The Importance of Being David Chang

TORONTO — With the possible exception of his mother, nobody would argue that people do not talk enough about David Chang. More often than not, though, he is talked about for the wrong things.

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Pete Wells
, New York Times

TORONTO — With the possible exception of his mother, nobody would argue that people do not talk enough about David Chang. More often than not, though, he is talked about for the wrong things.

Diners and restaurant writers insist on seeing him as the inventor of every scrap of food sold under the Momofuku name, rather than as a restaurant operator who is very skilled — maybe singularly skilled — at creating the conditions other chefs need to come up with food that’s not just novel but relevant to our world.

Kojin, which he opened here in June, would be completely baffling if you believed that Chang was behind every dish. Once you’d made your way to the third floor of the askew glass cube that juts out of the Shangri-La Hotel, you’d search for his fingerprints on the menu, almost as big as a newspaper page and decorated with antique-looking illustrations of crab claws and sausages emanating from a hand-cranked meat grinder.

The Changian loops and whorls are there, but they’re rare. Kojin is not an Asian restaurant, even by the crossbred standards of the Momofuku kingdom. It’s a steakhouse, sort of. Cuts of Hereford-Angus beef raised on pastures outside this city are grilled over a wood fire behind the chef’s counter. The chef in question is Paula Navarrete, a Momofuku veteran who grew up in Colombia, where almost everything is fair game for the grill.

Besides steak, Kojin cooks sweet potatoes and avocados over the fire, along with a shrimp-and-pork sausage that brings dim sum to mind and what is probably the best hot dog I’ve ever eaten in a restaurant: long and smoky and especially compelling when dabbed with green peppercorn mustard made by a celebrated Toronto firm. The most intense flavors in my meal, though, came from Ontario-grown corn. Kojin’s leadoff appetizer is a griddled flatbread that is something like a yeast-raised arepa; you can wrap warm strips of it around Niagara ham and cherries or dunk it into a gleefully middlebrow spinach dip. My dessert was a cobbler by name but was really a low, crunchy, golden corn cake with a dark trench of blueberry sauce running down the middle.

This was deeply enjoyable cooking, bending its efforts toward the innate goodness of its Ontario ingredients. Chang and Navarrete apparently decided that the menu, rather than running through his hits, should play to her strengths.

But early reviews suggest that some customers have been confused, wondering why they aren’t eating typical David Chang food.

Momofuku, Chang’s company, now owns 10 sit-down restaurants in three countries and is a part owner of Christina Tosi’s 14 far-flung haute-stoner bakeries, Milk Bar, as well as the seven locations or concessions of Fuku, a chain of quick-service chicken counters. The restaurants themselves range from tasting-menu aeries to the mostly walk-in Noodle Bars, the latest of which will open this fall inside the Time Warner Center in New York, next to a new Momofuku counter-service venture called Bang Bar.

This is a very odd lot. Yet everybody has an idea of what typical David Chang food is, and they all seem to agree that Majordomo in Los Angeles serves it. Given that the restaurant, which opened in January, was Chang’s first in California, and given how deeply the menu is marinated in the Korean food he grew up with, it was probably inevitable that some diners would read it as culinary autobiography.

But the reviews were remarkable for how eagerly they played Find the Chang. One critic wrote that eating there “is like taking a walk through Chang’s brain.” According to another, sampling dishes from the menu’s various departments allows a diner “to take in the entire mosaic of Chang’s imagination.” A third claimed that “the cooking here represents Chang at his most resplendently Changian.” It is possible to read thousands of words of critical appraisals of Majordomo without learning that the executive chef there is named Jude Parra-Sickels.

To some extent, this represents a benign shorthand used by many critics. Menus almost never name the actual cook responsible for a dish, so we attribute everything to the boss. I’ve done it, particularly when it allows me to pin bad news on the famous owner rather than a young chef running a kitchen for the first time. It also has to be said that fading into the wallpaper is not in Chang’s skill set.

He is on television, he used to run a magazine and he has his tentacles wrapped around a new media company also called Majordomo. His opinions are sometimes contradictory, but they are always strongly expressed. He is probably the modern equivalent of Norman Mailer or Muhammad Ali in the 1960s and ‘70s — somebody whose success in one part of the culture allows him to sound off on the rest of the culture and where it is heading.

But by talking about the cooking in his restaurants as projections of the Changian psyche, we’re missing a lot of things that would be obvious if Chang were a plain restaurateur with no background as a chef — like Danny Meyer, or Rich Melman of Lettuce Entertain You in Chicago.

We’d talk about the comfort and civility that has quietly slithered into his restaurants to replace the backless seats and argumentative menus of his early years. His entire career has been spent trying to calibrate precisely how much of those two qualities a good restaurant needs.

Comfort has always been part of the conversation around Chang, but his evolution in that area hasn’t always been noticed. The last time he tried to shortchange us on comfort was with Momofuku Nishi in Manhattan a couple of years ago, by which time it was a recidivist throwback to his days as a noodle-slinging punk. Nearly every critic in town called him on it, and he reworked the space. But he has always recognized that the fabric-swaddled dining rooms that once signified comfort gave a lot of younger people the sensation of being buried alive.

His attempts to build a modern vocabulary of comfort — keeping the sleek surfaces and right angles while reducing the lumbar pain — are underrecognized. So are the widely imitated contributions of the architects and designers he has chosen, starting with Hiromi Tsuruta and Swee Phuah’s minimalist, horizontal design for the original Noodle Bar.

His ideas have been remarkably consistent, down to the playlists. I’ve been listening to Pavement and Yo La Tengo in Chang’s restaurants for 14 years now, but in the past two I’ve noticed that the volume is finally starting to come down.

In the popular imagination, civility is not part of the Momofuku brand. (Some customers may even expect his cooks to curse the way that Chang does in interviews.) But the level of attentiveness at his restaurants is quietly, unobtrusively superb; I can’t think of any restaurant groups where the service staff “does” more for the customer without seeming fussy.

Occasionally they get caught trying to be too correct: A server at Majordomo kept surprising a woman at my table by serving from her right, which required an awkward reach. And very rarely they err on the side of being too casual, as when the person who took our order there promised to “course that puppy out for you.”

Impressive wines almost go without saying in restaurants belonging to a group as large as Chang’s. But again, anyone who thinks of him first and foremost as a proliferator of pork buns is not going to be prepared for how discerning most of the wine lists are; they have a way of zeroing in on the producers who make wine that’s either exactly what you want out of their region, or exactly what you didn’t expect.

Good wine lists, intelligent service and thoughtful contemporary design can be bought. They’re all deployed regularly by well-capitalized restaurateurs. What very few other groups do is inspire chefs to follow their own inclinations and idiosyncrasies all the way out. At Momofuku Ko, he has given Sean Gray the freedom to serve food that is notable for its attention to detail and its finesse. These aren’t necessarily traits we associate with Chang; the late Jonathan Gold, in his review of Majordomo, summed up the Chang aesthetic as “cracked perfection.” Gray serves things that are edgy enough for Momofuku (a sausage with a chicken head on one end, like a freakish, all-natural Pez dispenser) and others that might not be (a savory pie with a puff-pastry crust crimped into neat little pleats).

Chang seems to have allowed Gray and his general manager, Su Wong Ruiz, to slip the leash, the way Meyer did when Daniel Humm and Will Guidara of Eleven Madison Park wanted to chase a fourth star. Momofuku Ko, both in the main dining room and the eccentric little bar next door, almost vibrates with ambition and creativity.

At least once a month I find myself wishing that Momofuku Seiobo were in New York instead of Sydney. The chef, Paul Carmichael, uses Australian ingredients to celebrate Caribbean standards, including some dishes that are so humble and routine that only somebody who had grown up with them, as Carmichael did, would know they were worth celebrating. It’s one of the most successful, exhilarating tasting menus I’ve ever had, and it would be completely impossible to pull off by remote control. It’s the work of Carmichael and his crew, full stop.

What Chang does with his chefs is something we may not have a term for. We understand chefs who are solo artists, and we understand cooks who uphold the standards of a major chef’s global chain, like the ones at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon or Nobu.

What’s hard to grasp is the middle ground where Chang has put most of his chefs. They have to fit into the family, but they also have to be individualistic enough to deserve a place in the family.

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