Strolling into a West Seattle restaurant on a dreary November afternoon, the man himself enters nearly unnoticed. Revered in writeups and showered with culinary awards, Chef David Chang remains a humble cook, without entourage, without fanfare, and generally in a friendly state. All despite his rock star status.
Local journalists and food writers trail in one by one for the media reception, while glasses of prosecco and lychee are passed about. Chang shifts uneasily from one foot to the other in his black Converse, the glass of water in his hand a possible indication of a late night. He looks much the way he did when I first met him at the 2009 Aspen Food & Wine Classic Best New Chefs dinner, save for the absent chef coat. Focused, but slightly apprehensive. Gracious, but hesitant. I introduce myself before the talk begins, prodding him as to what he’ll discuss this afternoon.
“I don’t know,” he confesses with ardor.
As we take our seats, Chang still seems anxious in the opening moments of silence, until questions begin from the crowd. With Spring Hill owner/chef Mark Fuller observing from the sidelines, curiosities are tossed at the guest chef left and right, ranging from employee count (nearly 300) to menu adaptation. He talks proudly of his kitchen’s integrity and evolution.
“There is always a way to make something better,” he offers. “When people leave, I want them to think, ‘Good lord, what the f*ck just happened?’ If we’re just meeting expectations, we’re failing.”
Admired by the culinary crowd for his candor and his language as much as he is for his food, the chef eases into a discussion as plates begin to flow from the restaurant’s kitchen. The attentive staff delivers delish bites of kimchi apple salad to each table, followed by savory pork buns, of which Chang has become most famous. Initially an “11th hour addition” to his Ssäm Bar menu, the buns have become a foodie cult favorite, and are featured prominently in his first cookbook. According to the chef, nearly 1000 homemade steamed buns are devoured at his restaurants each day.
Off to a rocky start in San Francisco, Chang’s book tour for the newly released Momofuku cookbook will take him across the country. Penned by New York Times writer Peter Meehan, the cookbook recipes are arranged by restaurant – Momofuku Noodle Bar, Ssäm Bar, and Ko – the three locations in operation during publication. (Chang later opened Milk Bar.) Chapters begin with a bit about each location’s development and the chef’s candid thoughts on everything from finances to staffing.
Unsurprisingly, he’s also straightforward about health issues that plagued him during the building of his second restaurant, Ssäm Bar. With stress at an all-time high for the award winner, his health took a dive, and he retreated across the Canadian border for a week. Diagnosed with shingles, he was out of commission for months during the development of his third location, Ko.
When a fellow media attendee inquires as to whether he still makes an appearance on the line, the chef explains, with a distinct note of sadness, that he’s rarely in the kitchen these days.
“I don’t cook in the restaurants anymore,” he says, looking briefly out the window, “I don’t know how to cook and let service not affect my health.”
“One of the best things about being a line cook is that you know when you’ve had a good day – you do your mise en place, you have a great service, catch a few beers with the crew afterwards. In not cooking, it’s hard to know when you really have a good day.”
As the event comes to a close, Chang and I settle in to a nearby booth for our Q&A session.
Q: How has all the Chang attention changed you?
A: It makes it strange. It makes things not as fun as they once were. It should be fun, but it’s not. My whole world has changed. I’ve tried not to believe that it’s the case, but it is.
Q: What really inspired you to become a chef?
A: I wanted to do something that was honest, something that I enjoyed. Cooking at that time, back in ’99, was always something that I wanted to do. I didn’t know if it was the perfect answer, but it was something I wanted to take as far as possible.
Q: What’s really surprised you about running a restaurant?
A: It’s so f*cking hard. It’s so much harder than you would ever think.
Q: Who are the chefs you admire?
A: Wylie [Dufresne]. Ferran Adria – El Bulli is all that and then some. Pascal Barbot. Jeremy Fox.
Q: What’s your method when you’re developing a new dish? Are there any guidelines you follow?
A: It has to have technique, it has to be delicious, and it has to be smart. It can’t be a solo effort – it always has to go through the team.
Q: I know that many chefs have difficulty balancing their personal and professional lives. Are there plans for settling down and having a family?
A: Certainly. It is certainly a strain, and certainly a goal, and I don’t know how to balance it out. I’ll find a way, but I don’t know exactly when. Most of my friends are married or with child or on their second child, so it makes it strange that I’m not there yet. Do I want a family? Do I want all that? Yes. But I want to make sure I have certain things settled before that happens.
Q: What can you tell us about your new restaurant, Má Pêche?
A: The chef there will be Chef Tien Ho, and I’ll just be a guy in the background. This one is our biggest projects to date, so I’m trying not to freak out. All of our restaurants are tiny – this one is literally…big. It’s going to open in stages.
Q: Will it have the same sort of reservation system as Ko?
A: (laugh) I don’t know. We’re just going to let it ride and see what happens.