David Chang opened Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004 in Manhattan’s East Village serving up what were then considered novelty dishes, such as ramen and pork buns. Business was slow for the first few months, but the hard-driving perfectionist kept tweaking the menu until his Americanized version of the traditional Japanese noodle became talk of the town. Chang has since made Momofuku a global culinary brand. He has opened 16 restaurants (two have closed due to the pandemic), launched a much-loved food magazine (Lucky Peach), written a best-selling cookbook, and hosts a hit podcast (The Dave Chang Show) and Netflix documentary series (Ugly Delicious). Now he’s written a memoir, Eat a Peach, co-authored with Gabe Ulla, which details his complicated relationship with his father, his struggles with mental health and the joys (and worries) of becoming a new dad. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Chang talks about his admiration for Canada, how 15 years of therapy have helped him deal with suicidal thoughts, and how the coronavirus has made him even more of a “neurotic mess.”
You’ve accomplished so much in your career. What drives you?
I’m constantly in this mode – I have to provide, I have to provide – but the pandemic has forced me to re-evaluate a lot of things. Like how much do we sacrifice for success? I’m trying to learn to appreciate what I have and not what I don’t have. To be a really good dad I have to remind myself of that. My dad’s only measure of success was financial success and I would have given all that up just to have had a better father. My version of success can’t be the same that was instilled in me by my father, who recently passed. I have to break the cycle.
Has the process of writing this book helped you to clarify some of that?
I started [this project] in earnest three years ago and so much has changed since then. Hell, so much has changed since May when this book was supposed to come out. I’m just trying to keep up with the changes. [Writing] isn’t easy. In some ways it was therapeutic, and in some ways, it was extremely painful. It has become more evident to me that I seek out mental pain for a variety of reasons. I seek it because it’s never let me down. It drives me. But in so many ways that’s a cop out, because focusing on it meant I didn’t have to deal with the problems at hand.
The pandemic has forced us all to re-evaluate things, what’s your current state of mind?
I’m at war with myself all the time, which is good and bad. One of the things that drove me to work so hard is that I never wanted to squander my opportunities. I’m at a place now where I’m asking myself have I done more good than bad? Have I added more value than not? It’s one of things I’m working with my psychiatrist on. If I asked people they’d say, “You [screwed] up Dave, but you’ve done more good than bad.” My mind says I’ve done more bad than good. It’s my responsibility to change those odds. I think it’s pretty clear I’m a neurotic mess.
You write that the kitchen saved your life, how so?
Everything is a paradox in my life. [The kitchen] saved me and it destroyed me. My life was rudderless for many years. The kitchen culture – at least the one that really resonated with me – was based on a military system. It gave me structure and order. But like so much in my life I took it to extremes and I pushed myself and others relentlessly. I grew up with a dominating figure in my life and I learned to respond in kind. My dad didn’t know any better, but if you look at it he was abusive as hell. I spent my life trying not to be my dad and hating him in so many ways. [But] my siblings say, I’m just like dad, which shows the distortion in what I choose to believe. Writing this book has been a reckoning of so many things. It forced me to see the real me based on the perspective of others.
Has the experience of fatherhood softened you?
Having kids makes you less selfish. All we want for our kids is happiness. Everything – my business, my depression – all of that is secondary now to his happiness, and me trying harder to be a good person. My depression made me selfish. I was just focused on me. What’s been brought into focus the past few months is the best version of me is when I’m not in service of me. It’s when I’m in service of others. Whenever I cause problems it’s because of blind ambition and my inability to see anybody else but myself.
You’ve spoken about how the pandemic has left the restaurant industry in crisis. How is your business faring through all of this?
I don’t know if Momofuku is going to make it. A lot of people I love are suffering and I’m really mad I wasn’t able to provide for them in their time of need. Of course, I want Momofuku to survive, to be best in class, however if we’re hurting it’s not difficult to imagine the suffering of the small mom and pop shops. It’s ugly times. If I was a Canadian citizen maybe I wouldn’t be so negative on the future. Canada’s a more equitable place to live than the U.S. and people are generally happier. America is the best of the world and the worst simultaneously. That’s not to say Canada doesn’t have its own issues, it does, but it’s just a more sensible country. If Trump wins the election I don’t know what I’m going to do.
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