Everybody knows Momofuku: the sleek, cool restaurant empire that made ramen trendy and started the wave of interior design featuring blond wood and backless stools, that put down roots in New York's East Village then snaked into Toronto and Sydney, and that just now made its way down to our nation's capital, where there's a new chef in town keeping things running.
Momofuku CCDC opened in October, and at its helm is Patrick Curran, the 28-year-old executive chef who started as a line cook back for the New York-based restaurant group back in 2010. Everything about this is new: Curran's new to the city, the role, and the restaurant — which he moved down to open — and then he hired an entirely new team to work with him, sous chefs and line cooks new to the restaurant group and to working with each other. That's a lot to navigate, but Curran is doing it with poise.
"He represents a new breed of chefs that are emerging in the world," Young Guns alum Alex Levin wrote of Curran in his nomination of the chef. "He is free of negativity, he operates a tough kitchen with a smile on his face and warm heart full of kindness. He cooks for no other glory than knowing that his customers are loving what he does."
With his positive outlook and approach to leadership, Curran is building a strong team inside the restaurant and strengthening ties outside of it, in the community at large. He attributes a lot of his success to the people who have supported him along the way, and the people he works with today.
"Momofuku is about goals and tenacity."
Back home in Rochester, Curran worked in a country club with two chefs who "never let me slide on anything." He says he was lucky that they encouraged him to learn more. "Anytime I asked them a question, they told me I had to go find the answer in Larousse Gastronomique. They'd say, ‘Go look it up, go look it up.'"
And now, within Momofuku, Curran says there's still a lot of room to grow. "There are so many great chefs here, and it's an amazing team to be grouped in with." He feels lucky to have been mentored within the company and hopes to similarly "provide people on the line in the kitchen with the opportunity to help push their careers forward and be a part of whatever the next chapter of Momofuku is."
CCDC joins Momofuku outposts ranging from fast-casual to fine dining in New York, Toronto, and Sydney. "It's exciting to be a part of this, to be on the opening team down here, but more than anything it's taught me to just keep pushing and not to take no for an answer," he says. "Have a goal and work towards it."
Curran talks a lot about goals. "I feel very fortunate to work a place where the mentality is the exact opposite of complacency," he says. "The Momofuku culture is about goals and tenacity. Every day, if something is working, we ask how to keep pushing it forward, to try something new, to put new dishes out." The new restaurant takes the best of Momofuku in New York — the buns, the ginger-scallion noodles, the eponymous ramen — and then adds the new things, like Curran's beef noodle soup, a long-tested dish which debuted in DC. "We're past the opening and now we can keep our foot on the pedal and try new things." The new menu items have been received well: "We have dishes people are always going to ask for, but we also have the opportunity and the ability to try out new food and see how people respond."
It's not easy to anticipate what diners in a new city will want, though, and Curran took some risks. "We thought we were crazy to come down to a more Southern city and say, yeah we're going to make biscuits for you and it's going to be great," but the biscuit bites are a favorite. And the team sells pupusas as a once-a-week special inspired by the dish's prevalence in the DC area. "Pupusas are so popular in the area, so we wanted to see what our spin would be like," Curran says. "And in the future we'll keep switching up specials, so we don't stay stagnant."
It's important to Curran to keep the menu fresh, because in this industry, it's easy to "float and be comfortable and bounce around without really pushing the envelope," but he says that if you do want to grow and evolve, you can. "You have to keep asking, what's next, what's next, what's next," he says. "How do I grow? What do I need to improve to get to that next level?"
He asks the same from his team. "I don't want to be the guy yelling in the kitchen forcing people to do their work. That doesn't make people want to come in, or feel empowered to get creative or put an idea out there or in general enjoy being at work."
Curran makes sure his staff is excited to come into work, and that there are opportunities to play with new specials based on seasonal ingredients and to create new long-standing dishes — Curran was chef de cuisine at Noodle Bar when he came up with Momofuku's now well-known vegetarian hozon ramen, and he wants the team in DC to have the same expression and drive in the kitchen. "Watching everybody grow together has been really rewarding. I'm excited to see it keep going. I'm excited to see what we can do down here."
It can be tough to build that kind of crew, especially for a young head chef in a new city. But Curran has support from the New York Momofuku team and from inside the industry in the District. While at first he was taken aback — in a positive way — by how closely knit and welcoming the restaurant community in DC has been, he appreciates that people are always willing to help. "I don't know how many other cities have a community like this. And hopefully we can play a role in that as other restaurants open."
Inside and out of the restaurant, community is important to Curran. "I think the more people you can get involved in a conversation, the better," he says. "The more people you can get involved, the more ideas, the more criticisms or holes you can poke in a dish before it goes out — the better off we are." Important words to hear from any leader.
Find the full list of 2016 Young Guns here
Sonia Chopra is Eater's managing editor.
Patrick Curran is the executive chef of Momofuku CCDC in Washington, DC. Header image by Rey Lopez.
Editors: Dana Hatic and Zee Krstic
Copy editor: Dawn Mobley
See all Young Guns coverage here.