Feeding frenzy: Chang’s popularity grows apace
David Chang is dazed. He’s standing at the information desk at Boston’s South Station, his black backpack hanging off one shoulder, looking like he just got off a bargain seat on the Trans-Siberian Railway, rather than the Acela from New York.
The book tour for his new cookbook/memoir, “Momofuku’’ co-written with former New York Times writer Peter Meehan, is taking its toll. San Francisco, Seattle, Montreal, Hartford. “I have to go North - to go South,’’ he says, sighing deeply, then mumbling obscenities about his book publicist. We make our way to Sportello restaurant in Fort Point Channel.
Chang, who is Korean-American, spent years in Japan working and feeding his lifelong obsession with ramen noodles, keeping copious notebooks filled with oddly detailed analyses of noodle dishes wherever he ate them. He returned to the US to open a series of failed restaurants over a two-year period, each time learning, iterating, and finally succeeding quite spectacularly.
His current New York establishments - Momofuku Noodle Bar, Ssäm Bar, Milk Bar, and most recently Ko - have catapulted the 32-year-old chef to stratospheric fame in culinary circles. And now, with his first book just out, he seems to be gasping for air.
“Momofuku’’ is a fascinating read, roughly equal parts narrative and recipes. These formulas are not for the faint of heart. Many involve unusual ingredients such as labneh (strained yogurt) and “Activa-brand transglutaminase’’ (a meat glue). They also require highly complex cooking methods and R-rated introductions. The meat glue gets a four-page spread detailing innovative uses.
The cookbook recipes are the vehicle for what appears to be the real purpose of the book: to chronicle the improbable rise of Chang and his restaurants from obscure storefronts in New York’s East Village to hot spots that leave celebrity VIPs waiting weeks to get in. “It’s like I won Powerball,’’ Chang explains, now revived a bit by a plate of Sportello’s tagliatelle. “I have no explanation.’’
Perhaps not, but Chang does some very intentional things at his restaurants. Momofuku Noodle Bar, his first spot, offers a short and affordable menu of Korean/Japanese-influenced gems that excite the senses. The tastes (and textures) are often weird combinations, intended to evoke consternation - and addiction. Two weeks ago, for instance, I had an appetizer of sliced raw yellowtail with golden beets, blood orange, and salty black olive bits, followed by some unforgettable ginger-scallion noodles flavored with the Japanese condiment menma (made from fermented bamboo shoots). There’s lots of delicious pork fat in many items. Add a critical mass of hipster fans and food-star friends (Anthony Bourdain, Martha Stewart) and you have a New York phenomenon.
Chang makes no apologies for the nearly ubiquitous pork fat on the menu, or anything else. He tells me he has yet to hire a PR person for the restaurants. (He should hurry.) In various interviews, between expletives, he has managed to offend, among others, “silly’’ vegetarians, observant Jews, “out of touch’’ Slow Food pioneers, certain food writers, a Boston food scene that “doesn’t celebrate diversity,’’ fig lovers, and the entire city of San Francisco.
His bluster is catnip for food bloggers. The effect for Chang is even more notoriety. When I ask him to clarify blog reports that he hoped someone would throw Food Network host Guy Fieri down a stairwell, Chang says only that it should be done “head first.’’ Meow.
But when our waitress arrives with squid-ink ravioli, compliments of the restaurant (someone has recognized Chang), his demeanor changes abruptly. Politely, sincerely, respectfully, he thanks the waitress and accepts the dish with a warm smile. It’s the same when Sportello owner Barbara Lynch comes in to greet him. Chang seems genuinely honored and shows his charm.
Later, getting into a cab, Chang calls out his goodbye. “Don’t hose me, bro!’’ His honest self-awareness is disarming. At a time when the buzz surrounding a restaurant is as important as the food, Chang is, either accidentally or brilliantly, a master of creating both. And he’s just done it again.