A dish that calls for boiling a pig’s head (use a blowtorch to dispense with any hairy patches). Liberal use of profanity. David Chang’s confrontational approach to cookbook writing.
By KATY MCLAUGHLIN
Oct. 16, 2009 / Wall Street Journal
Gabriele Stabile – David Chang, outside Momofuku Ko earlier this year, had never run his own kitchen when he opened Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004.
Chef David Chang’s first cookbook is long, laced with profanity and full of complicated, labor-intensive recipes, many of which require obscure ingredients like kochukaru (Korean chili powder) and sliced country jowl. In food circles, it’s one of the most highly anticipated books of the year.
Mr. Chang, 32 years old, has emerged as one of the country’s hottest chefs since launching Momofuku Noodle Bar, then a 27-seat restaurant in downtown Manhattan, in 2004. Today, he has accumulated three more restaurants and two Michelin stars, and visitors from all over the world endure long waits for his inventive creations. Much as Wolfgang Puck leapt to national fame in the early 1980s when his Spago restaurant in Los Angeles launched California cuisine, Mr. Chang is the anointed star of the current dining scene—the young gun that other chefs world-wide are watching and copying.
Mr. Chang has been widely lauded for his signature cooking style, which combines Asian and all-American flavors, makes meticulous use of French technique and incorporates a dash of molecular gastronomy experimentation. He is almost equally well known for his blunt attitude and penchant for cursing.
With his first book, titled “Momofuku,” Mr. Chang will take his message to a wider audience. The 303-page book, coming out Oct. 27 and priced at $40, aims to replicate Mr. Chang’s natural voice, which means occasional use of the word “like” to punctuate Mr. Chang’s thoughts, and liberal use of profanity. Readers are instructed not to “f— it up” when handling a pricey piece of foie gras, for instance. Some of the recipes are likely to be daunting to home cooks—such as one that requires boiling a pig’s head (“if there are any hairy patches, dispense with them” with a blowtorch, the recipe directs).
Chef David Chang’s first cookbook is long, wordy and laced with profanity about the restaurant business — and his publisher expects it to be a hit. WSJ’s Marisa Wong reports on the chef of Momofuku.
The book’s editor, Rica Allannic, says she “suggested cutting down on a few f-bombs here and there if they were excessive or not adding anything to the sentence.” A healthy dose remains, which is better than “a sanitized version of Momofuku,” she says. The publisher, Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House, has ordered an initial run of 50,000 for the book, which was co-authored by food writer Peter Meehan. It’s a sizable order, particularly for a chef with restaurants only in New York and without his own TV show, Ms. Allannic says.
Mr. Chang says the book’s tone is a conscious attempt to capture the brutal, gritty and exhilarating tone of the restaurant kitchen. “There are so many more f-bombs and terrible things that happen in restaurants. It’s an ugly, nasty business, the cooking world. It’s hard, hot and grueling. Other books choose not to document this,” Mr. Chang says. Prettifying the restaurant business and the world of food is fundamentally dishonest, he says, which is why he includes the recipe for a pig’s head torchon (a cylindrical pâté) with instructions to “grasp that fact” that “pigs have heads.”
When Mr. Chang first opened Momofuku Noodle Bar, he had held jobs in some of New York’s top restaurants, including Craft and Café Boulud, and had done some training in noodle restaurants in Japan, but he had never been a chef in charge of a kitchen. Initially, the menu at Momofuku focused mainly on simple dishes, like ramen noodles with shredded pork. The underfunded, badly decorated first restaurant struggled in its early days, however, and Mr. Chang decided to invent new dishes. He began adding things like tripe braised with bacon and fried veal sweetbreads to the menu. Crowds—and critics—took notice, and soon the tiny restaurant was packed.
Mr. Chang opened three more restaurants in the years that followed, and became famous for dishes like the $200 pork butt (it feeds up to 10) at Momofuku Ssäm Bar and the caviar-stuffed egg at his high-end restaurant, Momofuku Ko. He also developed a reputation for unconventional moves. His restaurants focus unabashedly on pork-heavy dishes, with few vegetarian options. Ko, where the cheapest meal is $125, is a 12-seat counter at which diners sit on high stools. Mr. Chang doesn’t allow anyone—from celebrities to food critics—to skip the line for a reservation there, and reservations can only be made online. “It is no accident that Momofuku sounds like mother-f—,” Mr. Chang confides in the book’s 24-page introduction.
A Guide to the Restaurants
Momofuku Noodle Bar
Cuisine: Mr. Chang’s first restaurant, opened in 2004, features items like ramen with pork belly (shrimp and grits, pictured above, has appeared on the menu). A “late night” menu, served from 12 to 2 a.m.,
includes smoked chicken wings.
Famous dish: The $9 pork buns— homemade, fluffy white buns stuffed with braised pork belly and topped with hoisin sauce.
Prices: Small dishes are $9 to $15; larger dishes run $11 to $20. A fried chicken meal for four to eight people costs $100 and comes with side dishes and sauces.
Getting in: Reservations are generally not taken, and waits for a table average 30 minutes to an hour, Mr. Chang says. Reservations are, however, needed for the fried chicken meal, and are available only through the Web site; currently all fried-chicken meals for the month are booked.
Momofuku Ssäm Bar
Cuisine: Mr. Chang’s fondness for pork is evident in a menu that includes several kinds of country ham, steamed pork buns (pictured above) and crispy rice cakes with pork sausage.
Signature dish: The $200 Bo Ssäm, which serves six to 10 people, consists of an entire pork shoulder, a dozen oysters, sauces and lettuce leaves to wrap it all up.
Prices: A prix-fixe lunch of three courses is $25; dinner entrees range from $19 to $30.
Getting in: No reservations are accepted except for the Bo Ssäm meal, and long waits for tables are typical. Bo Ssäm meal reservations are relatively easy to land, however, especially for off-peak times.
Cuisine: At Mr. Chang’s fanciest restaurant (above), the meal is a pre-set menu featuring complex, inventive preparations and luxury ingredients, from foie gras to Wagyu beef.
Famous dish: A soft-cooked hen egg stuffed with caviar and served with crisp potatoes and soft onions.
Prices: The three-hour prix-fixe lunch is $175; the two-hour dinner is $125.
Getting in: Scoring one of the 12 seats is legendarily difficult. Reservations can only be made online, through momofuku.com. Potential diners must create an account, then submit requests constantly until a rare slot opens up. Mr. Chang suggests checking for tables at 10:40 a.m., or from 3 to 5 p.m. weekdays and on the weekend.
Momofuku Milk Bar
Cuisine: Pastry chef Christina Tosi is gaining a following for her desserts, from shakes to panna cotta, made with “cereal-milk” flavors—they taste like the milk left at the bottom of a bowl of breakfast cereal. Also on offer are cakes, pies (pictured below), cookies and savories including pork buns.
Famous dish: Cereal-milk soft serve ice cream, $4.15
Prices: 10-inch cakes are $90; cookies are $1.85 each.
Getting In: Attached by a long hallway to Ssäm bar, Milk Bar does not accept reservations. Most orders are taken to go, though purchasers can also eat at high-topped tables.
For some in the food world’s old guard, vulgar cookbook language is an assault on once-genteel food writing. “Every cookbook should have a voice. I like a good, earthy tone to describe certain physical activities,” says Judith Jones, senior editor and vice president of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, and Julia Child’s longtime editor. “But I think some of these young guys are going overboard,” says Ms. Jones, who has not read Mr. Chang’s book.
Julia Child, the subject of Nora Ephron’s film “Julie & Julia,” which juxtaposes the cookbook author’s life to that of blogger Julie Powell, was famously dismissive of Ms. Powell’s profanity-filled blog, taking the cursing as a sign that Ms. Powell didn’t take the culinary arts seriously.
“Cooking used to be the province of polite people. Now, chefs are like professional wrestlers. They’re entertainers, part of pop culture,” says Michael Stern, who, with Jane Stern, his ex-wife, has written 32 books about food.
Such criticism comes from people who don’t run restaurants, Mr. Chang says. Maybe he “wouldn’t be cursing as much,” Mr. Chang says, if he were “an armchair chef.”
Cookbooks are currently something of a bright spot in book sales, which declined overall by about 5% in 2008, while the cookbook category declined by only between 1% and 2%, according to Simba Information, a media research company in Stamford, Conn. Publishers released 3,277 cookbooks last year, up from 2,836 the year before, according to R.R. Bowker, a publishing research firm.
The most popular cookbooks are frequently from television chefs; in 2008, Food Network stars Paula Deen, Giada de Laurentiis and Rachael Ray authored five of the 38 best-selling cookbooks in the country. Top chefs have become huge celebrities in recent years, attracting devoted followings on television and on the live tour circuit, where some of them are treated almost like rock stars by adoring fans.
Readers may be intimidated by some of the recipes in Mr. Chang’s cookbook. One of his recipes calls for readers to track down transglutaminase, an enzyme that can bond proteins together, sold by some specialty chef supply shops. The book’s less demanding recipes, however, offer an attainable version of Mr. Chang’s singular approach.
A recipe for bacon dashi—a basic stock used in several of the book’s recipes—reflects Mr. Chang’s blending of the familiar with the entirely new. Dashi is a building block of Japanese cuisine, as important as chicken stock is to French food. It is traditionally made with water, kombu, a dried seaweed, and dried, smoked bonito fish flakes. Mr. Chang’s version replaces the fish with smoky American bacon. The result is a delicious brew that captures the clean brininess of Japanese cuisine and the finger-licking tastiness of American food.
In the recipes, Mr. Chang’s informal writing voice becomes less abrasive and more encouraging, coaching the home cook through his techniques. He urges the reader to “ride this baby out for as long as it takes” in a recipe for roasted onions, until crispy, pungent onion slices become silky and mild. The onions are used in a recipe for roasted sweet summer corn, whose master stroke is a sauce made from butter and white miso paste. Mr. Chang says he took the dish off the menu after it became so popular “we were a corn restaurant that just happened to sling some noodles.” The dish, recreated in a home kitchen, is absolutely delicious.
As in many cookbooks written by chefs, the recipes often require making other recipes first, such as a seared scallop dish that uses a cup of bacon dashi and a handful of pickled chanterelles. Mr. Chang says it’s perfectly legitimate to substitute ingredients, or to make one element of a dish and use it any way that tastes good. In the book, he writes that there is one question he asks himself about any dish: “Is it f— delicious?”