Sometimes, just when you thought there was nothing left to write about a subject, someone comes along and writes such a good piece you can only shake your head and wish you had written it yourself. That's how I feel after reading Larissa McFarquhar's profile of David Chang in this week's New Yorker. Chang seems to have allowed McFarquhar almost total access as he and his staff prepare to open Momofuku Ko.
If you're interested in food and chefs and people in general striving to do something meaningful in their lives, you must read this piece. Chang reveals himself to be a genuinely tortured (and conflicted) if well-meaning soul with generously spirited impulses, prodigious talent, and impossibly high Thomas KellerandDaniel Boulud-like standards. And as I have written many times over the years, the man can flat out cook, even if he won't admit it to himself. At Ko, as I reported last week, Chang and his merry gang of renegade cooks have taken their craft to deliciously inventive new heights.
After the jump, some quotes from the story highlighted in the press release the New Yorker sent out. Alas, our backward friends at the magazine have not yet put the story online. The profile is so revealing and insightful that the issue is worth buying.
'We Care More Than the Next Guy'
Chang on his success: "I feel like I didn't deserve any of this ... I'm still so insecure, I feel like I'm Forrest Gump—I'm mildly retarded, and people are, like, 'Look how far this guy has come!'"
Chang opened Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004 after having an epiphany: "Why can't I cook something simple? I'm not an awesome cook—I just want to make noodles." MacFarquhar writes, "The idea of Noodle Bar from the start was to take the humblest meal—a bowl of noodles, a pork bun—and, with a combination of obsessive devotion and four-star technique, turn it into something amazing."
In all of his restaurants, he strives for perfection, and fiercely encourages his staff to do the same. As he addresses the staff of Noodle Bar, his philosophy becomes clear: "Are you willing to fucking sacrifice yourself for the food? ... It takes those little things, the properly cut scallions, to set us apart from Uno's and McDonald's.... Just because we're not Per Se, just because we're not Daniel, just because we're not a four-star restaurant, why can't we have the same fucking standards? ... I know we've won awards, all this stuff, but it's not because we're doing something special—I believe it's really because we care more than the next guy."
As hard as he is on his staff, Chang is even harder on himself. "Getting these awards freaks me out—the last thing I want is a Michelin star—because I know I'm not the best," he tells MacFarquhar.
The stress of running his restaurants has led to some serious physical and mental health problems in recent years. Chang tells MacFarquhar, "I just feel unease almost all the time. I'm a total head case right now, I cannot keep this up. All I want to do is fucking move to Idaho and ski and fish and read books. All I want to do is run away and stop."
Yet, MacFarquhar writes, "one of the few things that make Chang happy in life is setting up his friends in restaurants of their own." He tells her, "If it was solely about money, I could have sold out a long time ago, but I wouldn't feel good about it, because I'd let everyone down."
Mario Batali, who has opened 12 restaurants and appears on three television shows, has counseled Chang about coping with success. "Mario's big thing to me is 'Dave, would you fucking be happy?' He loves it. He loves life. I want to love life as much as Mario loves life," Chang says. "It's not that I'm not happy; I'm just fearful for the future. I'm fearful that everything's gonna be taken away. Fear is a driving force for most of the things that I do. I don't know if that's healthy."