Last night, chef and empire builder David Chang took the stage at Code Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, to talk with Eater editor-in-chief Amanda Kludt and Recode executive editor Peter Kafka about his many business ventures. This candid conversation covered Momofuku’s expansion plans, his vision for the recently launched company Majordomo Media, the criticism of his hit Netflix show Ugly Delicious, and Chang’s thoughts on how the #MeToo movement has changed the restaurant industry — including his own establishments.
The whole 34-minute interview is required viewing for any Chang die-hards. But for anyone who wants an overview of the major points, here’s a collection of the crunchiest sound bites from the conversation:
Chang on how much TLC he needs to personally give each Momofuku restaurant: “I consider the real full-service restaurants to be — not that I have children yet — like children, in the sense that when you open up something new, they’re like a newborn and you need to really look after it. And then we have some restaurants that are, like, they pay their own taxes, they have their own jobs, they need very little things, and you see them two or three times a year. And we have everything else in between.”
On Momofuku’s business plan: “We don’t have the margins that tech has — we just don’t. Across the board, food should be more expensive, but people aren’t ready to accept that yet. Until that can happen, we have to figure out how to create enough profitability so we can provide for all of our employees.”
On the future of his fried chicken sandwich chain, Fuku: “We have nine locations. We have many more on line. So while I tell you, ‘No, we’re not scaling it,’ we are definitely scaling it. I’m just not comfortable in saying that it’s a set model.”
On how the #MeToo movement is changing his restaurant group: “There was just a recent revelation, more on Eater today, about Mario [Batali]. And it’s not just disheartening. You’re like... Jesus Christ, this is so hard to read. Because simultaneously, I don’t know if we would be in business today without Mario’s support. So I feel obligated to recognize that, but also, like, what do I do with the opportunities I have now? And the only thing I think I can do with the platform that we have, is to be the best-in-class business with the most thoughtful, forward-thinking culture, knowing that we’re never going to be perfect. But that’s always been our goal.”
On the role that the Majordomo Media plays in relation to the Momofuku group: “You look at someone like Wolfgang Puck, and he’s created a giant business of every kind of thing related to food, from like CPG (consumer packaged goods), to pots and pans, to frozen pizzas, to catering. And there’s a reason why hundreds of people stay with him. He constantly takes care of his employees, and he’s got a great team. And that’s sort of the idea: ‘Hey if the media takes off, that’s more stuff we can bring back to the restaurants.’ Maybe people will never want to pay that much money for food; maybe we can subsidize some of the costs with other stuff that’s elevating our business.
On the impact of Ugly Delicious on his businesses: “It’s a sea change. I didn’t understand how many people were going to watch the show. I won’t say numbers, but whether it’s Chef’s Table or any other culinary programming on Netflix, the story is, among those that have been on these programs, is you can expect to see a dramatic bump, even in restaurants that are already busy.”
On how he thinks the collapse of Lucky Peach will influence Majordomo Media: “What I’m going to do differently, and what I’m learning as I get older, especially in business, is to set it up right. Make sure you have clear delineation of what’s in and what’s out. And I don’t know if I would have ever learned that if we didn’t make mistakes in the past.”
On his future with Netflix: “I’m thankful that we seem to have a very solid relationship with Netflix, and we’re working on some stuff. I can’t comment too much on that.”
On criticism of Ugly Delicious, specifically the barbecue episode: “You know, I’ve read every bit of criticism about that TV show, just like I read every review, because it just kills me when anyone has a bad time. So, yes, I’ve read every criticism, whether it wasn’t inclusive enough through African Americans or through women, I just know that we had one season, and we did our best, and we had no intention of trying to be exclusive. And hopefully there’s a second season, and we’ll be able to do it better.”
On lessons leaned from the short-lived delivery-only restaurants he was involved with, Maple and Ando: “The biggest issue with tech and food is the fact that you can create the tech, but you can’t scale the people. And the throughput of how fast you can make food was always going to be limited by kitchen space.”
On delivery services like GrubHub and Seamless: “I think it’s fool’s gold... for the restaurant owner. The reality is, you’re only helping out the delivery company. You’re not helping out the restaurant. And the margins are too high. So the whole thing needs to be thought through differently.” (Chang remains optimistic about the potential of food delivery taking off; he just doesn’t see it happening from these types of partnerships.)
And one final thought on the responsibility that chefs have in the post-#MeToo era: “I think that for those that are in the business, we need to be stronger in our moral compass, essentially. When someone does something that they may find questionable, or not do something right... when we see it immediately, we need to talk to them about it, and be like, ‘Hey, that’s inappropriate,’ and teach it as a learning lesson. When you see something over a period of time, that’s unacceptable.”