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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Date: Friday, 30. October 2009 3:30
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: "Take Five'' Q&A, Chefs, Enticing Events, General, Restaurants

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23 comments

  1. 1

    Too funny. I’ve never been to any of his restaurants but am still anxiously awaiting this book’s release.

  2. 2

    Great to read this interview. David Chang may be blunt sometimes, but his restaurant models are genius. Simple decor, small menus, affordable prices, some really amazing food. Got to look at his book yesterday, can’t wait to buy it.

  3. 3

    When I was watching that Momofuku segment on the “Food P*rn” episode of No Reservations, I was just in awe of the food he turned out of his kitchen. He’s like a more daring Alan Wong.

  4. 4

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Silvana and CarolynJung, onokinegrindz. onokinegrindz said: Great interview! RT @CarolynJung My interview with the always colorful, Momofuku Chef David Chang. http://bit.ly/2HDUyo […]

  5. 5

    I enjoyed this interview. I’m curious about his restaurants, I would love to try one. I have to say, he seems like a jerk. But I guess I’ll never meet him, so what’s the difference? ;)

  6. 6

    I cannot wait to check out his cookbook, and I need to make a special trip to NYC to check out the restaurant. I have to say I was stunned that his meeting was canceled on account of his comments about figs. Glad to see that did not deter him one iota

  7. 7

    Great interview! You asked all the right questions without putting him on the defensive.

    I had to go back and read your Momofuku reviews. The food sounds heavenly.

  8. 8

    The fig comment probably would be more offensive from a chef who doesn’t have the talent as Chang. Having tried his food, I can say he has the stuff to back it up, so I think people should pause to really see what he’s trying to say. I remember awhile back a big discussion because Chez Panisse served a whole peach for dessert. Yeah, it was a special variety and yeah, I’m sure it’s delicious in that purest form, but it was just a peach. I think that’s what Chang is getting at. He’s not saying people can’t serve figs alone, but does it have to be at almost every restaurant? … And on a side tangent, I think it’s funny that I had a plate of fresh figs recently in New York! (It was a Daniel Boulud’s restaurant, and it was served along with prosciutto and cheese. Nothing more!)

  9. 9

    Excellent interview. I’m looking forward to the cookbook, but is all of the profanity necessary?

  10. 10

    whoa..drama, drama. And totally unnecessary. Haha, actually I find it amusing that people will get so upset over food, but then food is such a vital component of our lives!
    This guy sounds pretty cool, though, in a no bull-s**t kind of way. ;-)

  11. 11

    Oh oh oh! some of those appearances in SFO coincide with my visit next weekend!!! Great interview.

  12. 12

    Haha, yeah, why would you pay quadruple the amount for a plate of figs, cheese and meat when you can make that at home? I like David Chang, he’s an alum of the same school I go to so he is kind of an example to me of how great anyone there can become. I haven’t eaten at any of his places besides Milk Bar, though, because I don’t eat pork. Plus I’m a pastry student who spends her money eating out carefully…on “career research.” I’m excited to check out his cookbook, I’m sure there will be several copies in the school library.

  13. 13

    Yay! I love David Chang! Being a vegetarian, I can’t really eat at his restaurants, but the Milk Bar is awesome!

  14. 14

    A great interview this was!!

  15. 15

    ha, I hadn’t heard the fig comment. that’s a riot…

  16. 16

    You know, he reminds me of a few friends I have. A little uncensored…tells it a little too much like it is. I love that. I think he’s right about people being too sensitive.
    What a fun interview.

  17. 17

    I think I like him more now that I know he can be friends with both Tony and Alice!

  18. 18

    Wotta f*****g egomaniacal t**d! Can’t believe he’s f*****g placed on such a lofty culinary pedestal that otherwise rational people rush to show one another they not only accept his f*****g arrogance but embrace his s****y disrespect. Uh, what time again is he gonna be at Kepler’s? What should one wear? Is he …

  19. 19

    Loved Ko. As for the sob, I really don’t give as long as Peter serves up the meal I paid for.

    Chez Panisse is so different from Ko and in many ways they both represent their respective locale. I like that.

  20. 20

    […] And: David Chang […]

  21. 21

    […] image via Food Gal […]

  22. 22

    […] if you don’t give a fig what David Chang thinks, perfect produce can sometimes take the joy out of cooking, as it’s hard to admit you can’t […]

  23. 23

    […] you’re still having trouble figuring out what to do with figs, go ahead and put them on a plate. To add some elegance, cut in quarters and anoint with a few drops of aged balsamic vinegar or […]

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