Volume 76, Number 15 | August 30 -September 5, 2006

Village People

Photo by Annie Karni

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 Bar’s success, there’s been a lot of anticipation for the opening of Ssäm. Has the media attention been a positive or negative force?

There’s 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 we’re 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 wouldn’t say our food is Japanese. I joke around and say that it’s “pan-fusion.” I think it’s 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 don’t 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 can’t really explain the hype, though. We try to do our best and not believe any of it. It’s 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. We’re just trying to stay as humble as possible. At the end of the day, we’re 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 didn’t happen.

Where did you work before opening your own restaurants?

I’ve 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 wasn’t 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 don’t cook at home. Ever.

Where do you like to eat out?

I go to WD-50 a lot. I also frequent Stromboli’s Pizza. I love the food at Craft, and Hearth is great. Recently I’ve been going to the Bowery a lot to buy restaurant supplies, so I’ve been eating three meals a week at Congee Village on the Bowery.

Where do you prefer to shop: Union Square Greenmarket or Whole Foods?

I’m a Greenmarket guy.

Any interest in being a contestant on Iron Chef?

I don’t know. I’d be afraid of just bombing, and it’d be too embarrassing. And I think some of it’s rigged. Alex Lee, the chef at Restaurant Daniel, lost, and I think that’s a bunch of crap. Now general America thinks he’s some schmuck because he lost to Iron Chef. I think the show is fine and fun, and it’s great for cooking, but I don’t necessarily want to do it. I’d only go if I knew I could win. No one’s asked us yet, though, so I guess we’ll 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 it’s weird when people put me in that category. It was never my goal. I don’t want it. I just want a successful restaurant. It’s great because it helps business, but I’ve never been one to pursue fame.

Why did you decide to open up shop in the East Village?

I like the East Village because it’s navigable. It’s 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 it’s really cleaned up. And it’s not uptown. That’s probably what I like about it most.

Any advice to a young person considering becoming a chef?

It’s 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. You’re not going to have a life like your friends anymore. You just gotta enjoy cooking, working with food, messing around.

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