This week chef David Chang of Momofuku fame sat down with Vox.com's Ezra Klein for an episode of The Ezra Klein Show, a new Vox Media podcast. Chang spent a lot of the hour comparing his restaurant and business to a sports team and looking back on his younger, more careless days, but he also looked into the future of dining and his business and brand. Here, now, are the more enlightening bits:
Chang on recipe patents, specifically pegged to the Bagel Bomb rip off: "I want to say that we should have some patent ability ... but I don't know. I think about this sometimes when I listen to music ... and I'm like 'well, is that so different from coming up with a recipe?' And then I look at fashion and that's an industry where people copy left and right, and you can't really patent anything in fashion except the brand. ... It makes me mad sometimes. It doesn't make sense why music should have it but food can't."
On the surprise of his career: "I had just the right amount of naiveté to know what I could or couldn't do. Just enough fine dining experience ... the reason I left fine dining was I knew I was never going to be good enough. So I knew I had to find something else."
On what he looks for in hiring people: "The right amount of talent is barely enough ... cooking is about failure. Repetition of failure. The more you fail, the more you learn. A sense of humility is so important."
On his view of his job: "There are days when I don't want to do this. There are literally five or 30 minutes every day where I don't want to do it."
Chang on paying his chefs a more decent wage: "Socially and politically I'm pretty damn liberal. Socially — I wouldn't say I'm a socialist but I'm behind everything we're doing, what the government's doing [raising the minimum wage] I would also want. But as a business owner, it doesn't make any fucking sense. ... It's painting us in a corner and there's no room to grow. The $15 min wage in New York, 100 percent behind that. But ... again in theory you having people — I don't know how they're making this calculation ... I'm afraid of what's going to happen. A good fine dining restaurant could do like 2 to 5 percent margins, fast food 10 to 20 percent. So, anything over 10 percent is a good year ... the wages are going to really cut into the margins. I don't think people understand it is a labor of love."
On the dawn of the no-tipping era: "The next two years are going to be very, very telling of the future of the culinary industry. [We have] a perfect example at Nishi. My servers are getting paid anywhere from $30 an hour let's say. There's 10 to 15 of them. That's a lot in terms of wages. If you have overtime, that's time and a half. You might need them to come in during daytime hours ... for education of wine, general service stuff. That can't happen anymore. They have to come in 30 min before service starts [and we're losing that training time]."
Further on tipping: "I believe the no-tipping policy is forcing restaurants — which is why I have to explore it, because it could make it better. It's tough because the servers are getting capped out. They could be making a lot more if they were taking tips. ... A lot of variables that have to be discovered, in terms of the size and scope of the restaurant, the comfortability factor. If you have a 150-seat or 200-seat restaurant, you can get away with some stuff. My fear is the medium-sized restaurant, from 50 to 75 seats, it's just too hard to run, we might see the extinction of it. That could be a result of labor. You need a certain number of people to run a restaurant. I don't know if the numbers are going to work."
On how he's going to make his concepts work and pay chefs more: "The breakthrough is going to have to come through growth and expansion in other ways. We're going to roll out Fukus and try to open more Milk Bars. ... I think that just size can give you the buffer to direct a lot of those savings back to your employees. The no-tipping is great, but I'm still reserving my judgment until I see it work. Right now I think it works for a certain kind of restaurant. I don't know if it works for all restaurants. I'd love to go to [the New York state legislature in] Albany and say, 'Listen guys, I think it's fantastic, but can we create some provisions for this rule?'"
On the sports team analogies: "I view Momofuku as more of a sports team. It's like the Spurs or the Patriots, cheating excluded. To get through the harder parts, it's like running a sports franchise. In terms of finding talent, growing it, the culture you groom from, and all the business components to making money. A lot of teams don't make money, but TV deals make money."
On management: "Near 1,000 people work at Momofuku. To be honest I'm terrible at [management]. It's really hard. I feel like I'm good at talking to someone in the kitchen ... but I feel like I live in the HR hot zone. Managing people is really hard, and it's not something that comes naturally to me."
Why Chang had to pause his R&D program: "At a certain point when you're growing you can't have these R&D expenditures. We had sat on all of these ideas that were so good, and I was like well we have to sell them. At the time the restaurants weren't incorporating the ideas we were creating."
On sustainability in farming: "I wrestle with this a lot, the sustainability factor. But right now there's so much big business in farming. ... I have to really figure that out. Meat is really expensive right now. This goes back to the topic of wages. Food is going to have to get more expensive [if we want to pay our people more]."
Listen to the whole episode to hear more about Chang's focus on pig and veal farming, agribusiness, food education in school, vegetarianism, fermentation, and books that have inspired his career and daily life.