(Photo by Jesse Dittmar for The Washington Post)

Ramen, noise and rebellion

David Chang’s impact on the food world extends to who cooks, what they cook and how we talk about it

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People use the word “Changian,” but David Chang has no idea what it means, and, quite frankly, he’d rather not find out. He can’t acknowledge the term exists because, if he did, he would spiral into self-loathing. Self-loathing is Changian. Hard chairs are Changian. A certain kind of ramen, of course, is Changian. Anxiety about what is Changian is the most Changian thing of all. So if you ask Chang — who makes an uncomfortable face at the mention of the word, as if he’s just eaten something slightly rancid — to define it, he says it’s change.

“I don’t want it to ever be something that is permanent or something that’s static,” he said, but that’s exactly how people use the word — to describe an aesthetic and an attitude he perpetuated at the beginning of the decade. “It’s easier for people to think about whatever it was when I was 29, 30, 32 years old as what Momofuku still is.”

(Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

You don’t get to pretend that your name isn’t used as an adjective unless you’ve been as influential as David Chang. But because so many of the developments that could be attributed to the 42-year-old Chang have become utterly banal by now, it’s easy to forget that he could be called the defining chef of the decade. If you’ve ever eaten pork buns, or fried Brussels sprouts with fish sauce — maybe you didn’t know they had fish sauce? — that is David Chang. If you’ve had ramen in a smaller city, circa 2014, that’s David Chang. If you’ve heard Notorious B.I.G. or LCD Soundsystem in a restaurant. If you’ve sat before an open kitchen, in a place with a minimalist, plywood aesthetic. If your neighborhood has a restaurant started by a young chef with an attitude, and an eclectic menu of whatever the hell he feels like cooking, all of those things are David Chang.

“He is a little like a tornado,” said pastry chef Christina Tosi, who got the capital from Chang to launch her Milk Bar brand, which started as a Momofuku bakery. “He wants answers, he’s curious, he wants to defy, he wants to deconstruct, he wants to shake things up. But he also pays homage and respect to what came before. That’s what also makes him so well respected in the industry.”

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His reach extends beyond the menu. Before his shows, “Ugly Delicious” and the first season of Anthony Bourdain’s “Mind of a Chef,” there were three main types of food TV: competitions, stand-and-stir recipe shows and travelogues.

“No one had imagined that people would be interested in anything deeper,” Tosi said. Chang’s shows had elements of the latter two but were more about probing the sociocultural roots of food. Watching him deconstruct, say, the roots of fried chicken across cultures “makes us more curious eaters and more curious people in the world,” Tosi said. “It’s not food for entertainment, it’s not for wow factor. It’s to feed you in a different way.”

David Chang, seen inside his restaurant Momofuku Ko in New York. (Jesse Dittmar/for The Washington Post)

The same goes for Lucky Peach, Chang’s magazine with Peter Meehan, now an editor at the Los Angeles Times food section, and Chris Ying, now head of creative for Chang’s Majordomo Media production company. Before Lucky Peach published its first issue in 2011, most food magazine covers “had a beautiful image of a very recognizable American thing or a Western thing dressed up really nicely with beautiful serif font,” Ying said. The magazine’s idiosyncratic illustrations and handwritten headlines were emulated by food media and cookbooks alike.

The magazine’s legacy was “this idea that food was part of a richer narrative than just, this is delicious and you put it in your mouth,” Ying said. It was about things chefs wanted to read, just as his restaurants were about things chefs wanted to eat, to a soundtrack chefs wanted to listen to.

“There was this thing, like whether it was courage or necessity or dumb luck, that led Dave to believe in the value of his own personal taste and experiences,” Ying said. “He believes in food more deeply than anyone I know.”

Momofuku ramen helped build Chang’s empire. It was “just right place, right time,” he said. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The decade of Chang happened only because it was never supposed to. “I just honestly never thought I was going to live past 35,” said Chang, who has struggled with anxiety and depression. That fatalism allowed him to take the kind of risks that made Momofuku into a phenomenon.

“I didn’t think too much about the repercussions of what happens when you get to the other side. It never even dawned on me that [I] would get there,” Chang said. “Whenever I got there, I don’t even know how I felt, or what moment it was. What do you do when you get to the other side?”

He’s still asking himself that question. Ten years ago, Chang was already famous for Momofuku Noodle Bar, which opened in New York City in 2004 and was followed by Ssam Bar in 2006 and Ko in 2008. Copycats of his ramen restaurant were beginning to spread across the country, each one like a photocopy of a photocopy. He was also famous for his irreverence: In 2009, he ignited an East Coast-West Coast culinary rivalry by saying, with customary expletives, that California cuisine was just “figs on a plate.”

The other side is a chef no longer in the kitchen, whose company includes 15 restaurants and interests in another 14 fast-casual Fuku chicken joints and, as of the end of this month, 17 iterations of Milk Bar. It’s a chef who had once vowed to the New York Times’s David Carr that he would never do TV, because “the whole thought of it made me cringe,” now about to debut “Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner” on Netflix with other shows to come in a partnership with cookbook author and model Chrissy Teigen for Hulu. A second season of “Ugly Delicious” on Netflix is imminent.

Chang presents a recipe during the gastronomic fair “Madrid Fusion” in January 2009. (Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images)

Chrissy Teigen and Chang at the Hulu '19 Presentation in New York in May. (Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Hulu)

Chang presents a recipe during the gastronomic fair “Madrid Fusion” in January 2009. (Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images) Chrissy Teigen and Chang at the Hulu '19 Presentation in New York in May. (Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Hulu)

Ten years ago, “because we sort of had nothing, we could question everything,” he said. “And that was the last period where I think we were truly sort of the underdog.”

When Chang thinks back on his accomplishments of the past 10 years, all it produces is anxiety. Early on, every day “was like ‘The Hurt Locker,’ and you had a new bomb,” he said.

As he continued to expand to Australia and Toronto and across the United States, the pressure began to build. The year he opened the Washington Momofuku, 2015, was “the year I was off my meds and I was out of my f---ing mind.” There were failed experiments: He was ahead of his time with Ando, a delivery-only restaurant that closed in 2018 — the same year he shuttered Ma Peche, one of his most experimental restaurants. Lucky Peach folded in 2017, in a bitter professional divorce between Chang and Meehan, who no longer speak.

When you evolve from a chef to a businessman, “everyone’s giving you s--- because you’re not growing and you’re not changing and you haven’t matured and you still have loud restaurants and backless stools and they expect you to be this financial behemoth, but you’re not because you put your financial resources elsewhere [into projects] that are not restaurants,” meaning into his media properties, he said. It was “as dark a time as there’s ever been for myself personally and for the restaurant group. . . . I was leveraged in a way that was very damaging, and I don’t know if I’ll ever tell people the extent of it, but it was very hard because when you’re that leveraged and then business slows down, it’s pretty scary.”

That brings us to Stephen Ross. In August, plans for a Trump fundraiser hosted by the billionaire real estate magnate, an investor in Momofuku, came to light, and customers of his company’s subsidiaries — including Equinox and SoulCycle — called for boycotts. In a six-minute, expletive-laden rant on his podcast, Chang described his anger upon learning about Ross’s fundraiser and later donated a day’s profits across his restaurants to progressive organizations (he declined to share the amount). Though he says anti-Ross sentiment didn’t hurt his profits, a month later, the incident still felt raw.

It was complicated for him because, as he said in the podcast, Ross was “the only potential investor who believed in the potential of what Momofuku could be.” In an interview, he elaborated: During that dark period, Chang said, Ross was the only person willing to invest in his company, period.

“We are looking into a lot of different things right now. And maybe we’ll just have to try to raise as much money as possible,” he said. Asked whether that meant he was considering a financial separation from Ross, he declined to comment further.

Hungry patrons line up outside Momofuku’s D.C. location in 2015. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

J.R. Rodrigo steadies a spoon of noodles at Momofuku. (Dixie D. Vereen/for The Washington Post)

Julissa Clinch, left, and Courtney Carter, both from the District, dine at Momofuku. (Scott Suchman/for The Washington Post)

J.R. Rodrigo steadies a spoon of noodles at Momofuku. (Dixie D. Vereen/for The Washington Post) Julissa Clinch, left, and Courtney Carter, both from the District, dine at Momofuku. (Scott Suchman/for The Washington Post)

Here’s the thing about ramen: If David Chang hadn’t done it, someone else certainly would have, a fact he freely admits: It was “just right place, right time.” You can calculate his impact in pork belly and Brussels sprouts, but the intangible stuff is what cuts deeper than food trends. Chang has led the conversation about cultural insensitivity in food, from challenging how diners expect low prices from immigrant restaurants to speaking out against “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” an impolite term for what some people call a perceived reaction to MSG. (The ingredient is in Doritos, he points out, and no one complains of illness after they eat those.)

But the outspoken chef has also led quietly, by example. He showed a generation of young cooks with a dream and an attitude that you don’t have to make your way up through the brigade for years before opening your own restaurant.

“People like us used to think that the only way to run a restaurant was the big model, the old school, the fine dining, and what Momo did was to break that mold,” said chef Joaquin Baca, Chang’s first employee at the original Noodle Bar. “You could see it in people’s eyes. Early on, we had so much industry crowd, we had chef de cuisines and sous-chefs from some of the most notable restaurants in the city, who would come in, and they were looking at us, like, pulling it off, and they were like, ‘F--- it, I can do this, too. I can do my thing. I guess I don’t need to have a white tablecloth and raise a million dollars.’ ”

If you drew a chart of all the restaurants that Chang spawned — directly, through such former employees as Peter Serpico in Philadelphia and Aaron Silverman in Washington, or indirectly, through chefs who decided to go it alone — it would have a thousand branches. You could call some of those restaurants Changian, but, counterintuitively, only the ones that serve food the least like his own would qualify. Copying is not Changian. Not even when Chang himself does it.

“The most ironic thing is what I hate most about copying, and what I hate most about myself or this restaurant group Momofuku, is that we wound up copying ourselves, too,” he said. “We became one of those restaurant groups that had a lot of resources that did the same thing. And ultimately that proved almost the end of Momofuku.”

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, right, discusses the future of food with Chang in Washington in 2015. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

A restaurant’s own popularity can often be its undoing. In Momofuku’s case, that’s because being Changian — the bootstrapping, the plywood, those freaking Brussels sprouts, which were everywhere — was novel but ultimately not that difficult, which is why everyone wanted to do it.

“And then everyone else could do their own spin on it and oftentimes do it maybe better than we were doing it. So whatever we were doing was no longer special to anyone,” Chang said. A chef notorious for fighting the establishment became it.

The way to succeed in a copycat environment is also to do what everyone else is doing, which is to find those young cooks who want to do whatever the hell they want, then have them do it at a Momofuku restaurant.

Working for Chang, cooks “got to have your own voice,” said Francis Derby, a former sous-chef at Ssam Bar. “As long as it worked, as long as it was delicious, all of that stuff made it to the menu.” Many of Chang’s restaurants bear his stamp, but the menus belong to the chefs he has trusted with them. He hired his first CEO, Marguerite Zabar Mariscal, who rose up the ranks of his company from an internship. Spending his time on TV and his podcast, he says, allows him an opportunity to promote his company without the grind of working in a restaurant — and spend more time with his wife, Grace, and his infant son, Hugo.

What success looks like, to a person who hates that his name has become an adjective, is to become so influential you are forgotten. It might already be happening.

“The restaurant I’m currently at, when I got here, they were running a special of fried Brussels sprouts, the fried Brussels sprout dish at Ssam Bar,” Derby said. “I’ve got 20-year-old kids in my kitchen who have no idea where that came from.”

It’s sort of like a brand name that becomes so essential and widespread that its trademark loses power and becomes generic, like “escalator.” Ten years from now, Chang said, he hopes he is not talked about at all. The goal “would be that they are like, ‘David who? All right, what’d that guy do?’ ” he said. “Because it’s so commonplace that they cannot remember. That would be pretty cool.”

maura.judkis@washpost.com

Years from now, Chang said, he hopes he is not talked about at all. The goal “would be that they are like, ‘David who? All right, what’d that guy do?’ ” he said. “Because it’s so commonplace that they cannot remember.” (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of restaurants in the Momofuku company (15, not 14) and the network where “Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner” will debut (Netflix, not Hulu). This version has been corrected.

Maura Judkis

Maura Judkis is a reporter for The Washington Post, covering culture, food and the arts. She is a 2018 James Beard Award winner. She joined The Post in 2011.

Additional credits:

Lettering by Made Up for The Washington Post; video by Erin Patrick O'Connor; additional video by Darien Woehr; photo editing by Jennifer Beeson Gregory; art direction and design by Eddie Alvarez; copy editing by Emily Morman.

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