David Chang, the chef and co-owner of Momofuku Ssam Bar and Momofuku Noodle Bar in the East Village in Manhattan, says that when it comes to a career in cooking, "the only thing you can't forget is that it's not glamorous and it's back-breaking labor."
It may not be glamorous, but all that hard work has paid off for Chang, who was chosen the 2007 Chef of the Year by both GQ and Gourmet magazines, and was also named the James Beard Foundation's rising chef of the year.
"Looking back on food, on the short time I have done this, it's totally absurd and I'm incredibly lucky," said Chang. Indeed, Momofuku means "lucky peach."
"I think it really is the right place at the right time," Chang said, adding that he feels guilty "because I haven't paid my dues. I haven't done it like everyone else."
"It's one of the few professions where I really think that no matter how bad you are, if you continue to do it and really apply yourself and I'm talking doing 14 hour days every day, you can see your growth and you can chart your growth and how much better you get, because people forget that, you know, it's not rocket science."
From Korea to Vienna, Va.
The 30-year-old chef was born and raised in Virginia to immigrant parents, and his father worked at and then owned a restaurant, while his mother stayed home to raise him.
"As a child, I didn't see my dad that much because he was always working at the restaurant. He became pretty jaded after working at the restaurant for so long," Chang recalled.
Chang said that his childhood memories also include time spent with "my grandmother and mother, who are amazing cooks, eating Korean food, going out to dinner with my dad, eating lots of noodles and going to Japanese restaurants with my grandfather, who was educated in Japan."
Chang says his father did not want him to follow him into a profession that is "physically hard."
"This was the profession that he did not want me to have," said Chang. "They wanted me to be a banker, a lawyer or any of those things. Unfortunately, I never did that well in school, and [after a] short stint in [the] regular finance desk job world, I knew that this was not cut out for me, so I decided to see how far I wanted to take this cooking thing."
Chang studied at the French Culinary Institute, and sharpened his knives at restaurants like Craft, the Park Hyatt Tokyo and Café Boulud.
The Year of the Pig
Momofuku Noodle Bar serves more than 3,000 pork-belly buns a week, so for Chang, 2007 was literally the year of the pig.
He says his steamed pork bun is "basically just steamed bread." (Click here for the recipe).
"In Asia, particularly in northern China, you see it steamed in all sorts of rolls and forms all over the place, and it's great street food. In Japan you see it … they are like steamed hamburgers essentially. Imagine like a really huge dumpling, and you can get it anywhere, and it's so delicious."
Chang said that in Japan the "awesome" and "delicious" buns are made with Peking duck, but he makes it with pork. "It was one of the few dishes that just sort of happened, and I was like instead of Peking duck, what if we just sort of stuck pork belly into that sort of bun."
Chang says the pork buns were an "11th-hour addition" to the menu.
"It's become sort of our signature item … and really it sort of feels like an accident, a total accident … really all we're doing is reinterpreting what what's happening in Asia for many many years and how that was interpreted in New York City Chinese restaurants."
Wild About Wasabi
Chang also serves hamachi in his restaurant, which he says is one of his favorites.
"Growing up eating a lot of Japanese food, I loved wasabi so much -- I loved it, loved it, loved it," he said.
Chang describes his hamachi recipe as an accident he stumbled upon "subconsciously."
"I love to eat sushi, and, you know, those flavors and wasabi and really eating spoonfuls of it … I would just mix it and put it on everything, literally. I would eat it until I cried. Maybe I am a masochist, but I loved that burning sensation. … I loved all things wasabi."
Chang says he learned a lot about cooking from his mother.
"Just through osmosis I learned a lot about cooking and appreciating food, but maybe it's in my blood."
The Chicken or the Egg?
Chicken and egg is a popular dish at Chang's restaurant.
"I love chicken," he said. "I love chicken products: fried chicken, roasted chicken, chicken nuggets -- whatever. And going to Japan, I would see that these chicken were smoked and then grilled and then have this amazing crispy skin."
"We cook it in pork fat for about an hour, hour and a half, then we crisp it up in the pan so it's nice and crispy and you chop it up into slices and we serve it on rice," he said of the technique he uses for chicken and eggs. "We add slow poached egg … growing up, you'd always eat eggs, or like a raw egg and a hot bowl of kimche, hot stone bowl of vegetables and rice or any stew because it's sort of an inexpensive way to add luxury to a dish -- the silkiness, the creaminess -- without any butter or anything like that. And if you add that to a soup or something, it adds a nice richness to it."
Oodles of Noodles
"My grandmother was the best cook, and being younger than my brothers and sisters, she took care of me a lot of the times and she'd make these crazy soups … or make Korean short ribs -- she would always give me beef," he said, laughing. "I am a pretty big kid, and I think a lot of it is because they had come from a place where beef was a rarity. It was scarce, and my grandmother, whenever she cooked, she'd always have beef and always try to cook as much beef as possible because it was available."
Many of Chang's food memories are also family memories, such as "eating noodles with my dad or my grandfather."
"That's what I did. Instead of going to the park or going to the ball game it was, 'let's go to this noodle place somewhere,' the guys hand-stretching noodles and kimche. Those are my food memories."
Those meals of noodles may have formed the foundation for a restaurant empire. Chang's latest venture, Momofuku Ko, will open at the end of January. For more on the Momofuku restaurants visit: http://www.momofuku.com/