Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
It's been a little more than a year since the Momofuku team opened their first restaurant outside of New York City with the debut of Momofuku Seiobo in Sydney, Australia. In the course of that year, Seiobo racked up accolades from best new restaurant of the year to "hottest restaurant in Australia" — while the Momofuku empire extended further outside of New York with four new restaurants in Toronto.
Englishman and Momofuku Seiobo head chef Ben Greeno had mostly worked in European kitchens — such as Copenhagen's lauded Noma as well as the Michelin-starred Restaurant Sat Bains in the United Kingdom — before joining up with David Chang to helm the Sydney kitchen. Here now, he talks about how he got involved with the Momofuku empire, what was different about working in Australia and why they decided to just go ahead and put the pork buns on the menu.
So how did you get involved with Momofuku?
I met Dave a few years ago out in Copenhagen at the first Cook it Raw. We kept in touch and I staged at the restaurants in New York. He was over in London at a congress and I was helping him out. My girlfriend's from Sydney and I said maybe she was going to move home. He asked me if I wanted to work for him in Sydney. I jumped at the chance. I worked at Ko and all the restaurants in New York and moved down here last July.
Where were they in the process of the restaurant when you came aboard?
There was already a plan, the space had been decided, but it was nothing more than that. A rough kitchen design and all that kind of stuff.
Tell me about what was different for you opening in Australia or Sydney in particular.
There's a lot of stuff we had to adapt to. When we opened we only had one Australian guy in the kitchen, so most stuff here was completely different for us. Like the dairy is completely different. The main thing is the dairy.
It's just not as good, basically. Coming from Europe or the States where the dairy is pretty good, coming down here is like massive shock. So all those kind of things. The other tough one is the seasons. We came here in July from New York, where it's summer and it's fucking awesome. You come down here and it's winter.
There's not like a massive definition of seasons down here where you wait for the peas in the summer and the spring, you're like, "Fuck yeah, I can't wait for peas." Here you can get peas and they're just peas. So for us it was really difficult to work out when the peas are really good. But then we also have the good stuff like other ingredients we don't have in Europe like Quandong. So that was cool.
And how was the menu planning? What was your approach?
We don't have any rules as such, so we could do whatever we wanted. [Former Momofuku Director of Culinary Operations Peter] Serpico was here at the time, so he had a massive influence on everything. We basically did just what we wanted to do. We looked at what we thought was going to be available and we stuck with it. As long as it tastes good, it doesn't matter.
And then obviously we did the pork bun. Pete summed it up. He was like, "You can either do it and everybody's going to be happy, or you can spend the whole night explaining why you don't do it." Everybody wanted the former.
I was reading about that, was it originally you weren't going to do the pork buns?
Originally we didn't want to and then we were working on snacks and thought, "OK, fuck it, let's do it." If we're going to do it, we're going to do it well. Like Pete said, it's easier to do it then spend your whole night explaining why you don't do it.
So over the past year, have you made any changes?
Yeah, everything's a massive change. The menu is completely different. There's only one thing we keep the same that we won't change. It's the beef dish with the radish and it's got fermented black bean in it. It's the first dish that we did down here that we did for a dinner even before the restaurant was built. We'll always do that. It divides people. Some people love it, some people hate it. You can't help that.
The wine program has changed quite a bit. It's got longer, it's got bigger. Our guys Rich and Charles do a really good job with it, mostly natural, biodynamic wines, mainly European focus.
The service hasn't really changed so much because it started off in a way we wanted it to go. All the cooks take all the plates, pretty much. It's very rare that a waiter will take a plate in this restaurant. That's pretty difficult for some front of the house stuff to get used to. Sometimes they feel they don't have the same interaction with the guests. They do, they just have to do it differently. They have to work it so they have to talk to the guests in a different way.
What was your opening like? I know there was a lot of attention.
It was pretty intense. It was fuckin' very intense. There was so much attention it was crazy. Dave's first restaurant out of New York and all that, so it wasn't only the Australian press, it was everybody looking at it. There was a lot of pressure. But we had to forget about all that pressure and just do what we were doing. Stick to what we wanted to do and then just see how it went.
And you've gotten a lot of accolades in the past year.
It was very unexpected. We didn't expect any of this that we got. The team here work extremely hard. We just do what we do. I don't know. It was very strange. The last couple of months have been so weird for us with all these awards and things, but yeah, it's just a testament to the team of how much they've been working and how well they've been doing.
Did you do anything to celebrate the one year?
We went to Golden Century, which is a Chinese restaurant in the city here. It's an awesome, awesome restaurant. I'm sure you've heard Chang talking about it before. It's probably his favorite place in Sydney. We go there fairly regularly, so we went there for our one year.
How do you feel you fit into the restaurant scene in Sydney?
I don't really know how we do fit in. If you looked at the other restaurants in this kind of style, they're very different. We don't have waiters wearing white gloves. No beautiful fancy dining room with white tablecloths. It's difficult to see where we fit in. That's the good thing about it. It's completely different. We don't have any rules, so we don't really have to see where we fit in.
Does it feel like it's been a year for you?
No way. It's gone so fast. When it got to October, it was just like, "Fuck, we've nearly been open a year. That's ridiculous." It's been a blur. It really has been. Which is cool.
Ben Greeno [Photo: Nick Scott]