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One On 1: David Chang Keeps Success In Check

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When it comes to New York restaurateur David Chang and his carefully crafted eateries, there's the food, and then there is the name. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.

In Japanese, momofuku means "lucky peach." But chef and restaurateur David Chang says that in English, it's no accident that it sounds like, well, you know.

"I guess that sort of tells you my intentions, never to have any success. You would never open a restaurant called 'momofuku' ever," says Chang.

Welcome to David Chang's miniature restaurant empire in the East Village, all with the momofuku name -- Noodle Bar, Ssam Bar, Bakery and Milk Bar and Ko.

Since 2003, he's won four James Beard awards and has been named Chef of the Year by GQ, Food and Wine and Bon Appetit.
Chang's response usually goes beyond self deprecating. Perhaps it's because he grew up in a strict Korean American home and then learned his craft in the restaurants of New York.

"It's a common phrase in kitchens: 'praise is the absence of criticism.' And growing up with someone like my father, it was very much that way. It was a loving household, but in a very Korean, very hard way," recalls Chang.

Admirers of Chang's work are passionate about his food -- mainly the attention to detail in dishes like his beloved pork buns.

His devotees have to be persistent. The 12 seat restaurant Ko only takes online reservations, and proudly makes no exceptions for the high and mighty.

In Chang's restaurant world, democracy is important -- all customers are the same. Everyone pays, no one gets comped, not even Chang's parents.

"If I make an exception for my parents, that means then everyone there's an exception to the rule, and I don't want exceptions to the rule," says Chang.

Momofuku prides itself as a bare bones operation which takes risks, but early on, the Noodle Bar in its original location was on the verge of falling apart, literally.

"The stairs were breaking. I remember putting my foot through, 'cause we just wore out," recalls Chang.

Chang says that when his first restaurant opened in 2003, his friends from culinary school and previous restaurants were endearing, but skeptical.

"They were like, 'Let's watch this train wreck. It's an open kitchen! He has no idea!" says Chang.

As he recalls in the momofuku cookbook, Chang and his original owner Joaquin Baca were kindred spirits -- frustrated and ticked off at the world.

"I think, nobody believing in us. That was, we always tried to have an underdog mentality," says Chang.

That sentiment, plus an increasingly busy travel and work schedule, the decision to add new restaurants and the internal pressure to succeed apparently resulted in quite a temper.

"I used to be able to work angry for weeks and months and years," says Chang. "It was years, really. And I can't do it anymore."

He says he can't do it anymore because of his health.

A case of shingles a few years ago temporarily affected his hearing, walking and speech. He says it should have changed his approach to his work and life -- it didn't. But last summer he suffered a debilitating series of migraine headaches.

"I had stacks of chips on my shoulders, on my shoulder. And I just felt like, I couldn't run on that fuel anymore," says Chang. "It was all too much. And I think my body just shut down. It did. I couldn't do it. And I'm still learning how to do it. How to sort of enjoy it."

David Chang's hands are looking better these days, since he doesn't spend quite as much time in the kitchen. But he still has the local emergency room on speed dial.

"I've gone to the emergency room at least four times because of cuts," says Chang. "Somebody might hurt themselves or cut themselves, and it's like, 'let's go to Beth Israel. I know exactly where we're going.'"

Chang grew up in Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. And he was raised with a golf club in his hands.

"Close to 365 days a year, I was hitting golf balls, playing golf somewhere," recalls Chang.

Chang says his father dreamed that his son would become a golf champion. But by the time he was 13, he was done.

Chang was the youngest of four children, an American kid being raised by Korean immigrants with Korean values.

"It took a long time for me to sort of have that perspective, that my dad was really grappling with a lot of the difficulties of being a Korean in America. And having American children, for the most part," says Chang.

He attended Trinity College in Connecticut, where officially he studied religion and philosophy.

"I applied myself in terms of having a good time in college," jokes Chang.

After college, he managed to get a job in finance but at the age of 22, Chang was a bit lost.

"This is totally meaningless to me. I wouldn't say I had a midlife crisis but it was something like that, like an existential crisis, like 'What the hell am I doing?'" recalls Chang.

He got a job in Japan, teaching English in school. At night he would eat at noodle shops, and a passion for restaurants was kindled or rekindled. His father had worked his way up from dishwasher to successful restaurant owner. So Chang called his father.

"I tell him, 'Listen, I wanna go to cooking school,' and he was just like, 'Are you out of your mind?'" says Chang.

The grueling work of the restaurant world wasn't exactly the American Dream Chang's father had in mind for his son. But he went to culinary school and worked in various restaurants both in New York and Japan.

He eventually opened momofuku Noodle Bar on First Avenue. In the spirit of being, in Chang's words, young and really stupid, he and his business partner visited a Japanese strip club, hoping to entice patrons to come to the opening of the restaurant.

"If we get very beautiful women, maybe even strippers, to come to our restaurant on a consistent basis, that'll be the draw. Not the food. It'll be the women," recalls Chang.

They came opening night, didn't get comped and didn't come back.

Chang was eventually successful enough to open a second restaurant using the first restaurant and his apartment as collateral for the bank loan.

"It was a necessity that we make it work, or I was really gonna be out on my ass," says Chang.

His interests include the music of the band, tennis great John McEnroe and classic literature.

"James Joyce said this, 'Mistakes are the portals to discovery.' Or 'Errors are the portals to discovery.' And I think that sums it up perfectly," says Chang.

His schedule is still hectic, with travel around the world to promote his momofuku cookbook. But he no longer lives right across the street from the restaurants. And since a health scare last summer due to migraines, David Chang has slowed down, just a bit.

"I think I need some time off. And it's sort of weird to have time off to reflect on things," says Chang.

Beyond the usual self deprecating response, he does appreciate the praise he's received, even though it occasionally offends the sensibilities he learned growing up in a Korean American home and in the kitchens of New York.

But there is a small sense of wonder that reservations at a group of restaurants named momofuku have become some of the hottest seats in New York.

"If we were more qualified, we never would have done this. We woulda tried to do a more traditional restaurant," says Chang. "The fact that we did not know enough was an advantage. We didn't know any better! Who would've done what we have done? The fact that we didn't know anything is actually a good thing."

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