How failure propped up David Chang's culinary empire

Ten years afer launching Momofuku Noodle Bar, chef David Chang has a restaurant empire in three countries, owns a magazine and dreams of a nation chain. What's the secret ingredient for his success? Failure

Published: Dec 6, 2014
How failure propped up David Chang's culinary empire
Image: Ben Mistak

David Chang wants me to put on a hairnet. He hands one to me as he pushes open a dented, unmarked door in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that hides the entrance to the baking operation of Momofuku Milk Bar—the dessert capital of his culinary kingdom. Inside, Chang’s addictive Crack Pie batter churns in industrial mixers, and an endless stream of raw Compost Cookies slide by on conveyer belts. Even for the casual foodie, this is Willy Wonka territory—but, I’m about to glimpse something even more elusive.

We walk by shelves of Ritz Crackers, Crisco and cornflakes to another scuffed door. “You’re only the fifth civilian to ever see this,” Chang says as he leads me to his windowless Momofuku culinary lab, where his team of food scientists and chefs is trying to invent new tastes for his growing restaurant empire. “I don’t know any other way to get my guys to embrace failure,” he says. “I just want them to go for the big f*@#-up.”

There have been a lot of those in the five years Chang has run the lab. Hundreds of turkeys have been sacrificed in his noble attempt to create the perfect turducken (deboned chicken stuffed into a deboned duck stuffed into a deboned turkey). Experiments with modern gear to make ancient rice paper, rice noodles and rice balls were all disasters. Then there was the pressure cooker explosion that almost destroyed the place. “The top cracked in half—lima beans were going at 1,000 miles per hour. It looked like a grenade went off,” Chang says, as he shakes his head and laughs. “It was scary. I feel like something really bad could have happened.”

Of course, the secret lab has had breakthroughs, too—and they usually involve fungus. “We had an idea to just naturally ferment everything—making soy sauce, misos, pickled everything and hot sauces. We discovered, through a lot of trial and error, ways to make stuff no one had made before.” The new creations typically centre on Hozon—his take on Japanese miso paste but made from American ingredients like chickpeas, sunflower seeds and lentils instead of the traditional soy. He hands me a Hozon jar and a spoon—it’s sweet and salty, with an umami kick that hits you in the back of the cheeks.

Next, we sample the rye “soy sauce” (aged in old charred bourbon barrels and squeezed through a hand-cranked cider press) with layers of char and spice. After that comes the sweet and thick Hot Sauce No. 22 (the previous 21 versions having failed to meet Chang’s exacting specifications): “We finally have one that tastes good on pizza.”

The endgame is to take these concoctions mainstream: “Go to Whole Foods—there’s a whole aisle with 100 olive oils. With Asian food becoming more accessible, we can do that with these sauces. Make it here in America—make the best version of it and hopefully create that trend.”

But for now, these lab experiments have found their way to dishes at Chang’s New York Noodle Bar and Ssäm Bar (ramen, sardines and baby beets) and non-Chang restaurants such as Wylie Dufresne’s Alder (uni jalapeño poppers) and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Perry St. (soft-shell crabs). “I just figured we’d do it sort of like drug dealers,” the 37-year-old culinary mogul says. “Just send it to our network of chef friends and see how they incorporate it.” As this open-source approach works itself out, he continues to force his sous-scientists to keep playing with their food: “It’s imperative that we learn the scientific process and document what happens. I want people to own their mistakes and to just go for it—really great flavour comes from the failure.”

If only we could all fail like David Chang. In the decade since he opened Momofuku Noodle Bar, he’s turned a meagre, 600-square-foot East Village noodle joint into a food cartel that now includes Canada and stretches all the way to Australia. Along the way he’s yanked the white tablecloth out from under the fine-dining scene, proving that haute cuisine can come in the form of country ham, pork butt and kimchi—all served in raw-plywood-lined  spaces with a large helping of Guns N’ Roses. “Momofuku had an attitude that says, ‘Park your expectations and preconceptions of fine dining at the door and let me feed you really good food,’ ” says Danny Meyer, founder of Union Square Hospitality Group. “He’s liberated hundreds of young entrepreneurial chefs to open places they can afford to open.”

How failure propped up David Chang's culinary empire
Image: William Hereford
Boiling point: “I’m a super-angry guy. I think some of my best work came in those dark moments when I was as rageful as I’d ever been,” says the chef

Ken Friedman of Spotted Pig fame adds, “It was like going to a bar but, he was serving the best food in town.”

For his efforts, Chang has become the Meryl Streep of the James Beard Awards—he has won five in the past eight years, including Outstanding Chef in 2013. Lucky Peach, the literary food magazine he launched in 2011, wins Beard Awards, too. And Chang has long ago crossed over into pop culture: He starred in the PBS food series, The Mind of a Chef, played himself convincingly on HBO’s Treme and appears in commercials for the Audi A3. (He gave back the car since he rarely drives.)

Not that any of this success was intentional—or expected:  “If you look at ten years of Momofuku, almost everything has come out of a mistake—a terrible f*@#ing mistake,” Chang says as we lean over bowls of lychees covered with flakes of foie gras in the 12-seat Ko, which has two stars from Michelin and three from the New York Times. The Noodle Bar got popular only after Chang failed at making noodles and started adding other dishes to the menu. His Ssäm Bar didn’t take off until imminent bankruptcy forced him to keep the kitchen open late and serve bold food to off-duty chefs. Lucky Peach was born as an iPad app—but transferred  to print after the developers shipped a flawed product. Even Ko—Momofuku’s crown jewel, which occupies the original Noodle Bar location—was the product of bad luck. Chang couldn’t get enough hot water to keep up with Noodle Bar traffic, so he transformed the space into a tiny, high-end place to make up for the lower volume. “You know when you catch up with old friends and say, ‘Did you hear what that guy is doing now?’ I’m that guy.”

David Chang grew up in northern Virginia, where his dad ran restaurants and later a golf shop. Young Dave himself was a promising golfer until the sport’s notorious head game drove him away as a teenager. He attended Georgetown Prep, where he played right tackle on the football team before enrolling in Trinity College, majoring in religion. “I was a mess in high school—I got into Trinity because I was Asian.” After three summers interning at PaineWebber (“I set up trust funds for rich Connecticut kids”), Chang spent a year teaching English in Japan. He returned to the United States and took another finance job. He was miserable. “One night I got drunk at an office party and told everyone I hated them.”

mg_78555_food_280x210.jpg
Image: Gabriele Stabile

A fascination with food, which started when his dad took him to noodle restaurants as a kid, led Chang to the French Culinary Institute in 2000. He worked at Mercer Kitchen and Tom Colicchio’s Craft before landing a job doing cold prep at chef Daniel Boulud’s Café Boulud—one of New York’s hottest kitchens and a mandatory stop for an ambitious young cook.

But when his mother got cancer amid other family turmoil, Chang couldn’t keep up in the kitchen. “I felt like a free-agent bust,” he says now. And when his hero, Alex Lee, a Chinese-American chef who had run the kitchen at Boulud’s, quit the business at age 35, Chang was ready to throw in his chef’s apron. “I knew I’d never be as good as he was. And I had to find something else to do,” he says. “You want to know why I’m a neurotic weirdo? Golf really broke me—constantly looking at the leaderboard and thinking, ‘I’m not going to beat them, so what’s the point?’ ” So when he believed he couldn’t make it in haute cuisine, Chang quit Boulud to open a Japanese noodle bar.

“I thought, ‘I can’t have an influence in fine dining, but maybe I can help pockets in the underground of the culinary world’—I remember telling my shrink that for sure.”

How failure propped up David Chang's culinary empire
Image: Ben Mistak
Edible empire: Chang’s new Washington DC location could be the first of an even larger Momofuku Chain that now includes eight restaurants

But Chang had a bigger problem when he launched Noodle Bar, in 2004.  “He couldn’t boil noodles,” says Peter Meehan, a former New York Times food critic (his review would eventually kick-start Chang’s career) and an editor of Momofuku’s Lucky Peach. Adds Chang: “We were a terrible restaurant.” There were no waiters, bussers or dishwashers—or glasses. Noodle Bar was a total failure—and, as it would turn out, the best thing that could have happened to him. “I really believe that if I just had a little bit more experience and a little bit more wisdom, Momofuku would never have happened,” he says. “I viewed it as a death sentence. Like when people learn they have a year left to live—they finally start living.”
 
In Chang’s case, he finally started cooking. He ditched the typical ramen and gyoza and served punk-rock takes on pork buns, tripe and head cheese. “I’m a super-angry guy and think some of my best work and best creativity came in those darkest moments when I was as rageful as I’d ever been.” The rage inspired shrimp and grits with porky ramen broth and asparagus and eggs with miso butter. “His flavour combinations made Noodle Bar the most exciting place to eat in the city,” says Meehan. Soon Noodle Bar was the darling of restaurant critics, food bloggers and, of course, diners. “I joke that he made a deal with the devil,” says Momufoku Milk Bar cofounder and chef Christina Tosi. “Dave risked everything he had, because he knew if he didn’t, he wouldn’t have anything.” Before long, Chang was doing millions in sales in that 600-square-foot space.

Riding the momentum (and a million-dollar loan with his father’s golf shop as collateral), Chang set out to launch his next restaurant. He opened Ssäm Bar down the street in an East Village building that had been vacant for 13 years. (The ground floor had been a dirty Chinese restaurant, the basement prep kitchen a bordello). His plan was to make Korean burritos. But as with the early days of Noodle Bar, it was a flop. The seed money vanished fast, and Chang once again found himself in a corner.

To juice revenue he kept Ssäm open late, abandoning burritos and (after 10 pm) cooking whatever he felt like: Veal head, grilled sweetbreads, corn dogs. Soon, every kitchen crew in town was stopping in for a post-shift meal. The food bloggers followed and then the celebrities. “We had no idea what we were doing, again. But the hit ratio for successful dishes was extraordinarily high. It became infectious. Then we got reviewed by [New York Times critic] Frank Bruni, and things got crazy. We got two stars. People were pissed. It was cheap, and it was in a shitty location—in a wooden box. There were lots of people who would kill to have two stars who had spent a lot of money and time—I was 29.”

Ssäm Bar brought Chang a James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef, endless press and offers to open a mega-Momofuku in Las Vegas. (He is still technically under contract with the now failed Echelon casino—and doubts he’ll ever open a restaurant on the Strip.)

There have also been offers to buy the Momofuku brand. “If I sold out, I would be retired. I’m a pretty unhappy guy already,” he admits, “And I’d be really unhappy because of the guilt. I’m looking forward to the day where everybody on the team can benefit financially and have the creative freedom to do what they want.” He continues, “I’ve told people, if I wasn’t doing Momofuku, I’d be making food in cafeterias—I really would.”

I witness Dave Chang cook only once during my week with him. We are at Booker and Dax—Momofuku’s chemistry set turned cocktail bar (liquid nitrogen, centrifuges, rotary evaporators and a seltzer machine that could carbonate the East River). It’s cooking in its most primal form—adding heat to meat. Chang is blasting a salmon filet to demonstrate his Searzall, a Momofuku-made blowtorch invented by David Arnold, the mad food scientist who runs the Momofuku Chinatown equipment lab Chang declares too dangerous to visit.

How failure propped up David Chang's culinary empire
Image: Ben Mistak
Secret sauce: Chang makes miso from chickpeas and rye “soy sauce” in his lab. Experimentation is key: “Really great flavour comes from failure.”

In 2012, Chang opened four spots in a single modern glass cube in Toronto that he dubbed Momofuku world. “It felt like a restaurant opening every week. I was waterboarding myself. I could feel the years coming off my life.” And then came the opportunity to open a 47-seat restaurant in Sydney, Australia. Chang spent about a year and a half Down Under to open that restaurant because his partners helped fund his “dream kitchen” (including two custom Molteni ranges, which he calls “the Lamborghini of stoves”).

A decade ago, Chang had one employee. Today, he has 500. “Cooking and running a kitchen is not easy but managing is so hard. It’s just such a struggle for me,” he says. “I would love for other people to do it. But for right now, there’s no one in the company that has the credibility to talk to the chefs and talk to the office and tie it all in.”

Then there’s the pressure of the kitchen. “I never understood how stress could f*@# up everything. In 2007, I had shingles on the face—lost vision, had paralysis on the left side of my jaw. Doctors would literally make me go on vacation. It’s not a coincidence that when things get super-stressful my back hurts.” There was also the anxiety of keeping critics happy and maintaining those precious stars, the financial strain of employing hundreds of people—and the stress of unexpected fame. “Though I was successful, I still had the insecurities and problems I had all along. I started cooking with the intentional choice to be on the periphery. Somehow the opposite happened. It was flattering but hard to understand.”

mg_78557_chang_sauce_280x210.jpg
These days, he seems to be more at peace with his good fortune. In August, Chang appeared on The Tonight Show looking relaxed, confident—even happy—as he faced off against Jimmy Fallon on a hot-wing-eating challenge. Chang splashed his with Tiger chili oil dispensed from an eyedropper.

After a terrible 18 months of personal and professional setbacks (he called off a wedding, his parents were both diagnosed with cancer, a Momofuku chef died), Chang believes he’s as motivated and focussed as ever. “I haven’t been this engaged in a long time. I think I was scared of making the wrong decision, and now I realise that was stupid.

I haven’t felt this way in a while—where if I f*@# everything up, I don’t care.”

Among the projects slated for this year, he is moving Ko to a slightly bigger location on the Bowery and is planning a Lucky Peach television show. There is also a book series in the works, and if one medical marijuana in Colorado has its way, Chang will move from Crack Pie to pot brownies.

For now, he’s most excited about opening a new restaurant and Milk Bar in Washington, DC. It’s as much another big Momofuku experiment as it is a homecoming—a step toward taking Momofuku national. “It is our attempt to make the best sort of casual dining restaurant. The future of food is not going to happen in a traditional restaurant. It will happen in delivery, schools, hospitals and offices. That’s where I want Momofuku to focus.”

And the man with the secret food lab believes that experimentation is the key. He cites El Bulli’s legendary chef Ferran Adrià, who closed his restaurant for six months every year so he could turn kitchen catastrophes into gastronomic gold. “I believe that all the good ideas are where the bad ideas are, at least in the culinary world,” Chang says. “Real innovation is going to hit you across the head with something as simple as a TV dinner.”

(This story appears in the Nov-Dec 2014 issue of ForbesLife India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

Show More
Asia's pint-sized film powerhouses
The Weird, Unique and Offbeat Wedding Destinations