David Chang, the chef behind the Momofuku restaurant empire (including three in Toronto: Noodle Bar, Daisho and Shoto), will be in town this week for the second season of TIFF’s Food on Film series, where he’ll be guest speaker at a screening of Ang Lee’s 1994 film Eat Drink Man Woman.
The Globe spoke to Mr. Chang before the screening, where he talked about why he thinks Eat Drink Man Woman is the best food movie ever, how he’s settling into Toronto so far, and why, despite his two Michelin stars, you might easily bump into him at Subway in the middle of the night.
How did you get involved with the TIFF Food on Film series?
I feel the city is most alive when TIFF is happening, so I was honoured when they asked if I’d be a part of TIFF in the spring session. They said I could choose any movie about food, so that was really tough for me … there were just so many to choose from. At the end of the day, [ Eat Drink Man Woman] really was not just influential in my life, but I think probably the best food movie, ever.
Why Eat, Drink, Man, Woman? Tampopo [the 1985 Japanese cult classic about the search for a perfect bowl of ramen] would seem like a more obvious choice for you.
Tampopo’s amazing. I think it’s an absolutely fantastic movie, but I don’t think it captures for me the meaning of food. Food, to me, is always about cooking and eating with those you love and care for. That [Tampopo] was more about the art of cooking and sex of food.
There are so many instances in that movie [Eat Drink Man Woman] where I’m just, like, ‘That’s spot on.’ There’s a scene where Jia-Chien [a character in the film] is making food at her ex-boyfriend’s apartment. There’s a quick shot at his face that shows this sense of awe at all the things she’s cooking. It’s all those things where I think Ang Lee really captured what it’s like both for a cook and the person who’s eating the food as well.
Family meals plays an important part in the movie. Is that something you can relate to?
When I first started to cook, I would cook these elaborate meals, but I rarely cook at home now.
The meals that Chu [the father in the movie] cooks at home, he attacks with a professional attitude. When I first watched them, I was like, ‘Oh man, that’s amazing.’ That’s actually what I would want to do every Sunday when I have a family. For him, like most cooks, communication is poor. We don’t know how to talk to people. Through this elaborate meal, he’s trying to show to his daughters just how much he loves them.
In the movie, there’s tension between the daughter and her father, because he doesn’t want her to be a chef. How did your family react when you decided to be a chef?
My dad was in the [restaurant] business for 30 years, and it’s something that I was fascinated with from an early age, but he would never let me in the kitchen. So it’s something I understand completely If I ever have kids, I’m going to do everything in my power to persuade them from being a cook because it’s just so goddamn hard.
Aside from TIFF, what else are you doing to introduce yourself to the city?
The best thing I can do is try to be the best and focus on the food. When I’m in Toronto, unfortunately, I spend all my time in the restaurant. That’s the best way I feel – and it may be short-sighted – I can integrate Momofuku and myself into the Toronto scene.
I want to make sure when people come in, they have a great meal and say, ‘I’m really glad that this is here in Toronto.’
How much time do you actually spend in the city?
In the last year since we opened, I’ve spent four months in Toronto.
What are your favourite places to eat in Toronto?
I haven’t been to the outer boroughs much – I’ve only been told how awesome the Chinese food is outside. Pretty much all I eat is Chinese food. I’ve been to Asian Legend. I like the green beans and their use of the zai chai [vegetarian] Sichuan double-fermented pickle. It’s delicious. That’s where I go most.
I love the Vietnamese shops next to the Asian grocery [on Spadina, in Chinatown] – there’s two banh mi stores right next to each other, and because I go to that grocery store quite a bit or to the restaurant supply store [Tap Phong], I always get a banh mi and try to see which one is better. Honestly, I can’t tell the difference.
For other restaurants, I eat at Subway a lot [he laughs]. I’m not supposed to say that, but I’m just being honest because it’s the only place that’s open. When I get done with work and it’s one in the morning and I’m staying at the hotel and get out in the area, there’s nothing open. Not necessarily Subway, I might just get something from the deli – quite frankly, aside from Asian Legend, that’s where I eat most of my meals.
Eat Drink Man Woman screens at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Wednesday, April 3. For more information, visit tiff.net.