The famously fiery chef has earned raves for his creative cuisine and courted controversy with his strong opinions. In 2012, David Chang brought the Momofuku brand north of the border with a multirestaurant concept in the Shangri-La Hotel in Toronto. It hasn’t all been smooth, but making mistakes, says Chang, is part of the process. Here, he shares some of the secrets to his success (and how having a hot-pepper temper is a young man’s game)
Small details (and giant coats)
My dad would always say, make mistakes, just don’t make the same one twice. I take that to mean be fearless, don’t be a wallflower, believe in yourself and know that the only way to learn is by screwing up and making mistakes and then observing and reflecting upon your actions. I still make mistakes all the time. One of the things that became pretty infamous in Toronto was the damn coat check [When Momofuku Noodle Bar opened in 2012, there was no coat check, which didn’t sit well with the Canada Goose crowd]. People thought that was me being cheeky, but it wasn’t. I had never experienced cold like that – I had no idea and then when we realized we didn’t have the space, we didn’t know how to manage it. In America, people just sit on their coats. I guess I didn’t realize how big Canadian winter jackets are. That was a lesson in how every restaurant has its own requirements. It’s not a problem, but it takes time to learn those things. You make those mistakes, and then you fix them.
Rules are made to be revamped
As a cook you learn so many rules and techniques and they are all very important and valuable, but then there is the other side, which is that if you don’t question what is “true” you might end up being wrong. Almost everything in the culinary world has turned out to be wrong at some time – big pot blanching, searing your steak, a lot of things that we’ve held to be true. Almost all of the “bad” ideas may be a good idea. One of the things – and this is a touchy subject – but this notion that MSG is bad for you. I know – people get so upset and of course everyone is entitled to their opinions. I’m not going say anything [one way or another], but I do encourage people to find out what happened. Why is MSG so vilified? Keep an open mind and learn. That applies to so many accepted principals.
Walking is the new drinking
I don’t have a lot of patterns in my life, but I do try to walk to work every morning. Having that time to myself, listening to my music – it allows me to start the day, to think about what’s happening and what I want to do. Every day is different, so I like to have that time just to think about what’s ahead of me and if I don’t get it, that definitely has an impact. Spending time alone has become important to me as I’ve gotten older. My rituals have changed: I used to go out drinking a lot, but now that’s boring. When you’re a younger cook, going out to a bar every night is a certainty – you’re decompressing and trying to carve out some kind of a social life at 3 o’clock in the morning.
Having to almost go out of business is a terrible feeling, the worst. I’ve never had to do that, but I’ve walked a fine line. When I opened Ssäm Bar [an Asian burrito restaurant in New York] in 2006 it was a case of basically any mistake you could make, we made it – it wasn’t planned out properly, wasn’t executed as well as it should have been. I had everything leveraged and it was really stressful, but when you’re in that position, all of a sudden there is this unexpected freedom because you feel like there is nothing to lose. That was our feeling in the kitchen, and because of that, the cooking started to change. If we were going to go out of business, it was going to be on our terms and then through those mistakes you eventually start to see what was right and what works. Today, Momofuku [is a much larger operation] and once you start to have a body of parts, and all of these people who you’re responsible for, you can’t be so reckless. I’m glad that I was able to be stupid and just extraordinarily dumb when I was young. Today, the challenges are finding that balance between running a disciplined, totally controlled operation and still embracing those principles of freedom, anarchy.
Fits are for kids
I’ve been criticized for my temper and I’ve been critical of myself. It can be pretty bad, though it’s gotten a lot better. When you’re younger, you don’t know any better and you’re just sort of shooting from the hip. I would have done anything to make the food great – that meant everything to me and I wanted everyone else to feel that way. Now I see that there are other ways to achieve that. I think that’s the case for a lot of people who were once hot peppers in the kitchen. It’s not that you mellow out, it’s just that you realize that you’ve already gone down that road and maybe there’s a better one. Besides, having a temper is a young man’s game. I could be angry all day long and I just can’t do that any more.
This interview has been condensed and edited by Courtney Shea.