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David Chang and David Simon on Treme, Complacency, and the Creative Process

Last night at the Nourse Auditorium in San Francisco, Momofuku chef David Chang and The Wire creator David Simon chatted with KQED radio host Michael Krasny. The wide-ranging conversation dug into various topics, including the two Davids' friendship and collaborations: Simon has written for Chang's food magazine, Lucky Peach, and Chang plays a semi-fictional version of himself in Simon's HBO show, Treme. Here are some highlights from the evening's discussion:

Chang on starting out as a cook: "I think I topped out at $11.50 an hour. It's not about making money if you want to learn the craft and profession. The irony of it is that the reason I got as far as I got is I never thought I'd be as good as my idols and my heroes and the peers that I was working with. I definitely wanted to cook noodles, but I didn't realize that it would actually happen. It was just sort of a pipe dream."

Chang on working with Simon on Treme: "Right around production for Treme, he said, would you like to participate in the show that I'm doing, make a chef appearance with a bunch of your friends? And I had no idea who he was talking about. I was just like, 'Oh my God, I got a call from David Simon. What's going on?' So that's pretty much how it started. I would have done anything. I would have been a janitor for the set."

Simon on why he wrote Chang's role: "On the advice of Tony Bourdain, who's doing a good bit of writing of the restaurant scenes in Treme. Tony wanted to write a sort of goldilocks, this-one's-just-right journey for the New Orleans chef when she went to the big city of New York and he thought, I think correctly, that the place where she would feel the most energized would be a place like Momofuku. Really, I was following Tony's lead. And then, to my great shock, somewhere in the middle I looked up and he was doing some pretty good acting. And I'll say this: it was the complete David Chang experience."

Chang on acting: "Acting is really hard. It seems glamorous but at the end of the day it's a labor of love and it's really hard, and I've spoken very poorly about a lot of aspiring actors that have worked for me — 'acting's not work, it's not hard' — it's very hard. And I have so much respect for it, and what David and all his team do."

Simon on writing for Lucky Peach: "David asked me to write that piece, and here I am writing for a food magazine, or at least a magazine that's rooted in the culture of food. I know food when it explodes in my mouth and it's new and it's startling and I love chasing new taste. I'm the guy who likes to drive a fast car, but I don't know what happens under the hood. The idea that I was going to write something for Lucky Peach and even venture that, I had to keep it so close to home, it had to be about just a Proustian connection with my father. The moment I use a word like "braise," what's "braised" mean? Something with fire, I think."

Chang on opening his first restaurant: "I was just trying to find some type of meaning that wasn't cooking on the Upper East Side. I wanted to do something that was different, wanted to cook food and tie in my experiences with travel, going to Japan, not running to cook for just the 1%. Because in America, to eat good food, to enjoy good food, you're considered a snob. And we're the only country that has that notion. When I was working in Japan, the best food that I had were the cheapest meals. You could eat really well. And here I was in New York thinking that the only way you could learn how to cook was at the finest restaurants.

So I was trying to find my voice or just do something productive and trying to open a restaurant without knowing enough of how to do anything. If I knew more, I would never have done the restaurant, never would have called the restaurant Momofuku. It's terrible, a terrible jumble of words. It was like, what have you got to lose? And slowly it was, how do we apply the highest techniques, getting the best produce possible, for a lower cost? I got tired of going to dinner and feeling like I got ripped off.

I feel that the only thing you can sort of guarantee in a restaurant is how the customer leaves and I wanted to focus on having an experience where people were bewildered by what happened, not like 'oh this was fantastic' or 'this was good' or 'this filled me up,' but I wanted it to be something that was different. Because that's all I could offer. I couldn't cook the food at Daniel, I couldn't cook the food at French Laundry. So we had to figure out what we could do that played to our strengths. I liken it to a band that doesn't know how to play their instruments really well. We sort of figured it out along the way."

Simon chimes in on that: 'What have you got to lose?' That was the part, writing the storyline, that was the acquisition for the character, when our character comes to Lucky Peach in the show. That was the part that most appealed to me in the story. And it was the part that Tony [Bourdain] sold, the willful disregard for the status quo. It so appealed to me, the idea of 'what's the worst that could happen?'"

Chang on staying on top: "If you continue to play by the book, it's going to get stale and boring. That's what we're possibly in fear of, at least at our restaurants, is that we're just going to get complacent. We're very lucky that we have successful restaurants, but because we're lucky and we're busy, we get lazy. It's like an obesity of the mind. You don't have to try as hard. Once you reach a level of success, it's hard to constantly be daring and top what you do."

Chang on what keeps him from falling into complacency: "Self-loathing."

Chang on the spirituality of cooking: "The only spiritual thing I can get out of it is, you spend all this time making something beautiful, you tie in all of these stories and ingredients into hopefully a delicious dish that the customer's going to find exceeds their expectations, and it's gone. It's ephemeral and it's never going to be back. That dish was one of a kind. That's the only spiritual thing that I can find that relates. Cooking is not relaxing."

Simon on the creative process: "Inside the heart of every honest writer, I'm convinced, is someone who believes he is a fraud and he's going to be found out in the next sentence. I live in terror of being found out."

Chang on the creative process: "Feeling like a fraud is something that I feel all the time. And I think you're always working very hard to disprove that."

Simon on New Orleans: "For all of how screwed up New Orleans is, it has nonetheless given these great gifts to the world and continues to do so. In the wake of Katrina, when nothing else worked in New Orleans (and things still don't work very well in New Orleans), the culture worked beautifully. The culture was the engine that brought the people back. That's why the contributions of cuisine to that storyline are so important. That's part of how people define community every day. How they cook, how they eat, how they break bread together."

Chang on San Francisco's dining scene: "San Francisco's just crushing it right now. It always has. You have Daniel Patterson and Coi, I just had a fantastic meal there yesterday. State Bird won best new restaurant. You've got Mission Street, you've got Corey Lee who is just the best ever, Evan Rich and Sarah Rich at Rich Table, you've got the Tartine guys. There's just so much good stuff happening. So it's a good time in San Francisco."

—Wendy Hector

· All David Chang coverage [-E-]
· All David Simon coverage [-E-]

Michael Krasny, David Chang, and David Simon [Photo: Wendy Hector]

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