Last Sunday afternoon, some of the world’s biggest names in food – a ragtag group of tattooed and bearded hipster chef-types, including David McMillan and Fred Morin of Montreal’s Joe Beef, and food writer Peter Meehan – sat gnawing on chicken fingers and wings in a VIP booth at Real Sports Bar and Grill in downtown Toronto.
As techno music blared from the speakers in the behemoth sports bar attached to the Air Canada Centre, the group looked alternately amused and seduced by the hundreds of screens and lights flashing around them. Meanwhile, their host, Momofuku owner David Chang, sat next to them, beside himself with glee.
Mr. Chang – a James Beard-award-winning chef with a dozen Momofuku-brand restaurants and bars around the world, including three in Toronto – really, really likes Real Sports.
“The wings are really good. And people love it,” he said happily. “I’m over going against popular opinion. What people want to eat and what they like – that, to me, is so much more meaningful.”
Mr. Chang and the rest of the group are in town as the main attractions at the Terroir Symposium, the influential food conference. Over the past decade of his career, the Momofuku chef’s contrarian take on fine dining has earned him the titles of enfant terrible and critical darling of the culinary world. But, while his neuroses and perfectionist tendencies have been well-documented, including admissions of punching holes into his restaurant walls, at 36, he appears to have mellowed.
When asked by The Globe and Mail to choose three favourite Toronto spots for a tour with some of his fellow Terroir guests – also including Margot Henderson from the U.K.’s Rochelle Canteen – he chose Real Sports as the third and final stop in the five-hour tour.
Tucked away in a Real Sports leather banquette, Mr. Morin joked that Mr. Chang – who built his empire not only on pork buns and ramen, but also Michelin-starred fine-dining restaurants – should think about opening a Momofuku sports bar.
“Forget about everything you’ve done,” he said. “This is what you’ll be remembered for – crossing [New York fine-dining restaurant] Le Bernardin with a sports bar. It’s your next biggest achievement.”
Mr. McMillan cut him off. “[Momofuku] Má pêche: The Sports Bar,” he said, laughing. “[Momofuku] Noodle Bar and Sports.”
The Korean-American Mr. Chang has spoken frequently about his obsession with Chinese food, which is why our tour that Sunday afternoon began with dim sum at Crown Princess Fine Dining, a Cantonese restaurant downtown.
Mr. McMillan and Mr. Morin, the bearded Joe Beef chefs known as part of Montreal’s “haute lumberjack” movement, arrived first and marvelled at the opulent décor – giant chandeliers next to gold crown moulding, and chairs wrapped in deep purple velour.
“You could wash this place down with a hose,” said Mr. McMillan, pointing at the marble walls and pillars.
Mr. Chang and Mr. Meehan arrived next, and soon, wooden steamers of glistening siu mai, and vegetables wrapped in bean curd pile up at the table. Later, a dozen scallops arrived, steamed on the half-shell and topped with XO sauce.
“I haven’t seen you guys in like, three years?” said Mr. Chang to the Montreal chefs between mouthfuls.
“That’s because we avoid it,” Mr. Morin replied.
They’ve known each other ever since Mr. Chang first visited Montreal several years ago during a period of doctor-ordered rest, and pronounced Joe Beef his favourite restaurant.
Mr. Meehan – who is now an editor at Lucky Peach, Mr. Chang’s food journal – met the Montreal chefs shortly after, while working on a travel story about the city. On one of his first visits to Joe Beef, he said, he woke up after a particularly intoxicated night and found himself lying in the middle of the restaurant, wrapped in a Pendleton blanket with Mr. Morin sitting just a few feet from him.
“I went, ‘Oh my gosh, Fred, I fell asleep in your restaurant.’ And Fred said, ‘It’s okay, Peter. You can judge a restaurant by the way it treats drunks.’”
Mr. Morin laughed. “People were taking selfies with you. Like Weekend at Bernie’s.”
The Joe Beef chefs were having second thoughts about Terroir – especially because they made headlines recently for pulling out of the MAD Symposium in Copenhagen, saying it was to protest how celebrity-obsessed food has become. Though he admits now that those comments were made after a few too many drinks, Mr. McMillan said the general sentiment still stands.
“Honestly, coming here for Terroir was an error on my part,” he said. It’s nothing against Terroir specifically, he added. “Fred and I just have nothing to say to advance popular thought about anything.”
Mr. Morin chimed in. “To know that people pay vast amounts of money [tickets cost $229 each] – we just don’t think we’re worth that. I don’t think anybody is.”
But Mr. Chang is more positive. He’s the keynote speaker, and plans on speaking about Toronto’s food scene, which he finds himself equally enamoured and frustrated by. He loves the city’s ethnic diversity –– but doesn’t understand why it’s yet to produce any truly world-class restaurants.
“I’m not trying to piss people off, but why is it not elevated to the level where – people should be in awe of Toronto dining,” he said, comparing it with the Toronto Maple Leafs and noting all the resources both have – including money infrastructure, and talent.
Mr. McMillan cut him off. “The quintessential, great Toronto restaurant? That’s always been an enigma. No kid from here has ever been proud enough to say ‘I’m going to… open a restaurant and do appetizer, main course, dessert, the food of Ontario, the end,’” he said.
“It’s always a guy who wants to be a little bit Nordic. It’s always a guy who wants to be a little bit Spanish.”
Partway through dim sum, Ms. Henderson, the chef at Rochelle Canteen in the U.K., arrived late from another luncheon. She and Mr. Chang met through her husband, Fergus Henderson, who founded the influential St. John Restaurant in the U.K. – and who Mr. Chang refers to as one of his “uncles.”
When asked about her recent, buzzed-about speech about the difference between male and female chefs – and why more celebrated chefs aren’t women – Ms. Henderson demurred.
“Massive generalizations,” she said, laughing and rolling her eyes.
”I just think overall, women cook in a more relaxed, gentle way – but so do a lot of men,” she said. “But with men, there’s quite a lot of tweezers, fiddly-food going on….It’s quite macho. Cooking at the moment right now is very macho.”
“Men are stupid, basically,” Mr. Chang said.
“It’s because guys want to get laid,” said Mr. Morin. “They’re acting like teenagers – making flower bouquets, trying to be impressive to make a large statement to get to a sexual goal. It’s like buying pointy leather, polka dot shoes.”
Later, Mr. Morin laments the loss of off-colour jokes in the kitchen.
“It’s a white-collar profession now,” said Mr. Chang, nodding his head.
“It’s true,” said Mr. Morin. “People talk about jazz music now. They listen to NPR.”
Our second stop was Oyster Boy, the West Queen West institution, which Mr. Chang chose specifically for the chefs from Montreal.
Mr. McMillan moved quickly down the menu, ordering up four dozen right off the top – asking that three dozen of them be east coast oysters.
Ever since he was a kid visiting Toronto, he’s always loved the city because he equated it with oysters, he said. “For years, before there were really good oysters even in New York City and Montreal – 10, 15 years ago – the place to eat cold water oysters was Toronto,” he said.
“The soul of Toronto somehow... for me has always been the Maritime diaspora. The Maritimers who are educated, can’t find work, and have moved to Toronto. It’s almost a Maritimer’s lament city,” he said.
By the end of the second meal, Mr. Chang’s eyes are starting to look glazed, and he sounds doubtful about making it to the final stop at Real Sports.
“We don’t have to eat when we get there. You can just have a drink,” I said.
He tipped his chin and let out a laugh. “That’s definitely not going to happen.”
We’d lost Mrs. Henderson to jet lag by the time we arrived at the giant sports bar (“I’m just a crumpled old lady,” she said before disappearing into a cab), and Mr. Chang, who’d arrived ahead of us, was already glued to a basketball game on the 39-foot TV screen.
He was quiet, except to say “I’m really glad we ended up coming.”
A waitress approached and asked if the rest of the group would like to sit in the VIP area, and Mr. Chang – who has more than once landed on TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people, and counts among his friends celebrities like Martha Stewart – looked genuinely thrilled to accept.
“Holy shit, this is amazing,” he said, a delighted grin spreading across his face when he saw the personal beer tap at our booth. He reached his hand out, and stroked the tap a few times. “This is amazing,” he repeated.
Despite not being hungry, he ordered a round of Cajun and peewee-spiced wings for the table, plus chicken fingers with ranch sauce on the side. When they arrived, both Mr. McMillan and Mr. Morin were effusive in their praise.
“We don’t have any wings like this in Montreal,” Mr. McMillan said. “They fry the wings with no batter.”
Mr. Chang turned to Mr. Meehan. “What do you think?”
Mr. Meehan – the quiet, bespectacled former New York Times food critic – looked around him and thought for a few moments. “The size of the screens is pretty compelling,” he said.
The conversation turned again to Terroir, and the cocktail party they were due to attend at the Four Seasons.
“I brought a suit,” Mr. Chang said, sounding annoyed. “My office told me I had to wear a suit.”
“You’re the lead guy. Aren’t you the lead guy? Isn’t it Dave Chang’s fucking Terroir?” asked Mr. McMillan.
“I’m not the guy.”
A few hours later, images of a smiling Mr. Chang at the cocktail party appear on Instagram and across social media.
He’s not wearing a suit.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS
On opening all three Toronto Momofukus, Noodle bar, Shoto and Daisho, at roughly the same time
Chang: That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I don’t look at mistakes the same way anymore. I’m just – they happen, they inform me to how things are now. Honestly, the crew is so good right now, and what we’re doing is better than it’s ever been. We’ve made a lot of mistakes, but if we make the same mistake twice, I’ll be pissed.
What surprised him most about Toronto
Chang: How expensive alcohol is here. One thing I see a lot is people saying ‘maybe we shouldn’t order that second bottle of wine.’ That sucks, when you’re immediately thinking about the bill.
The winter changes everything too. The winter kills us [at Momofuku on University Avenue], because we’re downtown and not connected to the underground. I didn’t anticipate patios. I didn’t realize that, no matter what kind of restaurant it is, as long as you have an outside space, people will flock to it. Because the winter is so unbelievable. People are pissed.
On being a “celebrity chef” and public speaking
McMillan: For both Fred and I, one of the reasons we ended up in the kitchen is perhaps a fear of public speaking. So to end up being a chef with a minor degree of success, and all of a sudden to discover that we have to speak publicly again...
Fred and I are very private in our own lives, and both of us are actually very quiet people. But as of 6:00, we put on our apron. It’s like our apron is like our weird actor’s stupid hat. I feel more comfortable somehow. We’ve practiced being at Joe Beef every night for ten years. For the first year of the restaurant, we’d be like ‘Why are they looking at us? What do those people want? Why do they want to say hello? Why can’t they just eat and go away afterwards?’
On Chinese restaurants
Chang: I am infatuated with not just Chinese food, but service. It’s brilliant. Once you take Chinese service out of the context of Chinese culture, it doesn’t make sense. But everyone shares, everyone eats the same food, everyone has the same experience, and it’s efficient. Eat well, fast.
On the obsession with perfection
McMillan:That’s the nature of chefdom. You’re driving through a neighbourhood, you’re going ‘The architects ruined this neighbourhood.’ Or in a convenience store: ‘They should put hot dogs because they’d sell a lot of hot dogs’. Or ‘You know what’s missing here? Lemonade.’
Chang: We’re just highly critical of everything. Everything needs to be better all the time. That’s how I work, though. Nobody ever told me I was doing a good job. Even with my dad, it was, ‘You’re doing a shitty job.’
On unobtainable goals
Chang: My goal is to be able to pay my employees $25 to $30 an hour. Not required by government, nothing like that. It’s what a cook needs to live on. If we’re going to grow, a part of that expansion is to literally make things better. That makes me happy. We’re far away, though. These are almost unobtainable goals.
Chang: Yeah, I fail all the time. What’s the point of reaching all your goals in your lifetime? Shouldn’t you try to struggle and fail in that process?
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Follow Ann Hui on Twitter: