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How David Chang Made His Peace With Yelp

The Momofuku chef thinks it’s the future of restaurant criticism

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David Chang/Facebook

It’s been a journey, but David Chang has finally come around to Yelp, the user-generated restaurant review site. In 2014, the Momofuku chef told FiveThirtyEight that “for the most part, no chef is going to take a Yelper’s review seriously” because “most of the Yelp reviews are wrong.”

More recently, though, Momofuku restaurants have hosted dinner events for Yelp Elite members, a status given to the most active Yelp users. And at least one of these events, Chang himself has addressed the crowd of amateur restaurant reviewers. Chang recently sat down with Eater Upsell hosts Helen Rosner and Greg Morabito for an episode of the Eater Upsell and explained why he’s had such a change of heart.

Chang admits that his relationship with Yelp had been “adversarial,” his primary complaint being that Yelpers had no credibility “to speak about food, décor [or] ambience.” What’s more, Yelpers lacked empathy as they reviewed chefs just doing their jobs. “I don’t think [Yelp reviewers] understand the pain it can cause chefs,” he says. “We're not perfect individuals, and we shouldn't become a whipping post for people for whatever reason.”

But, around the time of that FiveThirtyEight interview, Chang teamed up with Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight’s founder, to find America’s best burrito using data from Yelp reviews. While the method wasn’t perfect, Chang says, it allowed them to “cut through a lot of the bullshit.” Since then, he has come to appreciate the value of the site that allows just anyone to give restaurants starred reviews.

“I believe that Yelp is probably going to be one of, if not the only source of food criticism. It's like a Rotten Tomatoes score for restaurants,” he tells Rosner and Morabito. Rotten Tomatoes aggregates movie reviews from professional critics to give movies a single, percentage-based rating, allowing people to look at a score to determine whether a movie is good or bad rather than read a critic’s review. “If you just look at how people consume movie reviews now, no one reads that shit anymore, unless you're an avid New Yorker fan,” Chang adds.

Chang believes that professional restaurant reviews, while still impactful, are not quite as potent as they once were. Yelp, on the other hand, is increasingly used as a “north star for culinary guidance.” Chang realizes now that ignoring elite Yelpers in the past, many of whom are “great food bloggers,” may have been a mistake — hence, the dinners for Yelp Elite members. He explains: “My whole thing was, instead of bitching about it, which I am fantastic at, why don't I engage them and try to see if something can be a little bit different?”

Today, Chang sees the Yelp events as just one of the ways the Momofuku restaurant group is pushing itself out of its comfort zone. He says, “Our job isn't to be exclusive and private. I think Yelp, if anything, is literally something that everyone uses. Why would we be opposed to that?”

Hear the complete interview with David Chang as he chats about cooking for the people, how to not run a kitchen “like a totalitarian state,” and the one restaurant critic he’d like to ban from Momofuku restaurants. Subscribe to the Eater Upsell on iTunes, or listen on Soundcloud. You can also get the entire archive of episodes   right here on Eater.

David Chang: "Almost Everything We've Done Has Been a Failure from the Get-go" [E]
All Episodes of the Eater Upsell [E]
• The Eater Upsell: David Chang [iTunes | Spotify | Art19]

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