. His first restaurant, New York's Momofuku Noodle Bar, sparked a Western craze for ramen that hasn't really flamed out.

He admits it was "a downright bizarre proposition in 2004", to open a ramen joint. But he'd just been in Japan and noticed the blockbuster demand for the broth-filled noodle bowls. Yet it was by total chance that Chang landed in Japan.

"I didn't know what else to do with myself, so I showed up to a postgrad career fair and signed up to teach English in Japan, because the booth was closest to the door," he writes in Eat A Peach.

Like other parts of Asia, Japan has an incredibly democratic food culture: you can eat well at a 7-11 store or train station, and people from all demographics and pay grades will rub shoulders in a ramen joint. It was a big contrast to the fine-dining New York scene that Chang was used to – which he found not relatable and inaccessible, defined by pricey tasting-menu formats and million-dollar fit-outs.

"This might seem simplistic, but I think that enjoying food is so foundational in Asia because they've just been doing it longer than anyone else. Time has helped these cultures realise that all people want to eat good, delicious food – eating good food isn't reserved for the wealthy elite," he says.

He thought this accessible approach could work in America, so he opened Momofuku Noodle Bar. At first, it struggled – and almost shut indefinitely. It only became successful once Chang embraced the Korean food he'd originally rejected (due to shame from white friends). Joaquin "Quino" Baca, his fellow chef, also drew on his Mexican-American roots – so instead of suppressing their identities to blend in, they used their culinary heritage to make Noodle Bar stand out.

The restaurant was genuinely a game-changer, inspiring chefs around the world to open fun-driven places that turned up the volume on their sound system, as well as their flavours and cross-cultural influences. Kewpie mayo and childhood snacks had as much legitimacy as expensive caviar or French-inspired tasting menus.

Dan Hong's Ms G's was an early Australian example of this – with its bubble-tea cocktails and openness to mixing chilli oil with burrata. In fact, Hong's first restaurant Lotus ended up hosting the Sydney launch for Chang's Momofuku cookbook.

Despite the international recognition, Momofuku Noodle Bar was hilariously difficult to run. Before he could open, Chang had to clear the rotting chicken left in the walk-in refrigerator by the previous business. The plumber had to constantly resolve sewage issues, which saw "doodoo water" spewing from one of the sinks. Momofuku Noodle Bar nearly went up in flames many times and Chang once had to wrestle a guy who decked Quino in the restaurant – and almost ended up arrested by the cops himself.

Yet Chang writes in the book: "To this day, whenever I get together with Quino to catch up over dinner or a beer, we always say that the beginning of Momofuku was the best time of our lives."

"The opening of Noodle Bar was an incredible time because we simply had no idea what was possible."

But with all that stress and pain (and the fact $100,000 of his dad's money was on the line), why were the early days of Noodle Bar such a highlight?

"The opening of Noodle Bar was an incredible time because we simply had no idea what was possible," he says. "As difficult as everything may have seemed or even was, we maintained hope that we could figure anything out – and that meant allowing ourselves to question convention and try everything we were told not to."

So Momofuku's stir-fried rice with onions, sesame seeds, and gochujang, for instance, deviates from the traditional boiled Korean style – they're inspired by the Japanese way of crisping rice cakes, a method that his grandfather showed him.

Chang's cultural references (congee, grits) were supercharged with Quino's own (hominy, fried eggs, the tamales his Mexican descendants ate) to create menu items that were new and unexpected. "The result of our conversations was a dish of shrimp and grits that looked like something you'd find in Charleston, but upon the first bite, it only made sense at Noodle Bar," Chang writes in his memoir.

Eat A Peach also focuses on the chef's time in Australia. His first international restaurant was launched in Sydney: Momofuku Seiobo opened in 2011.

It was, partly, a reaction to the Asian restaurants here ­­– places he considers among the best in the world (he famously called Golden Century's XO pipis one of the greatest things you can eat).     

 

Chang says, "The city's restaurants are amazingly vibrant and delicious, so I thought, 'why copy it?' I'm not Australian, and I wanted to add a different viewpoint while still using Australian produce.

"The same ethos extends to the [Momofuku Seiobo] restaurant now, under Paul Carmichael."

The pair first met around two decades ago, at an orphan's Christmas event at New York's Congee Village. Carmichael started working for Chang 10 years ago, at Má Pêche, and took over Momofuku Seiobo in 2015.

"I've always admired Paul even before he worked with us at Momofuku, and we have only become closer friends over the years," Chang says.

"He's one of the best chefs of our industry who is sharing stories through food that Sydney hasn't seen yet, and I'm so glad he's getting the recognition he deserves."

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Carmichael has won multiple awards for his menu at Seiobo, which reflects his Caribbean upbringing and includes inspired versions of dishes from Haiti (kalalou diri), Puerto Rico (mofongo) and Barbados (cou cou).

"Paul can do whatever he wants with the menu. He's the boss there, and I'm the fan who is so lucky to watch what he has and continues to do," says Chang.

 

The memoir is also upfront about Chang's mental illness – which he doesn't sugarcoat or play down. He conveys his bipolar disorder in all its dimensions, its unsettling lows and its emotional power and positives, too. His many decades of grappling with the condition – ignoring it, fighting through it and ultimately deciding to seek treatment – is a moving and unvarnished account of dealing with every aspect of mental illness. 

"I have lost control too many times and frightened too many people over the years," he writes in the book.

"I will never be able to explain how much I hate this, the spiral I enter whenever it happens, or how desperately I work to change it." 

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Eat A Peach covers the extensive ways he's actively tried to rehabilitate his behaviour and ensure his staff feel safe and heard.

"I don't know why they've stuck around me, but I'm so grateful that they did," he says.

Eat A Peach also grapples with the many challenges the restaurant industry currently faces – including the ongoing instability presented by the pandemic. Yet the chef concludes the book with optimism.

"I chose to end the book on a note of hope because hope is the strongest thing any person has. I've constantly reminded myself throughout my life that, no matter how bad things may seem, there's always hope."

Eat A Peach by David Chang and Gabe Ulla (Square Peg/Penguin, $42.99) is out now.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @leetranlam and Instagram @leetranlam.

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