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With Nike selling Momofuku skateboard shoes, is the ‘rock star’ chef analogy dead?

You might have missed the news amid all the upheaval around the world, but a few days ago, Nike SB and celebrity chef David Chang announced that they had collaborated on a new limited-edition high-top sneaker, the Nike SB Dunk High Pro “Momofuku.” It goes on sale this week for a retail price of $110 or, approximately, eight Momofuku pork buns.

For those who like to assign significance to seemingly insignificant events — my criminal record in this area is long — I think the release of these skateboard skips means we can officially bury the “rock star” analogy for chefs, celebrity and otherwise.

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For those who grew up in the Rock Star Era, reading Creem and Crawdaddy and standing in line for the summer’s hottest concerts, the analogy never fit right anyway. Sure, chefs often have the tats and the anti-social attitude. They even have the drugs and the occasional phone call to friends to bail them out of jail. But most chefs I know work for a living, even ones with the biggest names. There’s no three-year break between albums for David Chang, metaphorically speaking, and if Gordon Ramsay locked himself in a hotel room for a three-month bender of drugs and alcohol (Ozzy Osbourne-style), he’d probably find himself with a few less TV shows to host.

So Chang’s alignment with the skateboarding community feels meaningful. This, after all, is the first time the chef and restaurateur has loaned his Momofuku name and peach logo (the name is a nod to Momofuku Ando, creator of instant ramen, and the Japanese word “momofuku” translates to “lucky peach”) for any branded merchandise, according to the press release. (Chang declined to comment for this article, referring questions back to Nike SB.)

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The peach logo appears on the shoe’s heel, like a bumper sticker on the back of a black RAM 1500. What’s more, the shoe’s fabric is dark denim, a nod to the staff aprons at Momofuku, and two numbers (163 and 207) are stitched into the sock liners, sly references to a pair of Chang restaurants, including the original Momofuku Noodle Bar at 163 First Ave., which launched the chef’s career. There is symbolism in Chang, a multi-national restaurateur with a serious independent streak, affixing these elements of his Momofuku empire to a skateboarding sneaker. Either he or his company must feel a spiritual connection to skater culture.

The funny thing is, as best as I know, Chang is not a skater. He cannot perform a noseslide, a Casper flip or a crooked grind (yes, I had to look up the terms). But again, according to the news release, Chang has had frequent interactions with the New York skater community through his restaurants. He’s cooked for them. He’s talked to them. I suspect he identifies with them.

And why not?

Skaters have long been cast as outsiders, maligned and misunderstood by mainstream society, as this Nike Skateboarding advertisement coyly explains. Skaters are low to the ground and tied to the local landscape, in a way that few rock stars will ever be. Skaters know where the pavement is smooth, the railings accessible and the suburban parks still welcoming to their boards. Skaters know rejection, too. They know landscapes built with knobs, stoppers, pebbled surfaces and other physical barriers to keep out their kind.

The culture of kitchens, in many ways, reflects what has drawn so many youth who value their individuality to skateboarding: Kitchens are places where outsiders can survive and thrive.

Also not surprising: As a kid, Chang was aimless and miserable in school. The legendary New Yorker profile of Chang in 2008 described the chef’s youth this way:

Chang was miserable in school and claims to have failed everything. “I never even made the high-school golf team,” he says. “I was too much of a head case. Remember that scene in ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ when Luke Wilson’s playing tennis and crying and he throws his shoe? That’s what I was like.” He went to Trinity College, in Connecticut, but says he only got in because he was Asian; he smoked pot almost every day. But one thing that interested him was religion — his parents and his sister were very involved with a Korean Presbyterian church, and he had turned against that — so he became a religion major and wrote a thesis on Thoreau. Something about the mindful ordinariness of “Walden” appealed to him — the elevation of daily repetitions into an honorable way of life. “Even menial tasks such as domestic chores were a pleasant pastime,” Chang wrote. “He enjoyed these duties because he completed them with painstaking diligence.”

The skater/chef comparison, of course, is not a one-size-fits-all analogy, just as the rock-star/chef analogy isn’t one, either. Chang may see himself — or at least a younger, less complicated version of himself — reflected in the lives of skateboarders. Other younger chefs may, too. But, frankly, it’s hard to imagine Alain Ducasse, Alice Waters or Daniel Boulud identifying with skate punks.

A limited number of Nike SB Dunk High Pro “Momofuku” shoes will be available Thursday at Fuku, 163 First Ave., New York, starting at 10 a.m.; on Friday, the shoe will be available at select Nike retailers.

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