Take Five with Momofuku’s David Chang, On the Flap Over “Fig-Gate”

Chef David Chang gets ready to take on San Francisco. (Photo courtesy of Gabriele Stabile)

Think what you will of hotter-than-Hades New York chef sensation, David Chang.

He’ll be the first to say he doesn’t give a crap — with a carefully placed f-bomb for emphasis, of course.

But the 32-year-old chef-owner of the phenomenal Momofuku restaurants in Manhattan, who formerly cooked at New York’s esteemed Café Boulud, has sure ignited a firestorm in the Bay Area.

Who knew a comment about figs would prompt such a ruckus?

In case you missed it, earlier this month at the New York Wine & Food Festival, Chang was onstage with the irrepressible Anthony Bourdain. Knocking back beers, the two were pontificating on their personal likes and dislikes in the culinary world. That’s when Chang reportedly said, “F*****g every restaurant in San Francisco is just serving figs on a plate. Do something with your food.”

Well, in San Francisco, those were interpreted as some serious fighting words.

The Northern California chapter of the Asia Society abruptly canceled a planned Nov. 8 appearance by Chang at E&O Trading Co. in San Francisco. He was scheduled to appear at the event with a number of other prominent Asian-American Bay Area chefs, one of whom withdrew after Chang made that comment.

Indeed, what was supposed to be a simple stop to promote his first cookbook, “Momofuku” (Clarkson Potter), one of the most anticipated releases of the year, has turned into a rather highly charged situation because of the supposed dissing of San Francisco.

Chang still intends to make other book-signing appearances here. You can meet him Nov. 4, when he’ll be appearing with his co-author, New York Times writer Peter Meehan; as well as Chris Cosentino of Incanto restaurant in San Francisco; and Christopher Kostow of the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena. The 7 p.m. event at Café du Nord organized by 7×7 magazine is free. To reserve a spot, email: events@7×7.com with “Changtastic” in the subject line.

The new cookbook.

Additionally, Chang and Meehan will appear 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Nov. 5 at Williams-Sonoma on Union Square in San Francisco; 11 a.m. Nov. 7 at Sur La Table in the San Francisco Ferry Building; 4 p.m. Nov. 7 at Kepler’s in Menlo Park with David Kinch of Los Gatos’ Manresa; and noon Nov. 8 at Omnivore Books in San Francisco with Jeremy Fox of Napa’s Unbuntu.

At Omnivore, they’re already jesting about putting out a plate of fresh figs for the occasion.

You can’t blame Chang for being sick of talking about it all. But he was kind enough to indulge me when I chatted with him by phone yesterday.

Q: Do you regret the fig comment? Or do you think people in the Bay Area just need to lighten up?

A: I don’t regret it. It was said and people took it out of context. People are overly sensitive. I am not trying to piss anyone off. But if they are pissed off, maybe there’s some truth behind it

What I said was a generalization. Not every restaurant is serving figs on a plate. You guys have great produce. It seems like every restaurant tries to follow that road. Anyone that challenges that gets trampled on. It’s great that there is Zuni and Chez Panisse and Oliveto, which take that approach. It seems, though, that many in San Francisco are not that open to expanding beyond that family tree.

But the fact that we’re still talking about this is ridiculous. It’s so silly. It’s so dumb.

Q: Bourdain and others have criticized Alice Waters of Chez Panisse for being overly strident about organics. Does that put you in a delicate position since Alice is fond of you and been a friend to you?

A: She’s the face of the movement. At the end of the day, everyone is after the same goal — a world where everyone eats well. Alice is providing the ideal. You need someone to provide the utopian concept. And she doesn’t have a mean bone in her body.

I can understand both sides of the coin. For me, I know Alice’s intent, and whether people agree or disagree, it’s not for me to judge. I will support her no matter what she needs from me. People can criticize her, but she’s trying, and she’s trying to do something in which the end goal is a good thing.

I can totally understand Tony’s position, too. I can still be a friend to both Tony and Alice. You can have a friend who may not like another one of your friends. Like Tony f*****g hates Alan Richman (award-winning food writer for GQ magazine), but I get along with Richman.

Q: So with all this hoopla, do you feel like you should be coming into town wearing a flak jacket in case you’re pelted with figs?

A: If that’s the case, it’s good. It would mean someone has a sense of humor. People need to chill out.

Q: Is there any place you look forward to eating most when you’re in San Francisco?

A: One of the best meals I had last year in San Francisco was at Michael Mina’s. It was a tremendous meal. I had a great meal at Coi. And I had a good meal at Incanto.

Usually, I stick to the Mission and try to eat the great Latin cuisine you have. You have all those great Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall places in San Francisco, too. I like ethnic food in general.

Q: Your Momofuku Ko restaurant received two Michelin stars this year. You’ve also won James Beard awards, including “Best Chef New York City” last year. Are awards like these a big deal to you?

A: Certainly, it’s an honor. It’s not something we set out for, so that’s what makes it strange. For those who follow Michelin ratings, it’s the highest honor a chef can receive. I was shocked about Ko. It weighs on us heavily now. It’s not a fun thing. There’s more pressure now.

Q: Long before today’s Korean taco truck craze, you opened Momofuku Ssam Bar in 2006 with the hopes of popularizing a Korean wrap of Berkshire pork and kimchee folded up inside a flour pancake. It didn’t do so well. Do you think you were ahead of your time?

A: It was not executed very well. I’m not sure what would have happened if it had worked. I’m really happy to see it’s working for Roy Choi (of Los Angeles’ mega-popular Kogi Korean taco truck). There are few good people in this business. He’s one of them. He’s doing it better than we ever could have.

Q: What was it like working on your first cookbook? How did you want it to be different than all the other ones out there?

A: We just wanted to document it. We just wanted to tell what happens in the kitchen and how it happens, with recipes that correlate to how those things happen.

Q: A lot has been made of the fact that there are a lot of expletives in the cookbook, which is pretty rare for a mainstream cookbook. Did you do it to shock people?

A: People curse. If someone did a book about the New York trading floor, there would be more curse words in that book.

We wanted to try to be as truthful as possible. And that’s how we speak to one another. If we took that out, we would lose some of our integrity. That’s not what we wanted to do.

People want the same thing over and over again. I don’t understand that. Things need to change and evolve. We didn’t reinvent the wheel with this cookbook; we just told our story. If it rubs people the wrong way, I’m sorry but I don’t really care. If they think I’m an a**hole, they’re probably right.

Q: What do you make of your so-called “bad boy” image?

A: It’s stupid. What the hell is a bad boy? You tell me because I don’t f*****g know. It’s a stupid term. Like molecular gastronomy. It’s just a dumb combination of words.

How would I like to be known? I dunno. I’m just a dude that s**t happened to. I’m one part of the equation. That’s it. It’s not a singular effort; it’s a team.

If you’re a singer or professional athlete, you know the media attention that’s part of the job if you reach a certain level of success. When I started to cook, that’s not what I was after. But this is what comes with cooking now.

I’m just trying to be as honest as possible. How else are you supposed to be? We don’t have a public relations company or a marketing company. We just have word of mouth about our food and that’s it. If people don’t like us, that’s f*****g America. It’s totally fine. I’d be one of the haters, too, because we’re over-exposed, and all that s**t.

Q: You have Momofuku Noodle Bar, Momofuku Ssam Bar, Momofuku Milk Bar, Momofuku Ko, and you’re working on opening a new French Vietnamese restaurant, Ma Pechê. What’s next for you after that?

A: I don’t know. I’d like to take a year sabbatical or at least six months. Is it possible? We’ll see….

Q: So, is there a warm, gentle, fuzzy side to David Chang?

A: I root for the underdog. That’s my soft spot.

More: Eating my way through most of the Momofuku restaurants earlier this year.

More: David Chang’s appearance at Kepler’s with Chef David Kinch.

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