2015 American Chef of the Year: David Chang
Chef David Chang’s influence, as is often said of true trailblazers, is so universal that it’s become nearly invisible. An empire-builder and a reluctant revolutionary, Chang’s rise was a harbinger of things to come in the restaurant industry, sparking a movement toward unpretentious, casual fine dining, as oxymoronic as that might be. Chang is at the top of his game, which is why he’s The Daily Meal’s American Chef of The Year, as voted on by previous years’ honorees, including Massimo Bottura, José Andrés, Dan Barber, and René Redzepi.
Chang’s path to greatness was a roundabout one. A religion major at Hartford’s Trinity College, he spent some time in the finance industry after graduating before taking a job teaching English in Japan. It was there that he decided once and for all to go into the culinary industry, and he soon packed up and moved to New York, where he enrolled in the French Culinary Institute. He quickly got a job as a line cook at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Mercer Kitchen after graduating, followed by a stint answering phones at Tom Colicchio’s recently-opened Craft, where he soon graduated to working the line alongside Colicchio, Marco Canora, and Jonathan Benno.
After two years cooking in Tokyo and a stint in Virginia, he raised $130,000 in startup capital and opened Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York in August of 2004. Specializing in ramen and pork buns, it was successful enough that in August 2006 he opened Momofuku Ssam Bar, which earned two stars from the New York Times, and the snowball effect officially began to take hold. In 2008, he opened the high-end Momofuku Ko, with only 12 seats, a set tasting menu, and a pioneering online reservation system. It received two Michelin stars.
Everything Chang has accomplished since then gives the impression of being jewels in his crown, but he’s quite obviously not resting on his laurels. Later, in 2009, he opened the first Momofuku Milk Bar with his pastry chef Christina Tosi, and it’s become an empire of its own, with seven locations in New York, D.C., and Toronto. He opened Má Pêche in Midtown Manhattan in 2010, a Sydney Momofuku in 2011, and three different restaurants and a bar (simultaneously!) in Toronto and an experimental cocktail bar in New York called Booker & Dax in 2012. In 2015, he opened Fuku, a wildly popular fried chicken sandwich shop; and Fuku+, which sells the signature fried chicken sandwich along an ever-evolving menu, in New York, as well as a Momofuku in Washington and a pop-up Indian steakhouse that sold out in minutes. He started off 2016 by opening the eclectic Momofuku Nishi in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, highlighting fresh pasta. Along the way, he launched the smartest food magazine of the twenty-first century (the award-winning, idiosyncratic food magazine Lucky Peach); developed his own food-delivery app, Maple, and racked up four James Beard Awards.
Arguably no chef and restaurant owner has had more influence on young urban chefs and diners in recent years than Chang. He found a middle ground between food trucks and pop-ups on one hand and too-serious restaurants on the other, proving that quality dining could exist in minimalist surroundings and that ramen, kimchi, pork buns, and fried chicken could be fine-dining fare if they were based on the best raw materials and skillfully cooked. He encouraged (knowingly or not, at first) imagination and energy and style in up-and-coming chefs, his own and otherwise, and incidentally helped give hip Korean food its modern culinary currency. The industry watches Chang and learns from him — and if they sometimes try to one-up him, that's even better for food in America.
We reached out to Chang, and in a brief interview had the opportunity to ask him about his cooking style, to what he attributes his success, and what excites and infuriates him about the restaurant industry.
The Daily Meal: How would you describe your cooking style, and what sets it apart from other chefs?
David Chang: I don’t know; it’s a little bit of everything! I’m honestly still trying to figure out what the hell my cooking style is.
What do you think it was about Momofuku that captured lightning in a bottle?
I can’t answer that question either. I mean, it happened. It just happened. We were doing something a little different. We work hard, and a lot of it was just luck.
And I’m sure a lot of skill as well.
Yes, we have an amazing team. An award like this is a representation of all the people involved.
A lot of chefs say that one of the most challenging aspects of opening a new restaurant is assembling a team. What’s your process like for that?
It’s always just to find not talent, necessarily, but just the best person. It has to be somebody that you actually want to work with, somebody who has a high level of accountability. They have to be a good person. Those are the things that matter the most.
To what can you attribute the success of just about everything that you’ve had your hands in? You venture into fried chicken sandwiches and it’s one of the year’s biggest openings.
I don’t know! We’ve been trying to do fried chicken for a very long time, and I think the timing was right. And we’ve also got a great team, and that team works extraordinarily hard.
What excites you the most about the current state of the restaurant industry right now?
The fact that the dining public knows more about food than ever before, because of the internet and social media. There’s a larger demographic of people who care about food. And it’s interesting, and it gives us new challenges, because people want new stuff, are clamoring for more new sh*t. So it’s hard, but it’s also exciting simultaneously.
What’s the most infuriating thing about the restaurant industry these days, in your opinion?I think food critics in general just shouldn’t be involved. I just don’t think that it’s necessary right now.
The same things. With the general increase in knowledge, you’d think that the people that shape the food opinions and critics and whatnot would know more about food than the general public, but I don’t think that’s actually the case.
I think food critics in general just shouldn’t be involved. I just don’t think that it’s necessary right now. Because by the time a review comes out, the public has already formed their opinions. I think the critic used to be absolutely necessary as the arbiter of taste and what was good, but the dining public is so sophisticated now, often more so than the critics. As much as I love A.O. Scott, for example, people aren’t reading his movie reviews to actually make their own judgment on things. They can watch the movie themselves. I think it’s sort of similar to that.
So do you think the restaurant industry would be a better place without the professional reviewers?
Well, they’re doing their job. And most importantly, they’re an advocate for the consumer. It’s necessary, because sh*t’s changing so much, people don’t know what the hell’s going on.
Where do you think the restaurant industry is heading? Where do you see it in a few years?
I don’t know. Hopefully there are still restaurants around, I don’t fu*king know. I just take it one day at a time.
What are you up to these days?
Just trying to focus on Washington, D.C., right now, and improving Fuku and a variety of things, but D.C. is my number one priority right now.
Is there anything that you hate cooking?
Restaurant cooking. I don’t cook that at home.
What do you like to cook at home?
2011 American Chef of the Year: Grant Achatz
2011 International Chef of the Year: René Redzepi
2012 American Chef of the Year: José Andrés
2012 International Chef of the Year: Massimo Bottura
2013 American Chef of the Year: Dan Barber
2013 International Chef of the Year: Albert Adrià
2014 American Chef of the Year: Sean Brock
2014 International Chef of the Year: Andoni Luis Aduriz