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Peter Meehan on Momofuku, David Chang's Test Lab, and the Importance of Cookbooks

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Peter Meehan, with baby on board
Peter Meehan, with baby on board
Photo: Joshua David Stein

Peter Meehan, a more cheerful and younger version of Elvis Costello, was the $25 and Under critic at the New York Times during the heyday of the Dining section. He's also the co-author of two exciting recently published cookbooks, the Momofuku Cookbook (buy at Amazon) and The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion and Cooking Manual (buy at Amazon). He also writes The Moment's Grassfed column, which is for stoners what Tipsy Diaries is for boozehounds. I spoke with Meehan on Labor Day. We had coffee and beers.

I recently ate at Momofuku Ko for my wedding anniversary. At a certain point, I peed and I noticed the bathroom was full of cookbooks. It's an interesting genre in that cookbooks seem to be very influential chef-to-chef, and not only to the public.
I don't know how it works from chef to chef or restaurant to restaurant, but I can't even begin to describe what I learned from books. Everything was books for me from the time I was 20-25. I didn't leave the country until I was 27. But books are the foundation of my knowledge about food. I grew up not eating fish or cheese or mushrooms. For me, the cookbooks that made the biggest difference in my life were like Marcella Hazan, David Thompson, and all of Alice Waters' books. I learned everything from books.

When I came to New York, I read Michael Ruhlman's Making of a Chef (buy at Amazon), about going to the CIA. At that point my understanding of the food world was Ratatouille level. I read that and I was thinking about going to FCI but it was thirty-fucking-thousand dollars a year. So I decided I'd just try to write. It took six years to get a writing job at the Times.

Well, it was worth waiting for.
Yeah, it worked out okay.

What do you see the next step for David Chang? How does someone like him, who prides himself on being an outsider, deal with being the dominant figure in the culinary world?
I haven't seen Dave as an outsider since he opened Ssäm Bar, because he hasn't been. He definitely likes being contrary. That's an easier position to state. He's got plenty of ideas of how to fucking piss people off and put things in motion that will be weird, but when it will come to fruition and how long he wants to keep doing that remains to be seen. He just opened a lab where he's working on stuff in the East Village.

Ferran Adrià-style?
Not really. Ferran's lab is built six months out of the year to specifically develop items on the menu that they're serving the other six months. David's lab is less that. It's more like a workshop for him and his guys who work there to come up with stuff. It's non-commercial and there's no direction to it. On some level right now, I think he's figuring out what comes next. I don't know what's next for him. I know what's next for us.

What's that?
There might be another book and there might be something televisual but it's all proposals and ideas and lunches with alcohol but nothing inked. The thing I would like to do most is update the Momofuku cookbook. Like on a recipe that started with one thing and then track how the recipe developed from there for the next two years. Every year there is asparagus and so every year those guys can let loose on asparagus. There's 20 variations. It's like in Slaughterhouse Five when it is explained how humans see things versus how Tralfamadorians see things. A recipe is one point on a horizon but getting to show the horizon.

It would be a 20,000 page book.
Or one iPad.

Your books seem to straddle the divide between something super technical like Pepin's Le Technique or something like A Day at El Bulli that is essentially a coffee table book. How do you settle on the tone?
It has to fit the chef. The French Laundry cookbook was didactic. It's brilliant but if you take that book, and relate it back to the restaurant. Thomas Keller does perfection. He's a great teacher. Those are things that are reflected in the book. Looking at Momofuku when we were doing it, the thing we had to exploit was a narrative that was just arcing perfectly when we were writing it. It wasn't lost on Dave that he was in this crazy position and so we couldn't not exploit that. It also dovetails perfectly with the arc of the food there and the increasing ambition behind the kitchens. There's a certain amount of epic struggle that goes into day-to-day kitchen life and when you combine that with epic success, you can plot it.

It's true. The story has all the classic unities. But the last part to epic struggle and epic success is often epic fail.
Every interview you ever see with the guy, he's always worried about imminent and epic failure. It's possible, maybe even probable, that that could come to him at some point. But when we wrote the book, we thought, 'Woah, we're 31. This time will never happen again. Let's take a snapshot and try to be honest." Even if Dave Chang turns into some [Roy] Yamaguchi-style sell-out and be everywhere and not be everywhere, it's still cool because we set something down that was a document of a moment.

You have four books, all with shared bylines: the Five Points cookbook with Marc Myers, How I Learned to Cook with Kimberly Witherspoon, Momofuku with Chang and the Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion and Cooking Manual with Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli. Do you have any desire to be a single byline?
Not enough to do it.

What other chefs would you like to work with?
There are so many people. But I have a really successful collaboration with Dave, I'll do another book or two with Dave and then, I'll probably just stick to writing my own books. It's a lot of work to get inside somebody's head.

Having been a $25 and Under critic for four years, what do you make of the current Dining section?
I wish I could be really negative like, "Fuck it, they should have kept $25 and Under" but the restaurant landscape has changed a ton. The rubric may have been more meaningful a decade ago, but now some of the most talented chefs in the city are opening places that are more affordable. When I was doing it with Frank Bruni, I think every once in a while he was like, 'Damn!" I took Hill Country. Hill Country could have gotten a star from Frank. So they needed to update their coverage. And I kinda love Sam Sifton. Sifton's tweets, kinda into him. The fact that he chose Drinky Crow from the Tony Millionaire as his Twitter avatar sealed the deal.

What do you most see eye-to-eye with Chang on and what do you least?
He thinks having children ruins you. I think he's wrong. I don't know he's wrong but I'd like to prove he's wrong. What do we see eye-to-eye on? I don't know, our love of Pavement.

· All Peter Meehan Coverage on Eater [-E-]
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