Momofuku Ko: Does the Service Matter?

Or, 'Hi, My Name Is David and I'll Be Your Waiter Tonight'

20080506-kokokokokoko-oh.jpgWhen a Wall Street Journal reporter detailed her experience at Momofuku Ko and questioned her overall experience there, I thought it was an exercise in needless complaining. But then, on the eve of Frank Bruni's review, I started thinking about the service at Momofuku Ko and about what it says about where serious dining is going, and I decided that maybe she had a point—that, for a minimum of a hundred dollars a head, Ko should deliver on the promise of a welcoming, service-intensive experience where the diner feels well taken care of. Is that even possible when the cooks are doing the serving?

When you talk to Ko chef-owner David Chang and read about what he says about Ko, it's clear he wants the restaurant to be first and foremost about the food and the talented cooks who prepare and serve said food.

"Look," he told me, "we're trying to do something different here. When I was thinking about Ko, I didn't think much about the service. We want to have good service, we want people to have a good time, but not at the expense of our core values, which are all about the food. I think good service and hospitality are mutually exclusive. We are not going to be about customers having a bad day and taking it out on the chefs who work at Ko. If people have a problem with that, they should come talk to me about it—and if they don't like it, they don't have to come eat at Ko."

Where does that leave us, the serious eaters who want to eat well and feel well taken care of?

'A Satisfying and Singular Experience'

My only experience at Momofuku Ko was during friends and family rehearsals, which is all about ironing out the kinks in the food and the service, so I couldn't possibly render a conclusive judgment about either—though most of the food was undeniably delicious and groundbreaking, and I did feel well taken care of. So I started polling friends about their experience at Ko. The consensus was that eating there was a satisfying and singular experience and theatrical in its own minimalist fashion. Just about everyone I polled pointed out that it was unlike any other serious meal they had ever had.

The chefs serving the food were not particularly interested in explaining each dish beyond a perfunctory description, and they had little interest in starting a dialogue with the customers. Unlike, say, the Masa experience, which at $500 a head, a friend pointed out, diners should damn well feel well taken care of.

The question is: Can we eat delicious, groundbreaking, cook-centric food and feel well-taken-care-of at the same time? Is that even possible with cooks doing the serving? The cooks and chefs have a lot on their minds and so much going on that it may be too much to ask that they be concerned with their customers' well-being.

From Adam Platt's review in New York magazine:

"We charge cook's prices" is how Chang puts it to one of the patrons at the bar. He is standing with the rest of his cooks, who look the way top-line restaurant cooks usually do, which is to say pallid and harried, with assorted random baseball caps on their heads and their sleeves rolled up to give their burn marks full display. The first impression you get at Momofuku Ko, in fact, is that this is a kind of kitchen slave's revolt, an operation run by hypergifted line cooks for the benefit of their downtrodden, misunderstood, back-of-the-house brethren.

Chang and his cooks personally serve these dishes, giving dour, somewhat perfunctory descriptions of them, the way waiters at fancy restaurants are supposed to do.

'A More Natural Experience'

I spoke to Momofuku's Cory Lane, general managing partner of Ssäm Bar and a longtime front of the house person, about the service issue.

"I was a little nervous at first," Lane said. "Then I decided that they are cooks, and I'm going to let them do their thing. I think it gives customers a more natural experience. As a service-oriented person, I ventured into this with some preconceived notions, but in the end I think we provide a special experience at Ko that every person is going to respond to in his or her own way."

I am not being critical here. As many serious eaters know, I loved my meal at Ko. I'm just posing the question: What kind of service should we expect at Ko? Will Bruni bestow three stars on Ko, which is most assuredly a different kind of restaurant-going experience than the usual three-star restaurant? We'll know shortly.

Update: And Bruni's Ko review is up—three stars.

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