Superstar New York chef and restaurateur David Chang was in Chapel Hill last week to sign copies of his new cookbook, Momofuku, at A Southern Season and to be fêted at a $150-per-plate dinner at Lantern. Between events, he took a breather and joined the Indy for lunch at Sandwhich.
As demonstrated by the sold-out Lantern dinner featuring nine courses from the book, including shaved fois gras and buttermilk-soaked fluke, Chang's visit was catnip to Triangle gourmands and a relative bargain compared to a New York roundtrip—where there's no guarantee of scoring a table at his Momofuku Noodle Bar, Ssäm Bar, Milk Bar or the 12-seat Momofuku Ko.
From pork-heavy menus to rock-heavy soundtracks, from spare plywood interiors to "no VIP" online reservations, Chang has developed a reputation as a nonconformist. He also has a tendency to drop F-bombs in conversation. (No, Momofuku doesn't mean what you think it means: In Japanese, it's "lucky peach" and happens to be the first name of the man who invented instant ramen.)
In person, sporting a heathered cardigan and a close shave, he seemed larger and more cleancut than in the pages of Momofuku, but also more world-weary.
Over a plate of Sandwhich's handmade chips, Moroccan carrot salad and a grilled Outrageous BLT (applewood smoked bacon, tomatoes, avocado, fire-roasted jalapeño, garlic mayonnaise: yep, pork and mayo), Chang rubs his eyes, reflecting on the whirlwind of the past six years.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: The idea of a cookbook seems, well, conventional for you. How did it come about?
DAVID CHANG: A lot of people wanted us to have a cookbook. It got to the point where if we say we're writing a cookbook, people will leave us alone! It's more just documentation. Things were so crazy, there was the feeling we won't always be around—so let's just document what the hell happened.
Have you slowed down at all?
I had to take a month off this summer. I needed to take a new approach. We've been under a lot of scrutiny. How I approach food, how I approach a restaurant, the sort of intensity, I couldn't do it. I would like to take a lot of time off. It's a matter of how and when.
How was the signing at A Southern Season?
It's a little weird over there. Fascist! They're like, 'You haven't spent your hour! Get back here!'
How did you get to know Andrea Reusing, the chef at Lantern?
[Andrea's husband, Merge Records co-founder] Mac [McCaughan] and the whole Merge team came to Momofuku quite a bit.
How about the rumors about you opening a restaurant in Vegas?
Oh, it's never gonna happen ... We did sign a deal. If it happens, it happens, but right now we're just focused on New York. We've flirted heavily with opening up stuff in California.
San Francisco seems a natural fit.
I'd never open up in San Francisco. I'd open up in Oakland.
If you tried to clone any of the formats, which would it be?
Milk Bar. It's the one that's designed to do that.
There seems to be some overlap between Asian and Southern-American food in your cookbook: watermelon-rind pickles, pork rinds, shrimp and grits.
There are Southern elements in our food, but not always.
And both cultures use a lot of pork.
I'm really not a pork guy! When you open up a ramen restaurant, ramen restaurants are all pork. That's how it all started. It was mostly by accident. You have a pork-based stock, you have pork toppings, that leads to different things ... The hole just kept on getting deeper and deeper. We do certainly serve a lot of pork.
Is there anything that grosses you out ever? Pig's head torchon?
I mean, that's how you're supposed to cook! If you want to clean foie gras, you have to take the veins out of the foie.
Do you feel like Ko's chef-service format will influence other restaurants?
It's the setup of the original Noodle Bar; we just slowed it down a lot. We didn't invent that—it's called Kappo ryori in Japanese, when the food is cooked in front of the guest and served, just like a diner.
Do the chefs get tired of putting on a public face?
It's such an intimate experience that if I talk to one guest, the rest of the guests are like, 'How come you're not talking to me?' You might find me at Ko, but I'm going to split out before service starts. They don't need my supervision [anymore]. It's really [Peter Serpico's] kitchen now.
Where did the name come from?
Ko means 'child of.' The language in Japanese, it's a little more beautiful. [For example,] Kino-ko [translates to] 'child of a tree,' but that [really] means 'mushroom.' There's a reason behind words. Ko is like an offspring.
Let's talk about the music. Reviewers can't rave enough about your restaurants' wild music. Who picks it?
It is still me. I've just got one giant playlist with 1,200 songs. I got tired of making playlists. Since 2004, I think I've made 100 or so playlists, trying to have eight or nine hours and not repeat.
Do people send you demo albums?
Mac [McCaughan] sends stuff. We've turned down [the volume on] some of the heavy metal. Now I walk in and I'm like, 'It's fucking loud in here man, why don't you turn it down a little!'
Are there any cultures you still plan to explore?
I don't know Indian cuisine, I don't know Malaysian cuisine that well and I certainly don't know Mexican cuisine as well as I would like.
What are you and your colleagues talking about these days?
Nose-to-tail eating—Fergus [Henderson of London restaurant St. John] just brought it back. This is how we should be eating anyway ... I don't know if it's going to be like it is in Europe, where a lot of homes have their own leg of ham, but I believe that in the future you're going to need more preserved meats, because I do believe meats are going to be incredibly expensive. Little slices of ham or fat, that's how you should be cooking.
So ramen is the perfect one-bowl food?
You've got a little bit of everything; it's a full meal.
Where are your menus heading next?
Clean. Clean and [layering] of textures. Make it look simple, but it's totally not simple. We want head-scratchers, not because we're pouring liquid nitrogen and shit like that ... Our goal is to take the obvious—so people [will say,] 'Fuck, why didn't I do that? I could have done that.'"
Editor's Note: This is the first in an occasional series of chats with people of interest to the Triangle food scene.