The Momo Touch: Talking with Momofuku's David Chang and Peter Meehan
David Chang has revolutionized the culinary landscape of New York City and has influenced the tastes of a nation with his eclectic East Village eateries, Momofuku Noodle Bar, Momofuku Ssäm Bar, the award-winning Momofuku Ko, Momofuku Bakery & Milk Bar, and the new Momofuku Midtown outpost (Ma Pêche) opening next month. Chang has also been honored as a Food & Wine Best New Chef, Bon Appétit Chef of the Year, GQ Man of the Year, and is the winner of three James Beard Awards. Chang's debut cookbook, Momofuku, written with Peter Meehan, is easily one of the most anticipated cookbooks of the year.
I recently caught up with Chang and Meehan to talk about their ambitious cookbook; the joys of bourbon, bacon, and fried chicken; a detailed history of Ssäm Bar's John McEnroe poster; why you won't find Christina Tosi's recipe for Compost Cookies in the book; tips for scoring a resy at Ko; and much more. Read on or listen to our podcast of our marathon chat, and stay tuned for more Momofuku as we count down to next Tuesday's publication date. We'll be highlighting featured recipes--with an exclusive, not-found-in-the-cookbook dish--and an annotated list of Chang's favorite cookbooks.
Amazon.com: Gentlemen, I think I've read your book, cover to cover, three times now. It's really just fantastic. It certainly, as you'll probably hear, has more f-bombs per page than any other cookbook out there right now.
David Chang: [Laughs] Actually, I think we took some f-bombs out.
Peter Meehan: Yeah we did, I kept a few in.
Chang: I mean, I didn't know that was the only word I used--
Meehan: No, like every third word you use.
Amazon.com: I know that, with that infamous New Yorker profile of you there was some feedback that "he needs to clean up his language" and "he's not representing himself well," but that's just genuine "chefspeak"--
Chang: If you get into any normal kitchen, any kitchen that tries to do serious food, I guess, or tasty food. There's a lot of vulgar language... that's just the way it is. I don't know how else to describe it. It's one of the reasons why it's a tribute to the profession. You can act like a total buffoon--almost--but still work and cook and do your job. Unfortunately, for everyone around me, it's carried into my personal life.
Amazon.com: Tell us how you guys teamed up. I understand Mark Bittman played a role in your introduction.
Chang: Peter had reviewed us for the $25 and Under column he was writing for the New York Times and he gave us a review, but he didn't originally like it and we didn't get reviewed for eight months or so. Which is strange, because you usually get reviewed in the Times in your first three months. Later I found out it was because Peter really hated our restaurant.
Meehan: It was not a very good restaurant.
Chang: [Laughs] I don't blame him, I wouldn't want to eat there either. But after the review came out--
Meehan: I started going pretty regularly. Early on Noodle Bar was rough going--at the time it was six or seven months old. It was a great place to eat and I wrote a pretty glowing review of it. It's in the neighborhood I live in so I started going every weekend, mostly with Mark Bittman who I had worked with and worked for him before he came to the Times. We had kind of a standing lunch date. After five or six or ten or however many times we'd been there he kind of like, I'm not going to pretend--
Chang: I had done a couple of things with Mark Bittman for the New York Times, so Bittman came in for lunch one day and said, "Hey, this is Peter Meehan." And I was like... I think there were a few expletives. I was shocked that this guy, who I had recognized, was the food critic who had been coming in to our restaurant. So, that was it.
Meehan: And then we started hanging out and kind of became friends and I stopped writing about him for the paper. At a certain point he was getting hounded by book agents and cookbook writers to put together a cookbook. He asked me to do it, and I said yes.
Chang: I've always liked Peter's writing. Even if he wasn't a food writer I liked what he was writing and what he did. We had a lot in common--at least musically.
Amazon.com: Peter writes about that in the introduction--you talk about running into him at a concert.
Amazon.com: And you said to him, "Are we going to pretend like we don't know each other." I love that.
Meehan: That was his pickup line.
Amazon.com: Seemed to work, right?
Meehan: It did, it did. I mean, he had a cold beer, we're at a concert, and it was either that or being able to write about him for the newspaper. In the end the cold beer sounded far more appealing.
Amazon.com: I think you made the right choice. What was the writing partnership like, what was the process of developing this cookbook?
Meehan: We laughed, we cried... I think we knew what we wanted to do when we set out, we didn't know how we were going to do it or the shape it would ultimately take. I think we could both see that Dave's situation was becoming increasingly insane--but when we agreed to do it that was before Michelin stars, before three stars--
Chang: Things were crazy, but they've continued to get crazier.
Meehan: We were kind of like, let's get down the stories of what happened early on so that when you're old and I'm old and we look back it can be like, can you believe that happened? That you admitted all that in print?
Chang: I think I told Pete, I don't think this is going to continue on to next year--we're going to be on the slow descent down, let's just do this and document it and see what happens.
Meehan: And I was, I think you're going to become an international billionaire like the guy who owns Benihana.
Chang: I know that was my thought--that it's all going to end now, might as well write it down. Pete had access to all our e-mails and was privy to a lot of conversations and was really, essentially, another member of our staff at all the restaurants.
Amazon.com: Peter, did you hang out behind the line and observe?
Meehan: I didn't do the classic cookbook writer move of getting into the kitchen because I think I would get eaten alive if I tried to cook in one of these kitchens. I had known the Momo story from getting to know Dave and because it's been pretty exhaustively written about in the media--not that that stopped us from writing about it again. And I got to know the players and Dave has a way of telling stories--Dave certainly has a strong voice. He actually can write, unlike some chefs. He had the ability to put things down on paper.
Chang: When Pete says I can write that means I can complete a sentence, basically.
Meehan: You don't write only with crayons, I guess. No, no... Dave could write.
Chang: Noun. Verb. Subject.
Meehan: We developed a good rhythm. I kind of got inside his head. There were a lot of interviews and transcribing those to get stories.
Chang: A lot of lost interviews as well.
Meehan: A lot of lost interviews, yeah. There was a broken iPod along the way.
Amazon.com: So, Peter, you call Momofuku an "anti-restaurant" and I kind of got that vibe from the cookbook itself. It's an anti-cookbook--it's as much memoir, scrapbook, and collection of recipes. I really like how you guys included original menus, e-mails, team meeting notes. Was that all part of your vision putting it together?
Meehan: Yeah, I think if I was better at what I do it would've been even more like a scrapbook. It would've had more original documents.
Chang: But that's a little bit my fault. I've come up with some documents after the fact--
Meehan: Dave, actually, is really good at losing important things. It is, also, on some level, trying to be "uncookbooky" in a similar way that Dave's restaurants run against the grain a little bit. But at the same time, I love cookbooks, I read cookbooks, I collect cookbooks. It's the restaurant food and the restaurant recipes--they can be terribly difficult--but I wanted them, for the most part, to be the sort of recipes that if people undertook them--
Chang: There were two things--we didn't want to water it down for the home cook. Not that we couldn't do that and not that it wouldn't be still delicious, but we wanted it to still have its integrity.
Meehan: Well, I think as a document. In the way you tell the story of going out to a strip club and blowing all of your restaurant's money before opening it.
Meehan: You write down the way the dish was made when it was made because that's part of the restaurant's story as well.
Chang: I think the example we used is there's a soft-shell crab recipe in maybe every cookbook ever published almost. Even like, a cupcake cookbook, there will be a soft-shell crab recipe.
Meehan: I'd like to see documentation on that version.
Chang: It just seems like enough's enough. There's enough cookbooks out there that have published the same recipes over and over and over again and not that we we've done anything new, we just repackaged it a little bit. We didn't want to do, say tomato sauce, pasta, stuff like that. Because there's other cookbooks and there's other writers and chefs that do it far better than us. We were just going to play to our strengths.
Amazon.com: I think Peter touched upon it too that each dish has an origin story, for the most part, and even if it's too intimidating to take on, it's worth knowing where that recipe came from and the amount of work that goes into it. But I do agree, it's not a "chefy" book but it is a little intimidating for home cooks. How do you envision they might approach this book?
Meehan: I think part of, other than just being verbose, part of the reason for those overly long headnotes and introductions is because people may not be making some of these dishes but I think the techniques in them and the flavors and the approach to creating a dish--that's what's interesting to me when reading about a restaurant's cooking. On some level, I don't think we did it on every recipe, but one some recipes we do, hopefully, communicate what the creation process was and that's valuable to anyone who cooks anything--the way you think about cooking. Reading about that approach to cooking is something people do in Cook's Illustrated every month. It's just a more simple, linear process that they put out. So I tried to capture what went into making these dishes that have gone on to making Momofuku as popular a little restaurant group as it is.
Amazon.com: And I love when you guys turn the wheel over to other contributors to riff on a passion or a topic, particularly Mr. Allan Benton on country ham.
Meehan: With the guy you just put the tape recorder on. Editing only hurts Allan's story. That was almost a word for word transcription except for when people came into his shop and he'd have to sell them some ham. I transcribed it, I put it down and sent it over to Dave and we were both like, yep, we're going to use the whole thing--let's give five pages to it. His products are amazing, he is an inspiration.
Chang: He's just somebody you want to do business with and we wanted to shed light on American country hams.
Meehan: Yeah, and Wylie Dufresne gave us a lovely little essay on meat glue and modern cooking referencing Camus and death in it. Us getting in the way of that would really be the crime.
Amazon.com: David, your passion for noodles is where everything started for you but as we're talking about country ham, other things like smoked bacon, shrimp and grits, pickles, and oysters all play a role in your menus. Did growing up in Virginia spark your love of Southern food or is that something you developed later?
Chang: It's something that I ate growing up as a kid and I never realized it was Southern food. I spent a lot of time in Richmond, Virginia, as a kid and I think you can consider that the proper South--anything above that is just Northern Virginia. I guess for us to use ingredients--and going back to how the cookbook can be used, I guess this ties in. I read a tremendous amount of cookbooks--it's sort of like my hobby, my passion, to find cookbooks from other chefs. And plenty of the recipes are daunting. We never replicate them, but it's more for, oh, that's a cool idea, I never thought of using an ingredient in that way, maybe we can incorporate that in a dish. I spurs different ideas for different foods. That's certainly an inspiration point. Having grits and having a Southern profile of food flavors, how can we use those flavor profiles in our restaurants without being too "fusiony" and too gimmicky.
Amazon.com: Asian fusion is a word you hate, right?
Chang: I don't necessarily hate it. I'm on a new kick of embracing fusion.
Amazon.com: What's changed that?
Chang: You look at menus all over the place, like a French restaurant. Look at any three-star Michelin restaurant in America and there are Asian influences, Spanish influences, all over--a very global menu. It just shows you how categories fail to really describe the food. But going back to grits and Southern flavors it was a lot about imagining what if our ancestors moved to Charleston, South Carolina--would they not be using Anson Mills grits? Would they not be using the local shrimp? Would they not be using butter in their food? Of course they would, eventually. That's how food evolves. And vice-versa. What if people from the South moved to Korea? How would they replicate certain flavor profiles? For us it was a matter of trying to figure out what food might taste like--it was a little bit of a leap of faith. That's how a lot of the recipe took place.
Amazon.com: As someone who famously celebrates the versatility of the pig do you think the bacon/pork frenzy among foodies has hit a saturation point or do you think it's a good thing?
Chang: I think it's a good thing, but it certainly has.
Meehan: It's boring to talk about, but it's never boring to have bacon.
Chang: We never intended to be, like, a pork house. And I still don't think it is.
Meehan: I think we have a surprising number of chicken recipes.
Chang: Yeah, we have a lot of chicken recipes, a lot of vegetables. Vegetables aren't my favorite things to work with but everything happens by accident. We opened a ramen house for the first restaurant and a lot of that is pork-based.
Meehan: You've got to cook pork, you've got bacon you're using to flavor the ramen broth. You've got that ramen broth, which is a pork broth, which ends up in everything and you get labeled this guy with a pork thing.
Chang: It was just an outgrowth of what was the original restaurant. We didn't have chicken stock on hand, we had pork stock, so a lot of the recipes called for pork stock.
Amazon.com: And in the book you write about the way you approach traditional dishes with "one foot rooted in tradition and the other kicking it forward." I really like that. What are the steps in making something a Momofuku dish? What's the development process like?
Meehan: I think it evolves over the course of the book. Just addressing it as it's been addressed in the book, if you look, early Noodle Bar is mostly Asian and toward the end of it, that's when that Southern thing starts to kick in. And I think the guys becoming more comfortable working with a wider range of ingredients. But by the time you get to Ssäm bar, then you're bringing in elements of newer cooking and you're bringing in old technique. And by the time Ko happens you're starting to obliterate traditional forms. I mean, not in that heavy of a way--it's still a short rib. But the approach to that menu is completely auteur. It's not as clear I took from this and I took from this and I made that. So I think that over the course of the book there's a lot of different approaches.
Chang: I think the book charts the trajectory of our growth as a restaurant and of cooks and chefs and how we view the world and how we view food. It starts off really simple with simple ideas and it just got more complex, as most things go.
Amazon.com: And Peter, you might have insight into this as well, but what's a typical family meal like at the Momofuku group?
Meehan: Family meal can be really good.
Chang: It's our most important meal of the day.
Meehan: Somebody's ass is usually on the line over family meal. I've had full roasted shoulders of beef for roast beef sandwiches, fried chicken battles...
Chang: There's a healthy competition amongst the restaurants for who serves the best family meal.
Amazon.com: And who's winning?
Chang: It's different. Noodle Bar has more employees so it isn't as intricate--sometimes it is. I don't know, it really varies, and I'm the one who gets to choose where he wants to eat family meal for the day, so it's pretty good for me.
Amazon.com: Your restaurants are pretty boisterous and filled with a great energy but the design aesthetics are pretty austere. Each place has a simple decoration--a photograph of the Band at Noodle Bar, John McEnroe at Ssäm Bar. What's the story behind those particular images and what they mean to you and the energy of the restaurant?
Chang: Everyone thought that we had this minimalist approach because we wanted to convey something about our food, about our aesthetics. But, as usual, it was a simple answer: we had no money. When you have no money you can't really decorate anything. The first version of Momofuku we literally had nothing, there was nothing on the walls.
Meehan: That Tsukiji poster in the bathroom...
Chang: I stole a poster from Tsukiji fish market in broad daylight in Tokyo.
Meehan: It was of a sushi chef with a lazy eye--
Chang: No, it's not a sushi chef. He's a famous comedian from Osaka... with a lazy eye. I remember jumping up on a trash can and ripping it down and nobody really caring what I was doing.
Meehan: Oh, that's good, I didn't realize it was all stolen art. And the McEnroe poster--
Chang: The McEnroe poster was. Peter Lano, my good friend Luka Lano's older brother, moved to Switzerland--he and his friend stole it off the side of a bus stop in 1984. It had been passed down to Luka. When we were figuring out Ssäm Bar and in the initial days of construction really my only concern was where can we put John McEnroe? I wasn't concerned really about anything else. I was infatuated with this big giant lifesize poster of John McEnroe and that was pretty much it.
Meehan: But you later followed it up with an additional John McEnroe poster.
Chang: That was because John McEnroe's dad called and he gave us a bunch of stuff--John McEnroe, Sr.
Amazon.com: So do you have a particular affinity for that particular poster or the man himself?
Chang: Both. But that poster's amazing, just because it's totally, utterly random. But also because McEnroe's ridiculously hilarious.
Amazon.com: One of my colleagues, in his office, has the same vintage poster but it's of Jimmy Connors.
Chang and Meehan: [Laugh]
Amazon.com:Kind of sums him up. He's a Jimmy Connors guy. You're a McEnroe guy. Dave, I know you're obsessed with cookbooks and Peter, it sounds like you are too. I'm wondering if each of you could tell me some of your favorites and any recent additions to your collection you're excited about.
Chang: I guess the cookbook I'm most excited about right now isn't even out yet. He's a local Seattle resident--Nathan Myhrvold and Chris Young are working on this massive tome that's going to capture, I guess, everything progressive that's been cooking. I'm assuming it's going to be a modern-day Larousse. I'm really looking froward to it. I don't know how many people know about it or how many are going to be published but I think it's going to be about a 1500 page volume cookbook that will be the be-all end-all of cookbooks. I think that Heston Heston Blumenthal's Big Fat Duck Cookbook was probably the best cookbook to come out since The French Laundry Cookbook--in English, at least. That book is just tremendous--it really covers just about everything from French roots to modern-day cooking techniques. It pays homage to everything. At the end of the day you get Heston's humility and his pursuit of trying to make things the most delicious as possible.
Meehan: I think Fergus Henderson's books. They still kind of blow my mind--that kind of poetic austerity that he's got. Just as books they're amazing items. I think it's a recent cookbook that's great. I actually cook out of cookbooks, unlike this guy. Alice Waters's Vegetables is an amazing cookbook. And Alice Waters's Fruit--those are both great references.
Chang: The only person that has a bigger cookbook collection or is a bigger cookbook nerd than myself is Wylie Dufresne. He just gave me this huge, four-volume set on Japanese fish. It gets pretty geeky, I guess. Even cookbooks that you can't really read but you can cherish.
Amazon.com: Dave, you recently rolled out a nighttime cocktail program at Ssäm Bar. How's that going? And, for each of you, what's your go-to drink and does it change by season?
Chang: As usual, Ssäm Bar is in constant change, and sometimes we have late night, sometimes we don't--now it's full-on late-night. The cocktail program is run by Don Lee. Late-night is not always the easiest thing in the world to do but obviously Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays we're busy and some of the other nights it's a pretty good place to get a drink. I really like the Reverend Palmer. It's Elijah Craig bourbon essentially infused with iced tea. That's delicious. I think, by nature, I'm a bourbon man, but my doctor says lay off the bourbon. Summertime I try to hit mostly gin drinks.
Meehan: Yeah, we both have a strong affinity for Pappy Van Winkle products.
Chang: You've got to drink Pappy Van Winkle with a twist.
Meehan: I know. You told me that a man with plaid pants told you that.
Chang: I did a dinner one time in Charleston with Sean Brock at McCrady's and we saw this guy with incredibly red pants sitting at this high bar stool just talking smack about almost every bourbon on the rail. So we go up to him and we're basically like, who is this man? And he's drinking Pappy Van Winkle, 17-year I think, with a twist and we're like, why are you drinking it with a twist? "Well, I'm Julian Van Winkle." If there's anyone that should know how to drink his bourbon... Yeah, a twist of lemon. The explanation is pretty long but basically it opens up a lot of the flavors in that bourbon. So drink it neat, with a twist of lemon.
Amazon.com: Do you always drink your bourbon neat or do you like a rock or two in there?
Chang: I like it neat. If it's a mixed concoction sometimes I'll have it on the rocks.
Meehan: Yeah, I need the rock. I can't handle it straight. I don't have the body mass.
Amazon.com: So one thing about the book, and I realize why, due to publishing schedules and when you wrote it, but Bakery & Milk Bar doesn't get its due quite yet. There are some of Christina [Tosi]'s recipes in the book--I totally envision a Bakery & Milk Bar book down the road--but tell us what Christina did to infuse your Momofuku group with her incredible sweet tooth.
Chang: She is an absolute blessing. She infused us with not only a sweet tooth but she gave us plenty of ideas for savory options as well. When she came on board, which was two-and-a-half years ago, we didn't have a dessert program. So if there were not many desserts for the restaurant it captured where we were at with the menus at the time. When we were writing the cookbook Milk Bar didn't exist. When we finished the cookbook Milk Bar had just opened.
Meehan: Yeah, I put a cut-off date of the first menu at Ko on recipes in the cookbook. I mean we could've put 40 more Ko recipes.
Chang: The Ko menu--that's literally the menu for the first two weeks. And after that the menu's changed dramatically except for a couple dishes. I mean, we could have done a whole book just on Ko but we wanted it to be somewhat accessible. That's why there are some dishes you will never see again if you ever eat at Ko. But I believe Tosi is working on her own cookbook.
Meehan: Yeah, I'm really excited for it but disappointed not to have the Compost Cookie recipe for my own home use.
Amazon.com: Likewise. Any of those cookie recipes.
Chang: Yeah, they're great. And whenever Tosi's book is done it's going to be absolutely terrific. But the reason we didn't have it was we had to have a cut-off point and Milk Bar just didn't exist by the time we finished.
Amazon.com: I was going to ask about Ko. There's a lot of online chatter about how to game the reservation system, which you instituted to keep it a populist restaurant. But do you have any other information on securing a reservation other than clicking and clicking at 10AM?
Meehan: It's not that hard.
Chang: I haven't gotten a reservation.
Meehan: You're slow?
Chang: I've never gotten one.
Meehan: I've gone online at 10AM and gotten reservations. I think it would be harder if you were coming from out of town and you only had a couple of nights it might be hard to peg it in that way, but three or four or five times I've gotten reservations.
Chang: I know, just from talking to the web guy who does it, usually what happens if you want to do it, around 10:40AM to 11AM is a good time to try to get it because a lot of times what happens people get a reservation and then they call all their friends to see if they can make it and they can't, so there's a cancellation. That's the timeframe for most cancellations--10:40AM-11AM. And if you troll the Internet there's usually some cancellations around 3:00PM to 5:00PM. The best time to get a reservation is Sunday or national holidays. But it's a 12-seat restaurant. We're not trying to cause undue planning trauma to people coming to New York--we want people to eat at Ko, obviously. But if we made it three weeks out or six weeks out we'd have to fight all these reservation scalpers. That's the main reason why we kept it at seven-day intervals.
Amazon.com: Now I'm tempted not to post these tips and keep them to myself.
Chang and Meehan: [Laugh]
Amazon.com: And just as you started instituting fired chicken dinners at Noodle Bar a fried chicken craze is sweeping NYC. Coincidence?
Chang: You know, again I just think it's right place, right time. That's it. It's something we've been working on a long time--actually, for over a year.
Meehan: I think fried chicken was actually reaching a critical mass in New York a couple months ago. I mean there's been a pretty big explosion of Southern places doing fried chicken around the city. What is it, three makes a trend? So there was only a matter of time before somebody noticed three and called it that.
Amazon.com: Finally, David, I know you can't tell us too much, but I wanted to talk about the Midtown Momofuku.
Amazon.com: What can you share about it? I know it's going to be French- influenced. When will we know a name? When will it open? Are you concerned that it's not within walking distance to the other three?
Chang: To answer all those questions... I am concerned. I'm always concerned--about everything. We still don't have a name yet due to some legal issues with another restaurant with a similar name so I can't really talk about that [the name has since been revealed: Ma Pêche]. But the restaurant is going to be under the stewardship of Tien Ho, who was the chef de cuisine and partner at Ssäm Bar, and he's going to be the executive chef. We're going to give him the opportunity to cook the food that he wants to cook and I'm just going to be there for support. If he needs me to do whatever he needs I'll be there. It will be a French-based cuisine with Vietnamese touches. We've been saying through a Vietnamese prism but Tien and I both laughed at how ridiculous that sounds. It's just going to be French food with some Vietnamese touches and maybe some Vietnamese food with French touches. But it's going to be a Tien Ho restaurant--we're really excited about that. That's sort of the state of affairs in New York--someone like Tien should've had his own restaurant two or three years ago. But the economy and just New York being New York it's almost impossible. Tien's been a good friend for a longtime so we've been able to help each other out on this project.
Amazon.com: I've had the fortune of interviewing a lot of chefs and one of the things about why they open new restaurants is to celebrate someone in their staff and give them that chance to shine even more.
Chang: Yeah, that's exactly the case. I can focus on the places in the East Village and essentially not overstress about what's going in Midtown and everything and just trust the people that we have because we have a very talented staff of individuals who are really hardworking and who are trying to do their best. I just have to help that along now.
Amazon.com:And have you already determined what print or poster or photo will be--
Chang: I have no idea. But we actually have an architect this time--a real, bonafide architect--so I don't know if he's going to be down with any random-ass posters. The one thing... Pete and I were watching TV down at my parents house and there's a picture of--
Meehan: We call that working.
Chang: Yeah. Christian Hosoi--he was a really influential skateboarder... post-Dogtown guy. And he did this thing called Christ Air and there's this sick shot of him and I was like, Pete, that's got to go in the new restaurant. This is totally random and it looks so weird. I guess every restaurant has a random photo. The Band photo wasn't necessarily random--it was a picture from The Big Pink. And in Milk Bar we have a picture from Dave Arnold--he's the food-science director at FCI. But before that he was an artist. He was a Yale grad, went to Columbia--got his MFA there. That was what he did for art, he made a dragon fighting fire so that's what was captured on the Milk Bar wall. When we looked at the wall I was like, this is where this poster has to go. Ane if people look at it and are like, what the hell is this about? then I think our job is done.