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David Chang
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David Chang: "Almost Everything We've Done Has Been a Failure from the Get-go"

An exclusive interview with the Momofuku emperor

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David Chang is the powerhouse behind the global Momofuku restaurant empire, which (as Helen succinctly puts it at the beginning of this week’s episode) has been largely responsible for The Way We Eat Now, ever since its New York City beginnings in 2004. Chang always speaks his mind, no less so when sitting down in the Upsell studio with Helen and Greg; in this free-wheeling conversation, Chang reveals how he came to terms with the importance of Yelp, why he’s no longer interested in going after awards, and which major restaurant critic can just go f*ck himself.

As always, you can get the Eater Upsell on iTunes, listen on Soundcloud, subscribe via RSS, or search your favorite podcast app. You can also get the entire archive of episodes — plus transcripts, behind-the-scenes photos, and more — right here on Eater.

Read the transcript of the Eater Upsell episode 54: David Chang, edited for clarity, below.

Helen Rosner: You’re very famous. Congratulations.

David Chang: I guess. Thank you very much. It's an honor to be here. I've been listening to your podcast for a while now.

Greg Morabito: Hey Dave, I want to thank you for introducing a hashtag on Instagram that we talk about sometimes in the office, which is #uglydelicious. There's so much pretty food on the internet right now, but the stuff you really want to eat is ugly delicious.

David: Yeah, do you want the long or the short answer?

Helen: Long, always long.

David: When I was a younger cook, all I wanted to do was get away from home cooked meals, Korean stuff, anything that I grew up eating, because I just thought it wasn't cool. Cooking French was the pinnacle of gastronomy. Then Japanese food. For years, that was the food that interested me.

With the advent of social media, restaurants and chefs are doing the same things. It's homogenized. Like René [Redzepi] is doing stuff in Mexico, and later that week I can see those dishes somewhere else in America.

The whole idea of ugly-delicious was, how do I make food that I'm comfortable making again? As I've gotten older, I've embraced all the things that I truly love eating. I'm not embarrassed about it anymore. Now I'm just like, I don't give a fuck.

Helen: Do you mean specifically Korean food?

David: Anything that's ugly. Like curry — curries are probably the ugliest food you could possibly make. A lot of Korean food, some Chinese food, is ugly if you look at it from a Eurocentric, American point of view. It's beautiful and quite natural for basically everyone else.

Helen: What’s an iconic example of beautiful food? So we can triangulate what we're talking about when we talk about ugly food.

David: The first thing that comes to mind is something Alain Ducasse would make.

Helen: Beautifully plated.

David: Beautifully plated. You could probably tie that kind of food to the décor, to the stemware, to the plateware of a restaurant. The aesthetics of it, to me, reek of one kind of deliciousness. That was something I've always struggled with. Now, as I turn 40, I'm trying to push myself to embrace things that I find to be not that. Not that I don't love those techniques. I don't know if it's my calling to embrace that.

Helen: Have you ever really felt like it's your calling? I think the TL;DR story of Momofuku is so centered on this notion of rejecting all of that aesthetic trapping of fine dining, rejecting the formality and just saying, Fuck it, this tastes good.

David: Yes, but I'm a classicist at heart. I think [Eleven Madison Park chef] Daniel Humm said it best: "It's hard to break the rules until you know what the rules are." For me, it's been this giant struggle of trying to figure out what that means and genuinely finding my voice. I've always followed my gut, but now it coincides with the point in my life where I'm totally comfortable being Korean and Korean-American. For most of my formative years, I was not accepted by Korean people, not accepted by white people. I'm just comfortable in my own skin now. The past 15 years, at least in the food we've made [at Momofuku], have been an exploration of how far I could push that for my own edification.

Helen: What changed for you that made you comfortable?

David: Growing up, simple as that. Living and making more mistakes.

Helen: Just the pure passage of time.

David: Yeah. It doesn't make me less angry — all of that stuff is there — but there are certain things that I'm just more comfortable doing. I'm trying not to run the restaurants like a totalitarian state, whereas before I would say, "We're making this dish, and you're going to fucking like it." Now, I'm trying very hard to put some dishes on that are ugly-delicious. Younger cooks have a hard time embracing it. They're just like, "This looks like shit." I'm trying not to tell them that they're wrong, because if I were 25 years old having to make that kind of food, I'd be like, "There's no technique, it's sloppy plating." I can't force that upon them.

Greg: It's really interesting to hear you say that, because the pork bun is probably one of the most Instagrammable dishes in the history of Instagram. I always think it looks like a mouth with a tongue sticking out, but it's always looked exactly the same. This seems like a movement away from that.

David: No. I certainly want it sloppy, but I am also a stickler for certain things. It has to be beautiful; it can't just be shit on a plate. I think beauty happens through your intent and the actual process of cooking. Without sounding cheesy, it's genuinely how much you care about [a dish]. That's what I'm actually trying to reconcile with myself: Is food simply about caring about it more than the actual creation of it? As you get older, you see chefs go through these cycles where you do something adventurous and ambitious, where you don't know what the fuck you're doing, and then you start simplifying. You're like, "I just want to make fucking Italian food." You see that all the time.

I think, for me, that's not actually the cycle. It's so hard to describe this, I've never even spoken about this. I’m at a point in my life where winning accolades and awards and making food that is constantly pushing boundaries — what is that worth? Not that it's not [important]. I think it was really important for me to have gone through that. It was proving my worth to the public, to myself. Now I'm wondering if it’s worth it for what is essentially this narcissistic endeavor, or is it worth it to take the home-cooking angle and treat customers like my grandma fed me? I'm not trying to invalidate either of them, I'm just trying to get a little bit more of the home cooking vibe. That's where I'm at right now.

Greg: I can see that trend in a lot of the restaurants you've opened recently. They're about eating and accessibility, like Fuku, Ando, and even Nishi. I don't know if that's a conscious decision.

David: No, for a long time there was no strategic growth. Our first restaurant outside New York was in Australia. People forget that Momofuku's old now. I'm turning 40, I'm probably the second oldest person in the company, which is a fucking crazy thing.

I think though, for me, I love Ko. I think [executive chef Sean Gray and general manager Sue Wong Ruiz] are doing something amazing, and they're on their own vision quest, and I'm there to support it however I can. It's hard to see the pitfalls of constantly striving to earn stars, earn your keep, have street cred. The legacy of what Momofuku is right now is hard to keep up. Ssäm Bar is a three-star New York Times restaurant. That's a fucking hard legacy to live up to. I didn't want that. I think that's a burden for the cooks and for everyone.

I still want to push the envelope. I think that's really important to do, but I'm also looking at how important it is to make super delicious food that is populist, but keeps the critics happy, without demoralizing the people around you. There's a certain cost of pushing boundaries. It’s hard to justify making food just a little bit more delicious at the cost of people’s sacrifice.

Greg: It sounds like in the Jerry Maguire sense, you want the Kwan.

David: I don't know. I say that all the time because I genuinely don't know. I'm figuring it out just like anyone else. I would rather have a restaurant that is not reviewable, but makes people happy. At the end of the day, that's our only job. Over the years it's been proven there's more than one way to get to that end goal of making someone extraordinarily happy. For a long time, there was only one way: the French high-end fine dining. Danny Meyers absolutely killed it in the Union Square way. I'm just trying to find another way.

Helen: What does it mean for a restaurant to be un-reviewable?

David: I think that's one reason why people love Houston's so much. Everything is made in-house. They take care of their cooks [and pay them] a ton of money. People are happy.

I've always wanted to take a populist stance on food, ever since trying to do Korean burritos at Ssäm Bar, which is the craziest thing probably I've ever done. I think some things got lost in these new cycles of food, awards, [and trying to] remain relevant. My brother was a huge Grateful Dead fan, and I always marveled at the legions of fans that would follow this band that did no media. I think it's simply because they were able to make a connection. There are many ways to do that. Something gets lost trying to prove your worth to everyone around you in order to make food super delicious. Maybe there's a happy middle of making great food accessible without the bullshit of the food media that we live in right now.

Helen: I guess it's our fault.

David: No.

Helen: No, no. I mean, I'll take it.

Greg: We should take on some of that responsibility, seriously Helen.

Helen: It's cool, I'm willing to self-flagellate. I think the relationship between food media and restaurants has always existed. As long as there have been transactions, there have been people commenting on whether the transaction is worth it. But certainly the trope that we return to again and again on this podcast is the simultaneous rise of the internet and rise of food culture — of which Momofuku was such an essential component.

David: We were in the right place at the right time.

Helen: Yeah, but it was like a nuclear bomb went off. Media, diners, and chefs — literally every single person involved in the equation — had to recalibrate their axis for a good restaurant. It was a huge reset of the way everything operated. I think media was a big part of helping distribute that narrative, but do you still think it's a fundamentally adversarial relationship?

David: No, absolutely not. I get along with everyone pretty much, contrary to what people might believe. I get it, it's a two-way street. What I'm thinking is it seems the food media is continuing to do what it used to do 10 years ago. Things are dramatically different, and we can no longer use what worked for us in the past because it's a whole different ballgame. People see the news cycle and it moves so fucking fast that it's almost comical. It's story, after story, after story. [My problem is] not the food media, it's the society we live in right now, which prevents people [from trying] new things and making mistakes. I just think everyone needs to chill out, myself included.

Greg: On that note, I've heard a lot of chefs talk shit about Yelpers, but I saw on the Momofuku Twitter feed you were at an Elite Yelper dinner. Where do you think Yelp and Elite Yelpers fit into the equation?

David: I'll tell you this: I believe 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. If you just look how people consume movie reviews now, no one reads that shit anymore.

I’ve had a adversarial relationship with Yelp and some food bloggers because I don't think they understand the pain they can cause chefs. No one would like to be reviewed on a daily basis at their job. All I'm saying is, everyone should increase their empathy just a little bit before destroying someone. Everyone has their bad days. We're not perfect individuals, and we shouldn't become a whipping post for people. I think that was my main complaint.

There are great food bloggers out there. Many of them are Elite Yelpers. Wherever I travel, the first thing that pops up on a Google search is almost always Yelp. I'd be lying if I said those scores and the aggregate of stars don't influence my opinion. As we open up more places, the more I see that people use Yelp as their North Star for culinary guidance. I was like, "Okay. This is something that I should look into."

I also wound up doing this thing with Nate Silver to find the best burrito. He had this crazy algorithm using Yelp scores. He told me how even if you think they're all wrong, the fact that you can aggregate that [individual input] is a powerful tool. Was it an absolutely perfect way of figuring out the best burrito in America? No, it wasn't. Did it allow us to cut through a lot of the bullshit? Yes, it was.

Instead of bitching about [Yelp], which I am fantastic at, why don't I engage them? That's what we've tried to do. We've done three of these dinners, and I think they've gone really well. It looks funny, I'm sure, to people of a certain sort, but we're doing things differently. Our job isn't to be exclusive. Yelp is literally something that everyone uses. Why would we be opposed to that?

Helen: I like that way of thinking of Yelp as something incredibly powerful in the aggregate. I guess this is the fundamental principle of democracy: one idiot balances out another.

David: I think I made a mistake of just ignoring it. Pushing myself and Momofuku out of our comfort zones is wildly important to who we are.

Greg: Do you think that starred reviews from newspapers have less impact on business than they did 10 years ago?

David: Yeah. It's insane to think about how much less potent certain reviews are. When I worked for Marco Canora and Tom [Colicchio] at Craft, they sent me up to the New York Times building to pick up the damn paper on a Tuesday [when the review came out]. That really made or broke a restaurant.

Helen: What was the star rating the day you picked it up?

David: We got three stars.

Helen: So that's a good day.

David: It was a great day. It was amazing to see my heroes be in such a celebratory mood. But I don't think anyone anticipated the democratization of food reviewing. I'm a little bit older. I've seen the whole cycle. Certain things are still more important to me. I'd be lying if I said the Michelin Guide wasn't important to me. I wish I didn't care about it as much.

In terms of reviews though, it's still impactful. I think that Pete Wells’ review of Nishi and Ryan Sutton’s review of Nishi were like a Momofuku correction. Knock on wood, we've been very fortunate to have a majority of really great reviews. I was on another planet that year. I still believe in what we did whole-heartedly. Every fucking dish we made was Korean. It just looked Italian, and that was the whole premise. Everyone pays out their ass for fucking Italian food, let's just see if we can do that [with Korean food]. That was the goal. My mistake came in figuring out if you could do it with the traditional Momo ambience.

Helen: You mean like plywood, no fabrics, loud music, and an open kitchen.

David: Yeah, because I'm a cook, I want people to leave wanting the food. We have restaurants that are luxurious, but they're also not your traditional French or American fine dining. Not that I don't appreciate that; it's just something that I can't do. To be criticized for that was hard because it was an attack on who I am as a person. That's why I took it so personally. I'm not trying to sound like I have sour grapes. It's been this process of understanding how that all went down.

I'm trying to figure out what to retool. Nishi's actually doing great. The food has really evolved. I've had to question what kind of food you have to do in order to justify reviews. If I opened that restaurant and made it look like a three-star, modern American restaurant, would we have gotten good reviews? How do you do the food then? I've always just wanted food to be the sole vehicle for people to have a great time. That's more and more difficult these days as we move toward more experiential dining. I could talk fucking a week about this. I'm at war with myself about how this all fucking works out.

Reviews are really hard. I don't have the anger in me now like I used to. I worry about the mental stability of my guys trying to shoulder that load, like those 1980s drug commercials when the kid is smoking pot and the dad yells at him, "Where did you learn this?" He's like, "I learned it from watching you, dad." I hate seeing my guys make the same stupid, boneheaded decisions that I made. I know where they learned it from. It makes me wonder, What is this worth? So we can get a fucking temporary stamp of approval? People don't eat awards, they don't eat reviews. I guess what I'm trying to say is the review process is something I'm trying to mitigate. I'm trying to understand how to be more in the present, how to cook for the people that are in the room, and how to make sure our cooks and servers aren't mentally checked out because they're trying to live up to a standard that is no longer for them.

Helen: We have talked to dozens of chefs on this show, and I think that at the core of a lot of people's experience is this question of wanting to find balance between what you are driven by, as the person at the top, but also wanting to allow the people who are coming up within your empire to be allowed to follow their motivations.

David: I think for a long time I managed in a horrific fashion. Not to justify any of that, but I just didn't know any better. I was on a one-way ticket, and that's just how I lived my life, cooked, and built my teams. Now, as we're growing, we have so many people that have been with us 10-plus years. They've grown, they have families. I genuinely believe that the only reason to grow is to provide for other people. If anyone got in this business to make a ton of money, they're a fucking idiot. At the end of the day, that is my primary motive.

The question that I'm trying to wrap my head around is, how do you do that in a way that is still doing great food, but making sure [the restaurant doesn’t] run like a totalitarian state? You can create checklists and systems and say, "You're going to measure this out to the gram." Sometimes have to do that in a kitchen as you grow. What I'm trying to do is get to a place where we're just defining the sandbox [and then saying], "You can do whatever the fuck you want in that sandbox. If you want to go outside the boundaries of that sandbox, let's have a discussion about moving those boundaries out a little bit." I'm just trying to grapple with whether I’ve fooled myself into thinking that I've been teaching my guys the sandbox method, when I've really just been running like Mussolini. Or Kim Jong Un.

Helen: There's a whole global history of dictators we could choose from, take your choice.

David: All good, all good. I got to keep it Asian.

Helen: Have you been on this journey on your own, or have there been people who have stepped in and said, "Hey, listen, let's reconsider the way we're approaching this."

David: I've been blessed to have so many people intervene in my life. Many strong women actually, have pulled me aside to say, "What the fuck are you doing?" I'm so thankful for them. They talk to me in a way that really resonates. That's amazing, and that is something that I've cherished forever. Then I have people that are successful in all walks of life that say, "Hey Dave, what are you doing? You should do it this way." Sometimes I feel like I'm [Highway to Heaven star] Michael Landon, with angels all around me, constantly being like, "Hey, you should do it this way."

Helen: Oh my god. Touched by an Angel: The David Chang Story.

David: For real though, it's usually when one of my guys comes up to me and says, "Dave, you're being an asshole." That's the biggest wake up call, because I'm always upset that I didn't realize that beforehand. I get advice from everyone. I'm actively trying to get better at everything we do. It's fucking hard. This whole goddamn business is so goddamn hard.

Helen: Dave, I really want to keep going down this philosophy rabbit hole forever. But bringing us back into the world of the more concrete, the Momofuku restaurant group has been massively growing. You recently brought in some new management. The fascinating thing about this change, is that this guy is coming in from the world of big box clubsterants, which feels like the opposite of the Momofuku ethos.

David: I'm sure it could look like that. Alex [Munoz-Suarez] was at The One Group. I don't think I've ever been to an establishment of The One Group. He's just a widely respected person [in the restaurant industry]. He’s seen a lot, and he’s just a good guy, willing to be an operator and manager of the business in a way that we were not able to do. We were really excited that Alex came on board because we are growing and I want to ensure that growth is done in a sensible fashion. If it was up to me, I'd make a lot of stupid decisions because everything is so delicious in my head as an idea. I constantly have to fight that urge, or I'm just going to do too much. So hiring Alex might look strange on the surface, but to me it makes all the sense in the world.

Helen: Where do you hope Momofuku is in a decade?

David: I don't know.

Helen: Do you even want to be involved in the decision-making process?

David: I do. It’s just that the whole idea is hard for me because this part of Momofuku is new to me. We've got a lot of people and we have to grow. I asked Jean-Georges [Vongerichten], I asked Daniel [Boulud], I asked Mario [Batali], I asked all these guys and everyone has a different approach. As you can probably tell, I'm still trying to figure out just about everything. How do you build a great company, just like you build a great restaurant?

How do you do it in a way that's still thoughtful? You’ve got to be fully committed to a corporate body for governance and operations. You have to be fully committed to the artistic anarchy. It's not some ratio, it's both [of these] simultaneously. That's what we need. If Momofuku's fucked up sometimes, it's been too much of one or the other.

I think maybe the best thing for Momofuku is to find some balance. And maybe the only way to get balance is through scale. I don't know. These are things that I think about all day long because I'm trying like hell to find the best answer.

Greg: Do you still want to bring Fuku to a bunch of other cities?

David: Yeah.

Greg: I'm a big Fuku fan.

David: Fuku's opening up at 110 Wall Street. We're excited about that. It's a different kind of creativity. Sometimes I wish I only did Fuku because there's not as many moving pieces. Maybe that's what I will do, I don't know. I'm trying to sort that out myself.

We've got a couple more things lined up. The biggest issue is just building the right kind of team. This is really the first restaurant we've ever done [specifically for Fuku]. The 163 First Avenue space was an incubator before it was repurposed for Fuku. Eventually Fuku will probably move out and we'll do a new concept in 163. Then we have a Fuku+ at Má Pêche, but again, that was just an existing space.

It's a very Momofuku thing. We fuck up. We have to make mistakes. I always marvel at what Will [Guidara] and Daniel [Humm] do at Eleven Madison Park, because they're like, "This is our plan." I marvel at that ability. We strive to be like that. I think almost everything we've done has been a failure from the get go. That's just the truth, and I don't think people see that. We have fucked up just about every opening in every restaurant we've ever done. We grind it out and figure out how to make it work as we go. That's what makes it a very organic experience and sometimes maddening. But I can't see any other way to do it than to engage with the world, make the mistakes, and pick up the pieces from there.

Helen: The comparison that you're drawing seems very similar to the difference between legacy print media and digital media. There's this whole thing in digital where we fuck up in public all the time and it's super fast moving. You can't really focus — it's always just like ideas, ideas, ideas. The victories are public, but so are the tailspins. It's so different than the silent, powerful ship of the New York Times that just glides forward and is impenetrable. There are different ways to do things in the world.

David: Yeah, I guess. For me, the hard part is that Maple [the restaurant delivery service I had invested in] failed. I don't know how, considering how many meals were being served. We've had our struggles with Ando because it's the first merger, as far as I know, of smart tech people and cooks. That's a hard merger. We're making the right kinds of mistakes and I'm fascinated by that, mainly because I love delivery, but also I know it has to work. The only way we're going to get to that point is by trying new things and fucking it up.

As you say, unfortunately and fortunately, the good gets praised and the bad gets scrutinized. I want to make sure that doesn't prevent us from trying more shit out. It pains me, more than you guys know, to let people down. It fucking sucks, because no one's a harsher critic than myself. But I can't even imagine what Momofuku would be like if everything was perfect from the get go. That would scare the shit out of me.

Greg: Really quickly, if somebody hasn't been back to Nishi in a year, what should you order?

David: I love the meat program there right now. The menu has not changed that much for dinner. I know we have some changes in the works. We are planning to modernize the dining room in some fashion. People don't realize we're not like a lot of restaurant groups. We opened that up on a shoestring budget, and when we've saved up enough money, we're going to redo the dining room. One of the questions was, do we make the dining room look modern American, or do we keep it the way we want to do it? I just can't fucking give in to how certain people want it.

Helen: You say “certain people” with such derision. Like, fuck the man, no cushions on the seats.

David: We updated Ssäm Bar. We're constantly doing that. We've made some changes in the company, and it's been a tumultuous year because we have 1,000 employees on the culinary end. As Momofuku grows up, we can't do everything. That's been the real shitty part of this year.

Greg: I feel like the story of Momofuku always involves evolution.

David: Yeah, I totally agree with you. The shitty part is when we're not changing enough — whether it's hubris or laziness, we are content — that scares the shit out of me.

Helen: How do you know when it's time to let something die? How do you know when it's time to sunset a restaurant — or Lucky Peach, for example, which just folded?

David: With Lucky Peach, we didn't. That continues to be one of the most painful things. That was hard. It was and still is really raw. I don't want to talk about it too much. It might make people that are curious happy, but for the people involved within Lucky Peach, no one gains [by my talking about it].

Helen: Is Lucky Peach the first Momofuku endeavor to close? Have you closed any restaurants?

David: No. We've gone a long time without closing a restaurant.

Greg: That is an insane track record, for as many as you've opened in New York City and other cities as well.

David: Well we closed Booker and Dax.

Helen: That's true.

David: Again, these are things that we just didn't know when we set up these companies. I wish we set things up differently. The hardest part is Peter Meehan is not only a close friend but someone I consider my brother. I mean, I just got married, but that's the longest relationship I've ever fucking been in. And relationships come to an end. I feel confident that something good will come out of that between the both of us.

I have to do what's best for the restaurants. That's what we do. I don't know many other restaurant groups that supported a magazine. I was able to do whatever I wanted to do because we didn't have any investors, and these are now legacy issues. One day I'm sure it will all be explained, and I definitely feel bad about how it all went down because we tried so hard to make it all right. I don't know. It's been a really, really hard year. It's pretty heavy stuff.

Helen: On that uplifting note, it's time for us to ask you what kind of underwear you wear in the lightning round. Normally on the Upsell we bring in a guest question asker to hit you with the hardballs for the lightning round, but today, because you're David Chang and in many respects one of the patron saints of Eater, we crowdsourced some lightning round questions from our fellow Eater editors. Let's fire them away.

Greg: Lightning round question number one. Dave Chang, what's your “don't look at the menu” diner order? You walk into a diner, you sit down, what do you tell the waiter or waitress?

David: Patty melt.

Helen: What kind of bread?

David: It's always rye.

Helen: That's the correct answer, yes.

David: Yes.

Helen: What kind of cheese?

David: I ask for American always. Do you ask for cheddar?

Helen: No. American is the only acceptable answer.

David: I don't think there's any other cheese, and then I always ask for well-done fries. If they don't have coleslaw, that makes me a little upset. I'm the guy that puts coleslaw in my patty melt.

Helen: Whoa.

David: Yeah.

Greg: Wow. Like a patty melt Reuben type thing. Wow.

David: Also, you should see my list of restaurants that I voted for in [the World’s 50 Best Restaurants]. I'm going to get in trouble because I've just been telling everyone what I voted. I put Cassell's in Los Angeles on my list because they make the best patty melt I've ever had in my life.

Helen: I love that. That's very democratic of you.

David: It's the fucking best. I cannot. I want to put patty melts on the menu at the restaurants, but I don't want the people at Cassell's to be like, "Well, you just stole our shit." Because I only want to do homage to what they've done. It's just one of the best goddamn things you could eat anywhere.

Helen: Could you call it Cassell's Patty Melt, and send them a dollar for every one you sell?

David: I wish, but they have this different way they cook the cheese. They have this special griddle. I highly recommend it. Every time I go to a diner — and people don't realize how often I eat at diners — I always get the patty melt and I'm always disappointed because it's not a Cassell's patty melt. It makes me sad.

Helen: I like this. You know where perfection is, and yet you continue to search for it.

David: Just rolling that stone uphill.

Helen: All right. Next lightning round question. If you were stranded on a desert island for the rest of your life with either René Redzepi or Anthony Bourdain, who would you choose?

David: I have to choose between two?

Helen: Yup, just those two.

David: Fuck.

Helen: Or I guess infinite solitude. You could choose one of them and murder him immediately.

David: Wow. They're really close to me. Uncle Tony —

Helen: Do you call him Uncle Tony? Is he in your phone as Uncle Tony? I would like that to be true.

David: He's not. Tony is one of the most amazing, magnificent human beings ever. People always ask, "Is he as awesome as I think that he is?" I'm like, "Yes, and still way more awesome than you could believe." He's been Uncle Tony to me for a long time. I don't know how this shit happens, I'm just very fortunate he's one of these Michael Landon-like figures in my life.

But, sorry Uncle Tony, I'm going to go with my good pal René Redzepi, because he's going to figure out some fucking foraging system that will keep our food fresh on this desert island. I don't think Tony knows how to forage anything except for Marlboro Reds.

Helen: It didn't really occur to me that actually René Redzepi is a fantastic survivalist.

David: Yeah, he is.

Helen: Yeah, he'll take the weird lichen and just all of a sudden —

David: I'd probably have a better time with Tony, but knowing René, he would probably devise a system to get off the fucking island.

Greg: All right. Well, next lightning round question. As you mentioned earlier, you recently got married.

Helen: Congratulations.

David: Thank you.

Greg: What was the dessert at your wedding? Was it a wedding cake?

David: We eloped and somehow Christina Tosi found out beforehand and sent a cake. We had the chocolate chip passion fruit Milk Bar cake.

Helen: That is the correct Milk Bar cake.

Greg: That's the best one.

David: Yes.

Helen: We were having a discussion in the office about that yesterday, that the passion fruit chocolate chip Milk Bar cake is the supreme Milk Bar cake.

David: And somehow Christina has forced me to also love it, because she's like, "This is David's favorite cake." I don't remember ever saying that to myself, but because she tells me that I'm like, "Yes. This is my favorite cake."

Helen: She's just inceptioned you into believing that you love it.

David: She is a force of nature, yes.

Helen: That's fantastic. We have two questions left. Second to last, when was the last time you had a Momofuku pork bun?

David: I have the buns quite a bit. I don't have the pork too much. I probably had one about a year ago, and that was just a bite.

Helen: Holy shit. That's a bombshell. David Chang has not had a Momofuku pork bun in over a year.

Greg: The shiitake buns at Noodle Bar are amazing.

Helen: Those are the move, man.

David: We've cooked and tasted so much pork, it's so hard for me. I fucked up two things. What's that Buddhist tantric thing to get over urges and desires? I have almost zero desire to eat pork products like I used to. And because we make so much fucking fried chicken, my great joys, pork and fried chicken, are no longer things that I crave.

Helen: Oh God, you've ruined them for yourself.

Greg: That's rough.

David: I've ruined them for myself because they're fucking everywhere.

Helen: It's like when a parent catches their kid smoking and makes them smoke the whole pack. You did that to yourself with your favorite foods.

David: I've done that to myself. I still taste it, but the buns are hard to eat on an everyday basis because I don't have to taste it every day anymore. Not that I won't eat pork belly, I just cook pork belly in different ways right now. My wife loves this dish, this is like the epitome of ugly-delicious, called kongbiji jigae. It's soybeans that have been cooked whole and skinned, then you crush them up and cook them with kimchi and slices of pork belly until it turns into this almost cassoulet-like thing. I've been making a lot of that.

We were trying to make all these dishes from the Muslim ban states. I was like, "Man, I don't know anything about this food." Somehow I kept on making pork belly instead.

Helen: While you're trying to make Halal food, you're just cooking pork.

David: Yeah, pretty much. There's a dish my grandfather loved quite a bit because he was a Korean person that was educated and lived in Japan. It is basically pork belly that's been cooked in brown sugar or rock sugar with lots of ginger and garlic. I've been making that quite a bit, and I tell my guys, "Hey, we should put this on the menu," and they're like, "Yeah, sure chef. Who the fuck's going to eat a pile of pork belly like that?"

Helen: Okay grandpa. Go back and watch TV.

David: Exactly.

Greg: All right Dave.

Helen: Final question. I'm so excited about this question.

Greg: Yeah, Helen and I are both really curious about this. Who is currently on the eats-for-free list at the Momofuku restaurants, and who is on the kick-them-out list? Is there anyone on the kick-them-out list?

David: Oh man. We have the no-PX list.

Helen: Oh, the Fuck You list, basically.

David: You know, I'm still an angry guy, but I'm just not as angry as I used to be. Rest in peace Josh Ozersky, if you were still alive you would still not be allowed into any of the Momofuku restaurants. There are a few people [on the list], but it's mostly like, "Don't send them anything. Don't do anything." On the who eats for free list, there’s quite a bit. There's an agreement with a few of the chefs: If you eat at a place with more than two people, you're not getting comped.

Helen: Seems like smart business.

David: There is one group that gets comped quite a bit. They paid recently because they were a seven-top. At some point, you just can't comp that. There's a couple chefs in New York that eat at Noodle Bar a lot. They know who they are. I'm like, "Fuck man." They eat there all the time.

Helen: How often do you sit down and massage who is on the do-not-PX list? Is this a daily basis kind of thing?

David: I'll tell you one person from when we opened up in Las Vegas. There are people in my career who have been a real pain in my ass and I don't know why. John Curtas, I hate him. I didn't want to even mention his name because it just validates his fucking shitty personality and his hatred towards us. I was telling The Cosmopolitan, "If he comes in, he's fucking not allowed in. He's not allowed in." I made this big stink about it. "Don't let him in. He's not going to give us a fair shot. There's no chance in hell." I lost that battle and he gave us a really bad review. It was just a weird review actually. I hate it when white guys tell me how to make Asian food. That pisses me off so much. Fuck this guy.

Helen: I think we're not going to disagree with your assessment of him.

Greg: Yeah, no. That sounds accurate.

David: He's a shitty person. He's a bad fucking guy. I've said horrific things about him, and I'm okay with that. I hope nothing but the worst for this person. There used to be a lot of people like that. Clark Wolf's another fuck-that-guy.

Helen: Don't know who he is, but sure fuck him.

David: I didn't even know what this guy did, but he's always trashed me. In some ways, Momofuku became successful because of this. I'll tell you one story. There was a person who ran a culinary organization — I won't say her name because I don't even want to give her any ounce of credibility.

Helen: I instantly know exactly who you're talking about.

David: They give awards to people. We opened up in 2004, she came in and I remember her eating the food, and then she goes to me, "Hey, come here young man. This isn't Japanese food." I'm like, "Excuse me?" She's like, "I know Japanese food. My husband's Japanese." I remember not even letting her finish her sentence, I just walked the fuck away. Needless to say, it was basically full-out war. One day I got a letter saying, "Hey, let bygones be bygones," or whatever the fuck she said. I wrote back, "One of the reasons Momofuku has been successful is our complete and utter hatred of you. The only way we will bury the hatchet is when your organization is defunct."

Helen: We're going to bury the hatchet in your fucking head. Oh my god.

Greg: Is that organization still alive?

David: I think so.

Helen: It's hanging on.

David: It doesn't matter to me. It used to. That's the kind of rage I used to wake up with and go to bed with. Basically the only people that were on that list had said, "You can't do this. Fuck you Dave. Momofuku sucks. We don't believe in you. You're a fucking scourge on this earth, get the fuck out of the restaurant industry." The fatwa was declared against those people.

Helen: When you frame it like that, it seems like the logical response.

David: Yeah, I'm not going to fucking lay down if you fucking say that.

Helen: It doesn't seem disproportionate. Of course, if you tell me I'm a scourge on this earth, I'm going to destroy you and everyone you love.

David: It's a little bit different now. "Don't send them fucking anything. Barely acknowledge their existence. Just make sure they don't have a bad time, so they can't write a shitty thing about us."

Helen: I love it. It's a good philosophy. Just give them no ammo.

David: I still think kicking out the critic is one of the best things. I kicked out Gael Greene, that was a fun day.

Helen: The power dynamic is endlessly fascinating.

Greg: People don't do it very often, but every time it happens it's always irresistible, as a journalist, to learn all the details.

Helen: We don't get a lot of drama here in the food world.

David: No. Here's a moral dilemma. A food critic came into one of our restaurants. I was actually in the kitchen and we fucked up one of the dishes. There was a lag. Whenever that happens at any other table, we're going to send them one dish to tide them over. We sent that to this table because that's sort of our policy, but when you send free food to a critic, it's like, "What the fuck?" I didn't want to, but again, this is blurring the line now about how you treat that kind of situation. I only bring this up because I'm like, "Do I let this guy in the restaurant?" What would happen if you banned the critic from a restaurant?

Helen: Adam Platt got banned from ZZ’s Clam Bar.

David: The Torrisi guys did it.

Helen: Yeah, and what happened? They both seem fine.

Greg: I don't know if he has reviewed another one of their restaurants.

David: Jordan Kahn did that with S. Irene Virbila. I think that was a very poor decision because she's a lovely lady. I don't know. At some point though, I think that something is going to happen [to restaurant critics].

Helen: Yelp will just take over. None of us will have jobs anymore. Well, you will, but Greg and I will just live on the street and write freelance Yelp reviews. It'll be great.

Greg: Yeah.

Helen: Cool. David Chang, thank you so much for joining us on The Eater Upsell today.

David: You're welcome.

Greg: Yeah, thanks so much David Chang.

David: I appreciate being here. Hopefully I didn't speak too much verbal diarrhea.

Helen: No, a usual amount for this show I think. We have contained it within the diaper of The Eater Upsell.

Greg: It's what we're all about.

Helen: Well, this has been great. If listeners want to follow your dog on Instagram, where can they find him?

David: It’s @Momo_Seve. He’s named after Seve Ballesteros, the great Spanish golfer.

Helen: He’s a super cute dog. Awesome. David Chang, thanks so much.

David: Thank you guys.

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The Eater Upsell is recorded at Vox Media Studios in Manhattan and Los Angeles
Hosts: Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner
Producer: Maureen Giannone
Associate Producer/Editor: Daniel Geneen
Editorial Producer: Monica Burton
Editorial services: Amy McKeever


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