Momofuku’s master chef: a profile of David Chang



You walk into Momofuku and it doesn’t feel like any place else — at least any place else in Toronto. The three-storey restaurant complex  hums with a vibe of effortless cool.

Now, there are plenty of cool places in Toronto — places such as the Thompson Hotel, the Black Hoof and Grand Electric. Momofuku isn’t like those places. And though its chef and owner, David Chang, is a cursing and drinking rock star, his place is somehow welcoming and impressive at the same time. But the 36-year-old Chang, who cut his teeth at some of New York’s best restaurants, who sells his ramen noodles for $15, doesn’t care much for cool.

“Cool is pretty transient and subjective, so we just try to listen to our employees and what feels right to us as a group,” Chang writes in an e-mail, unavailable for a conversation, though where exactly he was no one would say.

“I don’t feel like we have transformed American food tastes — we just wanted to make good food that is accessible to everybody.”

Good food, however, is available in spades in Toronto. This month, as the city transforms into Hollywood North, expect any and all of your favourite celebrities to be upstairs at Shoto, Momofuku’s exclusive top-floor restaurant, where the tasting menu begins at $150. Odds are, Chang will be right there, carousing with his bold-faced clientele.

But who is David Chang, and how did he become the face of a new food empire?

Raised in northern Virginia, the Korean-American comes from affluence. His father and his father’s friends were his first financial backers, but the James Beard Award–winning chef didn’t become a star overnight. He had no idea what he wanted to do after college, and when he started cooking in New York, he rose through the ranks like anyone else. Silver spoon aside, nothing about Chang was anointed.

And though ramen is now available on virtually half of the menus in the GTA — largely due to Chang’s influence — chef remains humble about his place in the culinary art world.

“Ramen was here before Momofuku in Toronto, and I am certain that it will be here long after Momofuku,” writes Chang.

In February, Bon Appetit magazine called Momofuku “the most important restaurant in America,” so his tendency to downplay his own influence is interesting. Of course, the guy’s a salesman, as well as an artist.

And he’s certainly not afraid of speaking his mind. Liquored up, he gave a talk in 2009 with Anthony Bourdain and had this to say about San Francisco: “F**kin’ every restaurant in San Francisco is just serving figs on a plate. Do something with your food.”

As chef continues laying out his foundation in Toronto, where two can dine royally at his Noodle Bar for $100, he must realize he’s arrived in a city that doesn’t traditionally reward boasters from New York.

Donald Trump is currently getting his tail handed to him, and New York’s nightclub king Peter Gatien came to Toronto full of bluster when he opened Circa, his $5 million nightclub that closed after three years. It’s hard to make it across the border, where a different sort of style earns rewards. Is it possible that Toronto won’t get what Chang is trying to do?

“Yes, a city can not like our restaurant, but this only challenges us to evolve and to be better,” writes Chang. “We try to pay respect to a variety of culinary traditions, with the underlying goal of making our food taste very good.”

Of course we want our restaurant food to taste good, but more and more, a restaurant is like a show. And the chef is the star. But just because a concept is popular in one place doesn’t necessarily mean it will work somewhere else.

Chang, who produces a dirty and beautiful food journal for McSweeney’s, has the magic touch. There’s an atmosphere in his restaurant that’s somehow inclusive and cool.

Maybe the reason so many chefs think they’re Gordon Ramsay, I write to Chang, is because reality TV shows are giving cooks a big head.

“People can criticize reality TV — it’s an easy target, but at the end of the day, anything that helps raise food awareness, which it certainly has, is a good thing,” he writes. 

“How do you pick your people?” I ask.

“The first thing they must know is that working in our kitchen is a team effort,” writes Chang.

Reading Chang’s answers to my questions — and later discovering in a gossip column that chef was actually in Toronto, spotted at the Shangri-La Hotel, in shorts, in the very same week that my wife and I ate his food — I try to match the life of a celebrity cook with his media image and the experience we had at his grand Toronto restaurant. Being an outspoken bad boy is just the right look for reality television, but when you want to become a brand that’s global, it’s easier offering innocuous sound bites.

Questions the chef chose not to answer were about which Toronto restaurants he likes and which ones he doesn’t. Clearly, the man wants to welcome the city to his table.

“We need to always strive to be better and improve upon our mistakes. We do this to make sure that everyone has a great time when they spend their hard-earned money with us,” writes Chang. “We are very appreciative of Toronto and we want to be great neighbours.”

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