David Chang is one of the most influential restaurateurs of this century, a position he regards with no small amount of trepidation. And in Eat a Peach, Chang’s first memoir, the chef wrestles with his success as he chronicles his rise to prominence and the fame he’s experienced since. The beats of the book will be familiar to those who have followed Chang’s career, and much of it reads as if Chang is responding directly to those same people, critics included.
Chang gives the behind-the-scenes play by play for each of his restaurant openings, from growing pains at his first restaurant, the East Village’s Noodle Bar, to the “art project” that was fast-food, fried chicken restaurant Fuku, to his regrets around Momofuku’s critically panned Italian restaurant Nishi. He addresses his reputation for anger in the kitchen, the fallout from the shuttering of beloved food magazine Lucky Peach, and that time he reduced Bay Area cuisine to figs on a plate. He also lays out his struggles with mental health, including a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and examines the ways in which this fact of his life is linked to his mistakes as well as his undeniable ascent in the restaurant world.
Here are some of the highlights:
On his management style at Noodle Bar:
“I didn’t know how to teach or lead this team, but I was getting good results. My method, if you can even call it that, was a dangerous, shortsighted combination of fear and fury. My staff was at the mercy of my emotional swings. One second, we were on top of the world. The next, I would be screaming and banging my fists on the counter. I sought out and thrived on conflict. My arrogance was in conflict with my insecurity. Our restaurant was in conflict with the world.”
“I never resolved any conflicts between staff. On the contrary, if I heard that two cooks weren’t getting along, I’d see to it that they worked together more closely. That was one surefire method, I told myself, to ensure the place had a pulse. You could feel our anger the second you walked through the door, and that was exactly how I wanted it.”
On developing the Momofuku style:
“Roll your eyes all you want. God knows it sounds clichéd. But at that time most chefs in America were giving their customers different food than they were eating themselves. What we ate after service was uglier, spicier, louder. Stuff you want to devour as you pound beer and wine with your friends. It was the off bits that nobody else wanted and the little secret pieces you saved for yourself as a reward for slogging it out in a sweaty kitchen for sixteen hours. It’s the stuff we didn’t trust the dining public to order or understand: a crispy fritter made from pig’s head, garnished with pickled cherries; thin slices of country ham with a coffee-infused mayo inspired by Southern redeye gravy. My favorite breakthrough never made the cookbook: whipped tofu with tapioca folded in, topped with a fat pile of uni. So fresh, so cold, so clean, and so far outside of our own comfort zone. There were so many ideas on the menu that we’d never seen or tried before. The only unifying thread was that we were nervous about every single dish we served.”
“The only benefit to tying your identity, happiness, well-being and self-worth to your business is that you never stop thinking about it or worrying over what’s around the corner. If I have been quick to adapt to the changing restaurant landscape, it is because I have viewed it as a literal matter of survival. I have never allowed myself to coast or believed that I deserve for life to get easier with success. That’s where hubris comes from. The worst version of me was the one who, as a preteen, thought he had what it took to be a pro golfer. I believed my own hype and was a snotty little shit about it. The humiliation and pain of having it all slip through my fingers is something I’d rather never feel again. And so, I choose not to hear compliments or allow myself to bask in positive feedback. Instead, I spend every day imagining the many ways in which the wheels might fall off.”
On the demise of Lucky Peach:
“For anybody who thinks I didn’t feel a responsibility to the magazine, or that Lucky Peach wasn’t tied into the very heart of my own identity, let me explain something to you. To this day, it’s still something journalists ask me.
“You know what the name Momofuku means?
“It means ‘lucky peach.’”
On embracing his role as chef and restaurateur:
“All I ever wanted was to be normal, to think normal. I’m not a naturally loquacious person. I’m not outgoing or inclined to be a leader. I’m a wallflower. It’s been like that since I was a kid. For the majority of my life I was somewhere between ashamed and afraid of my Koreanness. I wanted not to be me, which is why drugs — both illicit and prescribed — appeal to me.
“The restaurants changed all of that. When I started Momofuku, I killed the version of me that didn’t want to stick his neck out or take chances. Even at its earliest larval stages, when it was more theory than restaurant, Momofuku was about carving out some sort of identity for myself. It would be my way of rejecting what the tea leaves said about me.
“Work made me a different person. Work saved my life.”
On rage and his diagnosis of bipolar disorder with “affective dysregulation” of emotions:
“Dr. Eliot describes it as a temporary state of psychosis. I can’t tell friend from foe. It’s as though I’m seeing the world in different colors and I can’t switch my vision back. It doesn’t only happen at work, either. I will lose it at home, which is horrifying. I lose all sense of what’s real and wish the worst on people I love most. My wife, Grace, tells me that when I’m angry, I seethe with such intensity that it can’t simply be emotional. It’s like I’m an animal registering dagner. There are times when Grace and I will be arguing and she’ll plead, ‘Hey, I’m on your side, I’m on your side.’ It will take hours for me to hear her.”
“I hate that the anger has become my calling card. With friends, family, my co-workers, and the media, my name has come to be synonymous with rage. I’ve never been proud of it, and I wish I could convey to you how hard I’ve tried to fight it. I’ve been entrenched in a war with my anger for many years.”
On his place in the world:
“‘What the hell is going on?’
“I call my friends and ask this all the time. They’ve heard me complain over and over that I have a problem accepting reality, because there’s no way I deserve the kind of good fortune I’ve had. I used to call it imposter syndrome, but now I understand it better as survivor’s guilt. All these people around me have died — literally and figuratively — and I’m still here. It truly feels like surviving a plane crash.”
On his first restaurant flop:
“I was on the verge of getting back on my feet after a very bad year, but the reviews of Nishi knocked me flat on my back again. I’m hesitant to admit this, but having to live through it a second time when The New Yorker published its profile of Wells put me in a bleak state of mind. I’m embarrassed that I let criticism affect me so intensely, but I felt closer to suicide in that period than I had in years.”
On being a part of the boys’ club:
“I’m literally one of the poster children for the kitchen patriarchy. In 2013, Time magazine put a photo of me, René Redzepi and Alex Atala wearing chef whites and satisfied smirks on the cover of their magazine and called us ‘The Gods of Food.’ I didn’t question whether any women would be included in the issue’s roundup of the most important chefs in the world because frankly it never occurred to me to ask. Even years before #MeToo started in earnest, the backlash to the all-male lineup was swift and deserved.
“At the time, I thought the point was about representation: there should be more women chefs covered by the food media, just as there should be more people of color. But no, we’re talking about something much more vicious. It’s not just about the glass ceiling or equal opportunity. It’s about people being threatened, undermined, abused, and ashamed in the workplace. It’s embarrassing to admit how long it took me to grasp that.”
“Even this book, written with the benefit of greater knowledge and better perspective, is still riddled with problems. I’ve talked a great deal about the importance of failure as a learning tool, but it’s really a privilege to expect people to let us fail over and over again. There are too many dudes in my story in general, and you can still see my bro-ish excitement when I tell old war stories. Almost all the artists and writers I mention are men, and most of the movies I reference can be found in the DVD library of any frat house in America. It’s my truth, which is why I’m leaving them in here, but I wish that some of it were different.”
From the book EAT A PEACH by David Chang with Gabe Ulla. Copyright © 2020 by David Chang. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Disclosure: David Chang is producing shows for Hulu in partnership with Vox Media Studios, part of Eater’s parent company, Vox Media. No Eater staff member is involved in the production of those shows, and this does not impact coverage on Eater.