David Chang: the Porcine Prince Respects the Circle of Life and Worries about the Future of Food

Momofuku dynasty owner and chef, David Chang, describes himself as a "lucky son of a bitch," but serendipity cannot explain two James Beard Awards, Food & Wine's Best New Chef Award in 2006, 2007 Chef of the Year Award from both Bon Appetit and GQ, and international acclaim from culinary mavens Alice Waters and Ruth Reichl. A perfectionist and reluctant culinary celebrity, Chang insists upon supporting small, independent farmers against "big tobacco" industry farming.

LM: How do you think the cult of celebrity has affected chefs and restaurants?

In Europe, chefs have been revered for almost fifty years to the point of demi-Gods. In American culture, they're one of the last things that can be marketed to the public as something new and different. To me, there are two types of celebrity: there's good celebrity -- people that are attracted to the food and working and trying to create something great -- and then there's bad celebrity -- those who are working on being a celebrity.

It's a strange phenomenon to think that cooking's cool, but I think Andrew Carmellini said it best when he said cooking used to be considered worse than going into the military. Now it's much more of a white-collar profession but still a blue-collar work environment. How are you going to get people to still do back breaking labor?

The one reason why I got into cooking was because I wasn't good at anything else -- not that I was good at it, but it was considered honest work. It's something you can achieve daily, like knife skills. With cooking, you can get better and you can learn. You can see how good someone is, and they can teach you through an apprenticeship. Then, you learn the whole history of cooking, where certain chefs came from, and where a dish originated. I just want to make sure that that doesn't get lost.

LM: Back to the difference between the old-school chefs and those today, during a talk between you and André Soltner, you said was that the livelihood of restaurants is now dependent upon getting the word out. How do you personally juggle handling the press and running four restaurants?

DC: Chef Thomas Keller was an inspiration to me and many, many young cooks like me. He told us that the role of the new, modern chef is different. Chef Soltner and others laid the groundwork for us, but you have to be more than just a cook now. Before it was about the honesty and purety of the craft of cooking. Now, there are so many more obligations. I'm trying to figure it out myself. How do you run a business -- and this is a business -- in New York? It is difficult.

I feel uncomfortable because I definitely didn't start out to talk to you about being a celebrity chef. I have a lot of respect for the profession, and I feel a tremendous amount of guilt for being in the position that I am because I'm just a lucky son of a bitch.

LM: What goes through your head whenever you go into the kitchen? What are you thinking about?

DC: Just making sure that everything is right. All I see are mistakes.

LM: All you see are mistakes?

DC: Yeah, I'm trying to look for things that are wrong. We have great people at each restaurant that help make it work, so a lot of times I just try to stay out of their way. Whether it's Peter Serpico at Ko, Kevin Pemoulie and Scott Garfinkel at Noodle Bar, Tien Ho at Ssam Bar, or Christina Tosi at Milk Bar, we feel very lucky and fortunate to be in the position to open up restaurants and help people express themselves. I'm trying to learn not to be a control freak in all of the restaurants. It's less about my cooking and me, and more about having ideas and being there when people believe in them.

LM: You said that originally one of the ideas behind the Momofuku Ssam Bar was to help out other colleagues who might not be able to open their own restaurant. Do you think the tradition of chefs having apprentices and helping one another is as prevalent in today's restaurant or food industry?

DC: I feel like I was at the right place, at the right time, and if we can help other people achieve their goals, then that's what we'll do. It's very difficult to get your foot in the door, especially in New York.

LM: In October, when you wrote about the rising cost of food, you anticipated people might call you a hypocrite because you urged Americans to eat more vegetables and grains. What do you think about the future of food?

DC: The biggest challenge at hand is having good food readily available for everybody. Farmers are having a hard time getting by and ask themselves if it's worth it. People need to start questioning, 'Why am I eating this?' and, 'How is this affordable for people?' I'm not an economist, so I'm not the one to say anything about this, but it's going to be very difficult to feed everybody when America doesn't produce food anymore. China ends up being dependent on other countries, and now those developing countries are consumers as well. There are going to be more people in this world and less people producing for them.

LM: You've traveled extensively and worked in other areas, what is your favorite city or region for food?

DC: New York. When you're in Paris -- which is awesome -- what you're going to eat is French food. In Tokyo, all you're going to eat is Japanese food. In New York, you can get the best of everything. In Tokyo, there are many restaurants I want to go to, but unfortunately, I don't have the budget. Los Angeles should be the culinary capital of the world -- they have the most amazing produce and so much access to great, beautiful food. We would kill to have what they have.

LM: If you had one last meal, what restaurant would you go to?

DC: I would go to Restaurant Troisgros in Royanne, France because I've never been there.

LM: Any innovative chefs who you enjoy learning from?

DC: I think that Wylie Dufresne at wd-50 is America's most under-appreciated chef. I learn from him. New Yorkers don't know how lucky we are to have someone like Wylie because he was the first person to bring a lot of what was happening in Europe to America and he doesn't make concessions. His restaurant is probably the most important restaurant in New York -- and allowed so many restaurants to do whatever they wanted to do -- because he created a whole new genre of cooking. If you look very closely at his food, it's very, very unique, and even his techniques are not similar to anyone else. His food is influenced by Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal, but while a lot of people are first generation acolytes, Wylie is six generations removed. He's internalized it so it's his. It's New York.

LM: You highlight that buy sustainably-raised meat from small distributors such as EcoFriendly Foods. Why do you personally choose to support them?

DC: For us, it's: do you want to do business with good people? We're always going to support the independent, small farmer. Always. Big commodity, confined pork is a lot like big tobacco. Food needs to be more expensive -- that's the dilemma I'm facing. I don't know if we have an influence or not, but we're a small business and we'd like to support small people. Independent farmers need more help.

You always try to get the best ingredient. When you meet the farmers and go to the farms, you see that they treat their animals like they're family. It makes a big difference. It's truly a labor of love. That's why we try to create relationships with people like Bev [Eggleston, founder of EcoFriendly Foods] so we can best honor the whole process of that.

You're taking the life of an animal. You want to make sure that you don't fuck it up. I learned that you respect the whole circle of life. Not only did someone raise that animal and care for it, but it served a purpose and it died. That's why I try to get all the cooks to go to the farms and choose their pigs or chickens to see that they didn't grow on a tree. You're reminded that there's a process behind that piece of meat underneath that Styrofoam and plastic wrap. The more that we're involved in that, the more that we're going to question where it came from.