Chef David Chang Riffs on Worrying, What's Next and Wu's in Vienna

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

It seemed almost impossible that I would learn anything new about David Chang when I arrived for lunch at one of his favorite Chinese restaurants, Wu's Garden in Vienna. The 32-year-old wunderchef of Momofuku Noodle Bar and three other acclaimed New York restaurants has won every conceivable culinary prize including James Beard Foundation awards for rising star in 2007, best New York chef in 2008 and best new restaurant in 2009. And he has subsequently been profiled by every self-respecting New York and national publication.

The CliffsNotes version of those stories goes something like this: Chang is young, brilliant, neurotic, foul-mouthed -- he dropped the f-word 59 times in the New Yorker's profile alone -- and, perhaps most important, pork-obsessed. Which made it all the more surprising to show up and (1) find Chang eagerly awaiting a plate of Wu's braised tofu and (2) discover that Momofuku Noodle Bar, the restaurant that started it all, almost opened in Georgetown.

It turns out that Wu's is the kind of place where Chang is comfortable revealing such secrets, though he insists the rabid fans of his legendary pork buns will not be disappointed to learn he likes tofu. ("I like vegetables, too," he protests.) Chang, who grew up in Northern Virginia, has been coming to Wu's "forever." He loves the retro decor: the rosewood lattice screens, the coffered red and gold ceiling made in Taiwan especially for the Wu family. Most of all, Chang loves the food, especially the braised tofu and the juicy, boneless braised chicken, one of his "favorite dishes of all time."

"This is a great Chinese-American restaurant," Chang said. "Outside of Las Vegas, do you think someone's going to put in the time to decorate a place like this? To make food like this? No, probably not."

Chang worries about Wu's and fears other great Chinese-American restaurants are slowly disappearing. It's not that Wu's isn't busy. The restaurant, which opened in 1974, is now welcoming its third generation of customers, says co-owner William Wu. It's that Chang worries about most things in his life; hence, writers' frequent use of the word neurotic to describe him. Right now, Chang's big worries include his cookbook, "Momofuku," co-written by Peter Meehan and due out later this month; a still-unnamed restaurant, his largest ever, set to open in midtown Manhattan in December; and just what role he can, and should, play in his exploding culinary empire.

"You know, I don't think you get better as you get older. You just don't, creatively," he said gloomily. "But I don't think I can tell everyone what is going to happen on each menu. I can steer where the food will go. I think that's where my power lies."

Chang's ability to create riffs on Asian flavors is the reason the chef has been a magnet for culinary awards and critical acclaim: There are the pork buns, packed with fatty belly and house-pickled cucumbers, of course. But he also serves Brussels sprouts with kimchi puree and bacon dashi with potatoes and clams. "His food is more than cheap and delicious," raved New York magazine writers Rob Patronite and Robin Raisfeld in a 2007 profile of Chang. "It is the unique synthesis of his highbrow training with his lowbrow appetites."

His first culinary influences were his mother's Korean home cooking and the almost weekly trips to Wu's, where he learned about classic Chinese flavor profiles such as garlic, chicken broth and scallions. His father was in the restaurant business but gave it up to open a golf retail store because "restaurants are a hard-ass business," Chang said. "Many of his friends were restaurant owners. He would tell the chefs to take me down and have a conversation to convince me that the kitchen was no place for a kid like me.

"He wanted his kids to have the best education that he could afford. So I got the best education he could afford" -- Trinity College in Connecticut -- "and the irony is, I squandered it."

The self-deprecation is vintage Chang. And the I'm-a-lucky-but-bumbling-idiot spin has become part of the Momofuku legend. The shorthand version: Chang worked at a few top New York restaurants, including "Top Chef" host Tom Colicchio's flagship, Craft. But, as with his father, his passion was always ramen noodles. In 2003, Chang's mother found she had cancer, and he took time off to be with her in Vienna. When her health improved, he decided not to return to an established New York restaurant. He borrowed $200,000 from his father and set out to open a noodle bar that offered "food made with integrity at an affordable price."

At first, he and his co-chef, Joaquin Baca, cooked what they thought people wanted. There were dumplings and edamame and something that would be shocking to today's Chang fans: three vegetarian options. The restaurant was surviving but far from successful, another "[expletive] noodle bar," Chang likes to say. So, with nothing to lose, the chefs began to cook what they liked: fried veal sweetbreads, head cheese, a Korean burrito called ssam. Diners and awards began to pour in.

And what if he had opened in Georgetown instead of the East Village? "There was a time when D.C. really was in the lead," said Chang. "And if we had gone there, God knows what would have happened."

From Momofuku, Chang moved from one success to another, though there were a few pitfalls along the way: He opened Ssam Bar, originally a paean to that Korean burrito, which most customers hated. It was eventually replaced on the menu by dishes of country hams, oysters and kimchi consomme. Next door, he opened Milk Bar, a dessert shop that serves kid-inspired sweets such as "cereal milk" soft-serve ice creams and cornflake chocolate chip marshmallow cookies. Chang's Ko, a 12-seat fine dining bar, was awarded four stars by New York magazine and three from the New York Times.

Now, there's the cookbook. "Momofuku" (Clarkson Potter, October 2009) documents Chang's philosophy, the process and chaos of opening Noodle Bar, Ssam and Ko. (It would be far too time-consuming to count the f-words in the 302-page book.)

The recipes were adapted for home-kitchen equipment, but the ingredients are the same ones used in his restaurants. The spicy pork sausage and rice sticks, the recipe that is perhaps most directly linked to Chang's early eating at Wu's, is still fiery with its two cups of dried chili peppers and tablespoon each of Sichuan peppercorns and Korean chili powder. The famous pork stock calls for four pounds of chicken, five pounds ofpork bones and one pound of bacon to make just 10 servings of ramen.

"I had an early idea that there might be some bridge recipes to make it easier for people," said co-author Meehan. "But Dave didn't want to do that. And ultimately, it made the most sense to represent the dishes as they were made at the restaurant."

Staying true to the restaurants is easier for Chang than staying true to himself. A famous workaholic, Chang took off the month of August to mull his future: "I came to the realization that I don't want to travel the majority of the next five years for work. So for now, I'm just going to focus on New York."

Does that mean there's no hope for a Momofuku in Georgetown?

"We were looking at doing Milk Bar down here because [pastry chef Christina] Tosi and I are both from here," Chang said. "It still might happen. But not anytime soon."

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