I recently sat down with David Chang, founder, chef and owner of the Momofuku restaurants, including Momofuku Noodle Bar, Ssäm Bar, Ko, and Má Pêche for HuffPost's 2011 Creative Mind series to ask him about fine dining, defining New York cuisine, running an empire, culinary schools, overfished seafood, cooking at home, and more, based on questions from commenters. Here are some highlights of what he had to say, and check out his full comments, below:
- "Fine dining teaches you how to cook many different things, and it gives you the basic fundamentals, but these specialty restaurants, they're not teaching you the broad foundation you need to become a well-rounded cook."
- "There's the common misconception that restaurants make a lot of money. It's not true. If you look at maybe the top chef in the world, or at least monetarily, it's like Wolfgang Puck, but he makes as much money as an average crappy investment banker."
- "We'll grow, as long as we have the bandwidth to do it, the infrastructure to do it, and we execute it well. As long as you execute it well and you don't serve a crappy product, we'll continue to look at expanding because we have a lot of talented people and they want to be captains of their own ship."
- "I think that the Japanese -- and I do love Japanese cuisine and adore Japanese food culture -- I think that they're going to plow through the entire world's fishing. They're going to eat everything anyways. So it's a bit of a dilemma."
- "I mean, we're north of the Mason-Dixon line, there's no reason we should be copying southern food. ... I think it's upon chefs to stop trying to make exact authentic replicas of cuisines around the world and try to figure out what's going on in America."
- "I think the basic thing that home cooks can learn how to do is just season properly. ... If the home cook realized how little salt they use compared to what's needed, it would make their food taste better."
- "One day maybe I'll have my own garden and I'll be able to raise my own animals, but until then I'm probably going to stick to cooking at the restaurant."
What does the success of upscale comfort food mean for the future of traditional fine dining, and does it matter?
Fine dining in New York at least, the past 25 years, was associated with eating well, particulary if you were a cook. If you wanted to learn how to cook well, you worked at a fine dining restaurant. In the '90s, that was sort of the golden, halcyon period of fine dining restaurants, so overall I think today there are more eating establishments that are very good. You can eat well and you can actually cook at various restaurants that aren't fine dining and learn how to cook.
But [in the '90s] there were basically 10 restaurants in New York where if you wanted to learn how to cook and you wanted to eat well, those were the only places you could. Now it's a little more democratic and spread out, but I don't necessarily see it as a good thing. Fine dining teaches you how to cook many different things, and it gives you the basic fundamentals, but these specialty restaurants, they're not teaching you the broad foundation you need to become a well-rounded cook.
What was your backup plan in case of failure when you opened your first restaurant?
The backup plan was Chapter 7, I was in bankruptcy. I figured I was 26 at the time, and if it failed, I would have the rest of my life to dig myself out of this financial hole I had fallen in. But I had created a business plan and everyone thought I was nuts. My dad certainly helped out -- my dad and his friends. It was around 130 grand to get the lease and the construction and that was, shit, seven years ago now.
How does a restaurant owner give their employees good wages, benefits and stay competitive in this industry? How can these tradeoffs be alleviated?
The only solution is to not be greedy. You have to be able to take money out of your budget and hopefully take care of your employees. A lot of restaurants, even though they want to provide health care, you can't do that until you reach a certain size, like the Danny Meyers of the world, the Stephen Starrs of the world. When you're that large you're a big business and it's no different than running a big company and you can offer these great packages to employees, but as a fledgling startup restaurant, a lot of these things you can't provide.
When we first opened, I remember having a cook, and he was sick and we were unable to provide health insurance, and that really drove me...not insane, but I was depressed about the whole matter, but that was one ouf our driving factors into becoming larger -- not just larger but becoming profitable, becoming a larger business and taking care of our employees.
We don't have to provide all the things that we do. We do a lot of things like English lessons, field trips, and scholarships and whatnot. A lot of things I think if I was working for a company I wish I had. It's hard, because in the business the margins are so slim and so small that you have to be willing to sort of invest in your employees. I mean that's hard because a lot of restaurants, they can't even afford to get health insurance for themselves, so it's a really touchy subject and I think all you can do is persevere and try to hope for a better future for your employees.
For an aspiring chef looking for a career change, do you recommend a formal culinary education?
Career change is hard. I've only met a couple in my life, not that I've been cooking forever, that have actually succeeded. One of the things the culinary schools don't tell you are the statistics. They'll tell you that there's a 100% graduation rate, all these numbers that bolster their status, but what they dont tell you is how many of the career changers are in the business just one year after the fact and I'm gonna have to say it's in the like 4, 5, or 6 percent number -- the number is ridiculously low. It's an incredibly hard, grueling business, although it's been glamorized and become more of a white collar business, it's stil blue collar labor -- it's back-breaking labor, you're doing a lot of hard stuff, but that shouldnt deter you from your dream of being in the industry. But the odds are certainly against you. There are people that have been successful as career changers later in life.
I'm not against culinary school but I think that whoever is trying to think about a culinary career should just get a job at a restaurant first. A restaurant they admire, a chef they admire a lot, and just go knock on the door and say, 'I know nothing, I'm willing to learn, I will do whatever it takes, you don't have to pay me,' and just see if that lifestyle is what you want, and if it's something that you want, then maybe you should take culinary school a little more seriously.
As you're met with offers to expand -- and have recently announced your first restaurant outside New York in Australia, how will you determine whether an opportunity is right for you and the Momofuku empire, and why have you so far decided not to expand to Vegas -- a place where so many big name chefs seem to be unable to say no to?
There's the common misconception that restaurants make a lot of money. It's not true. If you look at maybe the top chef in the world, or at least monetarily, it's like Wolfgang Puck, but he makes as much money as an average crappy investment banker, or something lke that. So there's certainly a lot of love and passion that goes into this business, but as you get larger, like any company or organization, you have to be able to start taking care of people. We already mentioned health care but you also get to a point where, say, somebody's been with you 10 years -- a cook, or a front of the house manager, and they dont necessarily want to move on, and in this economy it's almost damn near impossible to open up a restaurant without the support of someone else, so for us, I wouldn't necessarily say no to Vegas. We were going to do something in Vegas but the economy certainly changed those plans so we're just looking for the right deal, and we're looking for deals where are employees -- we want to make them partners, we want to make sure they are owners in this company, owners in the restaurant they're opening up.
Má Pêche was a great example. Tien Ho I've known for a very long time. We worked together at Café Boulud and he was the Chef de Cuisine at Ssäm Bar and he's in his mid-thirties and if this was ten years ago he probably would have had his own restaurant by now. So we were looking for space in the west village, trying to do an intimate restaurant, but something in midtown opened up, and it wasn't my first choice, obviously, but the more I looked at it, the more we thought about it, the location actually made sense and it was an opportunity not for me, but for Tien. And that's the way we saw it was, we'll grow, as long as we have the bandwidth to do it, the infrastructure to do it, and we execute it well. As long as you execute it well and you don't serve a crappy product, we'll continue to look at expanding because we have a lot of talented people and they want to be captains of their own ship.
What is the responsibility of chefs to serve sustainable seafood and prevent overfishing?
In terms of sustainability of fishing, we take it quite seriously. We really only try to put out fish that are local, we do have some stuff from the west coast occasionally, we do get some stuff from the Mediterranean or Japan but not nearly as much as we used to. For instance, at Ko, we always have fluke on the menu because fliuke is one of the few local fish that is in abundanece and tastes really good -- at least to our palates. So sustainability is an issue that we're quite concerned about, it's a reason we don't put a lot of certain fish on the menu, so hopefully we can encourage use of some lesser known cuts of fish that we're always trying to find. In the New York area there's not that great of a variety of fish, but besides that fact even if everyone stopped using or selling fish in the world, I think that the Japanese -- and I do love Japanese cuisine and adore Japanese food culture -- I think that they're going to plow through the entire world's fishing. They're going to eat everything anyways. So it's a bit of a dilemma.
The other week in Spain you said, "We don't have a New York cuisine. I don't want New York to be known as a place that tries to make authentic dishes. We need to have our own cuisine and that's what we're trying to do." How would you describe what you hope New York cuisine can be?
I don't know what New York cuisine is -- I really, really want to find that. I think that the restaurants that opened up in the past decade or so, or just the past couple of years, it's either been Italian or Southern. I mean, we're north of the Mason-Dixon line, there's no reason we should be copying southern food, even though it's probably the oldest food culture in America, besides the Native American food culture. You have the sort of California cusine, you have Southern cuisine. If you ask me what New York cusine is: dirty water hot dogs, a slice of pizza, what is it? Is it a little bit of everything? I don't know. But I think it's upon chefs to stop trying to make exact authentic replicas of cuisines around the world and try to figure out what's going on in America, what's going in in New York. A good example is the guys at Torissi. They're doing Italian-American food, their version of food from Mulberry St. I think it's a very creative way to be innovative. And while people may be confused, you know, yes they're doing Italian food but it's not Italian food, they're just trying to create something delicious. So i dont know what New York cuisine is but I think we have an opportunity to define what that is. And I couldn't tell you but I do know that it's possible.
Look at René Redzepi at Noma. In seven years he created Nordic cuisine. Nobody knew what Nordic cuisine was seven years ago. Now you see what they've done at Noma and it's being copied throughout Scandinavia. And if you asked them seven years ago what is the cuisine of Scandinavia, besides herring, and whatever else, aquavit and all that other stuff, they wouldn't be able to tell you. Now they have something that they can call their own. it's a distinct way of creating food, a distinct way of plating food and it's unique and it's theirs, it's part of their terroir and I dont feel like we have that. So I can't look in the crystal ball and tell you exactly what it is but I do feel like we have an opportunity to define that. If it can happen in Copenhagen I think it can certainly happen in New York.
What are some basic techniques that are most versatile and that all home cooks should master?
I think the basic thing that home cooks can learn how to do is just season properly. If you just salt food properly, whether it's making pasta and making sure that the water's seasoned, or you're making scrambled eggs and you season it properly, I think that is... not necessarily a technique per se, but it's somethign that I think if the home cook realized how little salt they use compared to what's needed, it would make their food taste better. Not trying to make it salty but again there is a right balanace and I thnk that more often than not whenever I eat a home-cooked meal it's not seasoned at the level that I would like it and I think that chefs tend to like their food a little bit too salty but I think that seasoning is one of them. You could go on and on but when you have an understanding of those flavors I think it's going to make your basic foods that you make better and I think balancing your salty and your sweet -- I mean we could go on and on, we could talk about this for days -- but I'm just going to leave it at seasoning your food at a proper level.
How often do you cook for yourself and when you do what do you like to make?
At home I never cook. It's true, I never, ever, ever cook, even thugh I rarely seem to be cooking services at the restaurant, we have a lab now. I love making pasta at home, if I do, the process of rolling pasta out by hand. The reason I don't cook at home is because you spend all your time in the kitchen at the restaurant, when you get home it's sort of the last thing you want to do. You know, I'm not married, I dont have kids so I imagine if that day happens -- if it happens -- we will be cooking a lot, but you also don't get the best ingredients. I don't like going to the supermarkets and buying inferior -- not that they're inferior -- but when I'm at the restaurant I have a dishwasher, or maybe 2 to 3 dishwashers, I have beautiful ingredients from the market, I have great fish or chicken, so it's hard for me to do that and translate to a home kitchen. For right now I choose to say no, but one day maybe I'll have my own garden and I'll be able to raise my own animals, but until then I'm probably going to stick to cooking at the restaurant.