A light rain fell on Lexington last night as a crowd of the elderly, the semi-elderly and the preternaturally old gathered in anticipation of a conversation between David Chang and Anthony Bourdain, "two of our most daring and innovative celebrity chefs." Anticipation was in the air. Before showtime at Ottomanelli Brothers Grill, across the street, a couple ordered a cheeseburger — medium well — and eagerly told the waitress, "We're going to see Anthony Bourdain?you know, the food guy." At another table, a vivacious elderly woman with large bauble earrings raised her voice, "I said, 'Sharon! Sharon! Why move to Larchmont?"
Inside 92Y, a strange scene. In a small room near the bathroom, a Tai Chi class swum through the air slowly. Inside the auditorium, the sold-out crowd filtered in, ready to be entertained. At 8:04pm, the moderator, Budd Mishkin, took to the dais. Mishkin, the host of TV show One on 1 with Budd Mishkin, appeared in black broadcaster suit with gray broadcaster hair and honey broadcaster voice. He spouted a bunch of introductory fluff, something between a Borscht Belt routine and Bob Barker. "When I walked through the newsroom and said I was interviewing David Chang, I got this look. It was a beautiful look. It was a happy look."
And, "I like to think the success of Chang's new restaurant, Má Pêche, isn't just because my grandmother's name in Yiddish is Peche." Rest assured, Buddy boy, it's probably not just because of that though I'm sure it helps. Then he primed the crowd, "Are you guys ready to meet two New York guys? Because they are guys at their heart. Please welcome the 'Mick and Keith' of the culinary world."
Bourdain came on first, a tall tan motherfucker wearing a blazer, jeans and tan cowboy boots. He gripped a 92Y mug. Chang — shorter, squatter and wearing Jack Purcell sneakers —followed. He too held a mug. Bourdain, house stage right and directly under a gilt writing in the proscenium arch "Isaiah," stretched out in his chair, comfortable and expansive. Chang, under the name Moses, slouched like a teenager in his guidance counselor's office there to discuss a cloudy and unkempt future. It wasn't far from the truth. They weren't Mick and Keith as much as George and John, one man shy, awkward and complex, the other ensnared in his own mythology.
I doubt whether most in the audience had heard of David Chang. Perhaps they had read the reviews of Momofuku Ssam and Momofuku Ko when Frank Bruni awarded both three stars in the New York Times, but definitely not when Peter Meehan wrote about Ssam back in a 2005 "$25 and Under" piece. Perhaps they had read Larissa Farquhar's Chang profile in the New Yorker. But I doubt they had ever ventured into his backless loud and downtown restaurants or braved the internet to score a Ko reservation or, despite Peche Mishkin, even ventured as far south as Ma Peche. For them, David Chang was an unknown, both his food and, because thus far he has largely eschewed television, his personality. Bourdain, on the hand, is the beloved host of No Reservations, an outspoken golden tongued profane jester. He's good for a laugh, at any rate.
The Opening Question
Mishkin: When did you first meet each other?
Chang: I can't remember.
Bourdain: My wife took me to Ssam for my birthday. I had a holy shit meal. It was a good slap in the face.
The audience goes wild. The man next to me repeats, "Holy shit meal!" chuckling incredulously. The laughter turns to clapping. Chang looks bewildered, like he's caught on some sort of Terry Gilliam game show. Bourdain looks comfortable and Mishkin is absolutely glowing. Much of the night proceeded thusly. Mishkin clearly sees his role as lobbing softballs Bourdain's way but he's not quite clear how to deal with Chang, who is neither eloquent nor funny — at least not tonight — and whose answers defy one-line zings, are rarely light-hearted and allude to an untidy narrative.
When asked about the difference opening a restaurant now and when he opened Noodle Bar, Chang talks about how he can't afford to be reckless, how he has "well over 400 employees" who rely on him, how "opening a restaurant in the East Village is a constant fight against the building." These are the worries of a restaurateur. Bourdain, instead, quotes Kennedy, "As JFK once said, 'To have a child is to give fate a hostage.' It's the same with restaurants." Laughter turns to clapping.
Mishkin asks whether Tony is different around the chefs he idolizes. "Anyone who works in the kitchen is on the side of angels. But if I'm across the table from Joël Robuchon, bladder control is an issue." Laugh clap. Chang, instead, speaks about the early days of Noodle bar, when fellow chefs would stop by not to eat but because it was funny to see him try to be a business man. "One thing about cooks is that what kept them in the kitchen in their ability to make fun of each other and talk shit." The audience shifts in their seats. "Why would it be fun to make fun of each other?" they wonder. "Why is he so profane?" That's the way it was: When Bourdain curses, they go wild. When Chang curses — and Chang uses cusses less like punchlines and more just like punches — the audience is unsure of how to react.
Chang is either unable or unwilling to indulge them. He's unrepentant about making his parents pay for their meal at Ko. "They missed friends and family," he says. But Mishkin nevertheless tries valiantly to craft a feel-good father-son approval narrative. "David, you said once that in your kitchen praise is the absence of criticism. Is that what your household was like growing up?" Chang says indeed it was. "David, your father worked in restaurants, what was his reaction when you told him you were going into the business?" "He was unhappy about it but saw that I was passionate." "And now," asks Mishkin, "After your parents came in, was there a moment when they said, 'David, we get it. We get why you're doing this.'?" To which the proper response would have been a heartwarming anecdote like: "Yes, my father pulled me aside and put his arm around me and you know what he said? He said, 'You make some fuckin' great noodles, son." But to which Chang instead responds wistfully, "Yes, they tell me not to work so hard. I guess that counts."
Bourdain, for his part, is actually not full of bullshit, not even a little bit. He curses and he's funny and he's often hyperbolic but he's a smart guy and one gets the sense, he's a guy trying to break ready-made notions of him. He talks about the rigidity of the travel show format. "Everything about travel shows makes you lie. Every time you say, 'We'll be right back,' it's false." He talks about the next season of No Reservations, "We're going to Congo, Kurdistan, Cuba, and Haiti. We've been working with these interesting security guys, ex-SAS guys. They're smart. They read poetry. The places aren't dangerous. They're interesting moral gray areas." But the people aren't there to hear Tony Bourdain be serious. They want a crack-up, a guy they see every night on the television set.
Ushers in black come to collect questions from the audience, little sparks written on note cards meant to light a fire around which Bourdain (and Chang, I suppose) can riff. "Chef Chang," Mishkin, "Chef!" He said pointing to the card, as if that were in someway in appropriate or a high-falutin' joke. "Chef! What do you feel about expanding the empire to places like Vegas? P.S. Please don't do it," Laughter and those who think they know Chang brace for a scathing diatribe. "Look," he says, "I'm not going to say no to an opportunity that can make money for me and my people. We have cooks and chefs in my restaurant who now have families. We need to be able to support them. At a certain point, a business has to keep growing to survive."
Someone asks, "Does Eataly fill you dread and loathing?" To which Bourdain replies, "It's the greatest thing that ever happened in the history of the universe. And they're delivering in a month, Holy Fuck!" Laughter. About hamburgers: "I call it the staff mealification of America," says Chang. "I love hamburgers, everyone knows they're delicious but if everyone makes hamburgers it further marginalizes chef-driven restaurants." Bourdain: "I would like some people to go to jail for how we make ground beef in America." Laughter, clapping. The man besides me chuckles. "What a cut up!" "Jail!" This time, even Bourdain looks confused at the reaction. "I'm serious," he says against the waves of laughter.
The next question was for Bourdain: "Are you a good dancer and if so, dance." To his credit, Bourdain doesn't take the bait. There's a difference between a monkey dancing with his monkey friends in a forest and a monkey dancing on demand. The night ends late — past the bedtime of most of the audience — but a crush of them line up with Discover card in hand to buy Tony's books. As we shuffle out, an elderly woman asked her friend, "Wait, I don't get it. David Chang is a vegetarian?" "I don't know," responds her companion, "but isn't Anthony Bourdain a riot?"