Chef David Chang, behind the counter at his new Asian burrito joint, Momofuku Ssäm Bar, on Second Ave and 13th St.
Noodle King David Chang tackles the Asian burrito
By ANNIE KARNI
When David Chang opened Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004, he became an instant phenomenon, a ramen noodle wunderkind whose Pan-Asian touch turned a classic Japanese noodle dish into popular and affordable New York street food.
His celebrity status was cemented this year when Food & Wine magazine named the 29-year-old East Villager one of the best new chefs of 2006, and the James Beard Foundation nominated him a Rising Star Chef at its awards ceremony in May.
But Chang is trying hard not to believe his own hype. Even at the opening of his second venture, Momofuku Ssäm Bar (207 Second Avenue), last week, Chang remained humble and focused on making fresh, original food. As he recovered from a packed opening night where he debuted his take on the Asian burrito (ssäm is Korean for wrap), Chang spoke with The Villager about food, the East Village, and being a celebrity chef.
After Noodle Bars success, theres been a lot of anticipation for the opening of Ssäm. Has the media attention been a positive or negative force?
Theres so much expectation right now that it makes it really difficult. Living up to those expectations is frightening. People are expecting us to be super-confident and to have a polished, finished product. But were learning as we go and getting better every day.
How do you describe the food you make?
What we try to do is replicate certain Asian flavors and use local ingredients when possible. I wouldnt say our food is Japanese. I joke around and say that its pan-fusion. I think its really hard to make authentic Japanese food. If you really want it that badly, I think you should save enough money and go to Japan to get it. If you get sub-standard ingredients I dont think you can properly replicate those flavors.
Many people struggle to carve out their own niche in a competitive city like New York. How did you become THE noodle guy in the East Village?
A lot of it is good luck, working with the right people, and being at the right place at the right time. It really is a team effort. I cant really explain the hype, though. We try to do our best and not believe any of it. Its New York, so people are fascinated with seeing a train wreck. Someone starts doing well, and they want to see it taken away. We understand that. Were just trying to stay as humble as possible. At the end of the day, were just serving food and we want to make it taste good.
Did you always know you wanted to be a chef?
Not really. I grew up in Northern Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C. and then I went to Trinity College in Connecticut. I always wanted to learn how to cook, and I almost enrolled in the Culinary School when I was in London, but I was wait-listed. I was going to drop out of college, but that didnt happen.
Where did you work before opening your own restaurants?
Ive been fortunate to work and live abroad a lot. I lived in London, I lived in Seoul, I worked in Tokyo, and I spent a lot of time in cooking in New York City. I cooked at Craft, Café Boulud, and a couple of other places. I was in Japan in 1999, and I wasnt very happy where I was in Japan, so I moved to New York. Now I live next to Momofuku Noodle Bar.
Do you cook at home?
My refrigerator is unplugged. I have papers in my fridge. I dont cook at home. Ever.
Where do you like to eat out?
I go to WD-50 a lot. I also frequent Strombolis Pizza. I love the food at Craft, and Hearth is great. Recently Ive been going to the Bowery a lot to buy restaurant supplies, so Ive been eating three meals a week at Congee Village on the Bowery.
Where do you prefer to shop: Union Square Greenmarket or Whole Foods?
Im a Greenmarket guy.
Any interest in being a contestant on Iron Chef?
I dont know. Id be afraid of just bombing, and itd be too embarrassing. And I think some of its rigged. Alex Lee, the chef at Restaurant Daniel, lost, and I think thats a bunch of crap. Now general America thinks hes some schmuck because he lost to Iron Chef. I think the show is fine and fun, and its great for cooking, but I dont necessarily want to do it. Id only go if I knew I could win. No ones asked us yet, though, so I guess well cross that bridge when we get to it.
What do you make of the whole celebrity chef phenomenon?
Celebrity chef culture is a little weird. I think its weird when people put me in that category. It was never my goal. I dont want it. I just want a successful restaurant. Its great because it helps business, but Ive never been one to pursue fame.
Why did you decide to open up shop in the East Village?
I like the East Village because its navigable. Its not like the West Village where you get lost every time you go there. The East Village still conjures up images of Joey Ramone and drugs, but its really cleaned up. And its not uptown. Thats probably what I like about it most.
Any advice to a young person considering becoming a chef?
Its a completely unique experience, and you gotta love the rush of working the line, working in the kitchen. That has to be exciting for you. Have fun, work at the best kitchens possible, and be serious about it. Youre not going to have a life like your friends anymore. You just gotta enjoy cooking, working with food, messing around.