David Chang: A Philosophy of Making Mistakes

(by Corbo Eng)

David Chang posing with his James Beard Award medal (photo from andrewzimmern.com)

David Chang posing with his James Beard Award medal (from andrewzimmern.com)

It was the night of May 6, 2013.  He wore a tuxedo and looked as sharp as a tack—exuding a sense of pride and nervous excitement that accepting a James Beard Award might very well inspire.  After all, David Chang, at age 35, was at Lincoln Center in New York, on the largest stage the food and restaurant industry had to offer—before a packed house of his peers; and, he was being anointed as the most outstanding chef in the country.  While only those who have won such an honor can attest to how deeply rewarding it really must be—suffice it to say, it had to be a singularly joyful and affirming moment (even as there was a rare tie that resulted in two awardees: Chang and Paul Kahan).

However, Chang, being gracious in the moment and feeling reassured by a friendly presence, remarked, “A tie couldn’t have been better because I’m not here by myself.”  He seemed to relish the fact that he hadn’t been singled out and that all of the spotlight wasn’t focused solely on him.  Surely, in his mind, having two outstanding chefs and sharing the distinction couldn’t have been a blemish in any way or the result of a horrible miscount of the vote.  This wasn’t a presidential election after all.  Different rules applied; and, therefore, in this particular circumstance, there was no mistake.  However, for David Chang, it probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway even if there had been one.

David Chang with fellow Outstanding Chef winner Paul Kahan

David Chang with fellow Outstanding Chef winner Paul Kahan (from plateonline.com)

For a chef who has, in less than a decade, captured the imagination of a food-loving public, created a restaurant empire for himself, gained undeniable celebrity status, and redefined Asian-American cuisine, he has been, on the whole, remarkably humble—embracing making mistakes in a way that can only be regarded as a personal philosophy (a kind of paradoxical badge of honor that is analogous to Rodney Dangerfield’s life-giving lack of respect).

How did this start?  Perhaps, it can be traced back to the fact that Chang never felt that he was qualified to open a restaurant in the first place.  As a young, aspiring chef, he had, in an act of self-making, traveled to Tokyo to discover ramen and, once back home, enrolled at the French Culinary Institute, finished his program, and had short, seemingly uneventful stints at the Mercer Kitchen, Craft, and Café Boulud—where, in the latter restaurant, he worked under noted chef, Andrew Carmellini.

Chang admitted, in his cookbook, “Momofuku,” published in 2009, that this piecemeal path had “stunted his growth” because he hadn’t apprenticed and learned under any one chef long enough.  He had opened Momofuku Noodle Bar (his first restaurant), after leaving Café Boulud, even if common sense had dictated that he shouldn’t have; and, resultingly, from the outset, he had a nagging feeling of doubt and unease as he forged ahead as his own man.  What fueled him, therefore, was ambition and, perhaps, more so, a desire not to fail as everyone around him expected.  But, in those early days of Noodle Bar, the challenges were considerable.  Chang and his, then, business partner Jaoquin Baca couldn’t sustain a core staff of cooks and other hired help and ran themselves ragged in the process: fixing things, taking orders, cooking, cleaning, washing dishes, and doing whatever else was necessary (seemingly, all on their own).

Noodle Bar, also, at that point had not started to make its own noodles—alkaline noodles, more specifically, and were still relying on a Chinatown supplier for what amounted to lo-mein noodles (which were intended for stir-frying and not soups).  With an inferior product and lackluster business, the outlook didn’t seem bright.  However, Chang, understandably, refused to deviate from the concept of a “noodle bar” (trying, as best as he could, to remain faithful to his original inspiration—that of the many ramen shops that he had visited and which had left their marks on him while he was in Japan).

However, it was not until Chang had reached a desperate point and saw no other option that he decided to modify his original concept (not even a year into its existence) and cook and sell what their abilities and the nearby Greenmarket would fully allow that the restaurant finally thwarted the impending prospect of going-out-of-business and became a success (and, a huge one at that) with decidedly non-Asian ingredients like sweetbreads and headcheese, for example, on the menu garnering praise.  It was a turning point.

David Chang during the early days of Momofuku Noodle Bar (photo by Miroko Masuike)

David Chang during the early days of Momofuku Noodle Bar (photo by Miroko Masuike)

Frankly, when a food historian, one day, writes the history of Asian food in America and attempts to identify that one watershed moment, when the zeitgeist was seized and Asian food, long associated with Americanized Chinese food or even badly made supermarket-grade sushi, became hip in this country, it might have been when Noodle Bar ceased to be a categorically restrictive place—sometime, as 2005 began.  At that moment, Chang’s hard work paid off as he recognized his miscalculation, moved to rectify his mistake, and, like the coach of a losing football team, allowed his chefs to cook without any preconceived notion of what Noodle Bar should be or what influences it could embrace.  Chang, in football terms, had thrown away his original playbook and revamped his system to best utilize the talent of his players.

Sidestepping happenstance, for sure, Chang saved Noodle Bar from what seemed like certain defeat.  In conveying the force behind its saving and, frankly, what had brought him to where he was at that point—as a burgeoning figure of note on the national scene, Chang spoke in explicit terms as he sat down with Charlie Rose on his show in 2008.  It was part coachspeak, part confirmation from within.  “You just have to go for it,” he told Rose.  “You got to go for broke.  You got to go all in sometimes.”  It was so apropos.  “You can’t play to lose.  You have to play to win…You have to make some bold decisions.”  It was as if Chang were, in some sense, a “culinary Bill Belichick” (minus the hoodie, of course)—having decided on making that bold decision on fourth down in order to win rather than safely punt and lose.  Clearly, he had the success and multiple restaurants at that point to show for it.

Chang, finding sure footing as his interview with Charlie Rose progressed, remarked confidently and in, now, unmistakable and characteristic fashion: “Sometimes, there are mistakes; and, you have to make mistakes.  That’s the only thing.  It’s sort of cliché to say but we make a lot of mistakes.”  There was a gleam in Chang’s eye—a look that, even as a young man, suggested that he had stumbled upon real wisdom, upon something true that only real experience could have birthed.  He continued, “That’s what I used to tell the cooks…I don’t care if you screw it up.  But, make sure you know why you made that mistake; and, let’s not make it again…just don’t make them the second or third time around.”

David Chang enjoying his interview with Charlie Rose

David Chang espousing his beliefs on PBS’s Charlie Rose

Of course, it was fitting, given the necessity of making mistakes in the Changian construct of success, that Chang did actually make the “same mistake” the second time around (ignoring irony, for the moment) when he opened Momofuku Ssäm Bar, his second restaurant.  Chang’s initial vision was to open a sort of fast casual/fast food establishment and become a purveyor of Korean-style ssäms (ssäm—meaning “wrap” in Korean).  In his new concept, rather than using different kinds of lettuce leaves to do the wrapping (as is traditional with Korean ssäms and as is common at Korean BBQ restaurants, for instance), Chang’s plan was to use flour tortillas instead and to concoct a product that was more of a ssäm-burrito hybrid that would feature distinctively Asian-inspired ingredients such as edamame, kimchi, pickled shiitakes, hoisin sauce, rice, of course, and Noodle Bar’s ubiquitous shredded pork shoulder.

Admittedly, It was a clear enough concept—one that he hoped to parlay into Ssäm Bars across the country.  It was ingenious—except that, once Momofuku Ssäm Bar opened, the ssäm-burritos weren’t popular; but, the restaurant’s promise and success was predicated on those ssäms.  It was called, “Momofuku Ssäm Bar” after all.  As with Noodle Bar, Chang was faced with the prospect of his restaurant going out-of-business if he didn’t change course.  However, like a great coach or an improvising jazz musician for that matter, Chang abandoned his original game plan once again or the guidance of his sheet music, as the case may have been, and began to offer an eclectic menu—one that tapped into the strengths of his cooks, such as Tien Ho.  Seemingly at a moment’s notice, Chang reinvented Ssäm Bar and began selling terrines, Vietnamese-inspired fare, and the now famous country hams.  The new offerings struck a chord with diners, and Ssäm Bar finally took off.  And, that’s where the irony was—without ssäms playing a role at all.

In a way, what happened at Ssäm Bar was, perhaps, Chang’s quintessential mistake.  Without proper testing, research, and planning, he banked everything on selling fusion-Korean burritos—which, ultimately, nobody really wanted.  Such a scenario, certainly, had disaster written all over it; but, it was a “mistake” turned on its head—and, which, looking back, precipitated an unlikely but bold success.  The marriage between Chang’s French and American culinary influences and Asian ingredients experienced their finest incarnation at Ssäm Bar.  And, it was there, as the restaurant grew and matured—into something decidedly more substantial and elegant than a burrito bar—that the vanguard of new Asian-American food found brilliant expression when such expression was needed.  Instead of going the way of the Dodo bird, Ssäm Bar went on to earn multiple Michelin stars and a place on San Pellegrino’s list of the 50 best restaurants in the world.  Chang had the Midas touch.  It was one thing to make a mistake and to overcome it—just to survive; but, his mistake, in this case, had turned inexplicably golden.

In 2012, as a guest on the Paul Holdengräber Show, an internet program on the Intelligent Channel, Chang, who had majored in religious studies at Trinity College in Connecticut as an undergraduate, was questioned about Thomas Bernhard, Henry David Thoreau, and The Social Contract—certainly, not your usual topics involving pork buns, fermentation, or the merits of MSG.  However, interspersed between what was some very heavy philosophical musings, Chang managed to comment on his career, “For me, I’m always trying to reconcile the past.  I’m always looking at mistakes I’ve made…No one’s going to spoon feed you…Nobody’s going to teach you anything.  You got to grab it…You got to go big.  You got to fuck up.  You have to.  You’re not going to learn…if you don’t burn yourself.”  Chang was entirely in character—espousing, as he was, that familiar Changian ethos of self-determination, which was all heightened by the beneficial prospect of making mistakes.

David Chang emphasizing a point with Paul Holdengraber

David Chang emphasizing a point with Paul Holdengraber

It’s safe to say that, if Chang hadn’t “grabbed it” in revamping Ssäm Bar and it had failed, the Momofuku story might have been entirely different—one where a determined attitude likely would have been ever present but one where mistakes would have been more likely debilitating than redemptive.  All of the pieces that followed in such rapid succession—Momofuku Ko in 2008, the Momofuku Milk Bar locations that sprang up around New York (of which there are six presently), Má Pêche in Mid-town in 2010, Momofuku Seiōbo in Sydney in 2011, the launch of Lucky Peach, a new quarterly food journal in 2011, Booker and Dax (a bar by Dave Arnold at Ssäm Bar) in 2012, and Momofuku Toronto (consisting of a new Momofuku Noodle Bar outlet, Nikai, Daishō and Shōtō) in 2012—might never have happened.  Chang would have assuredly done something else to grow his business beyond the original Noodle Bar if Ssäm Bar had crashed and burned; his self-determination would have seen to that.  But, it’s easy to imagine the Momofuku empire being, as a consequence, a completely different, more pared down entity, on a less grand scale.

Of course, that is all conjecture because the Momofuku empire is anything but pared down at this point; and, with Chang’s most recent venture embodied in a brand spanking new, modernist edifice in downtown Toronto that has been dubbed the “glass cube” (consisting of three floors, 30,000 square feet, three new restaurants, and one bar/lounge), the empire-building as of late has been decidedly grand, indeed.  For any chef or restaurateur, biting off so much at once would have been quite daunting—with challenges that would be unique to such a huge endeavor.  For David Chang, as one who is unafraid of mistakes and who, seemingly courts them, the prospect of making mistakes on, perhaps, an exponential scale—with four places opening all at once—must surely have been nerve-wracking to say the least (but, surely, not in a prohibitive way).  Maybe, just as an ambitious juggler might desire a few chainsaws thrown in with the run-of-the-mill rubber balls that he routinely juggles (and, tempting fate with the distinct possibility of shearing off his hands or head) for the sake of becoming better, Chang may very well have embraced Toronto in a similar vein.

David Chang, at Momofuku Toronto, telling it like it is

David Chang, at Momofuku Toronto, telling it like it is

In fact, in his conversation with Steve Dolinsky of Chicago’s ABC affiliate last year, as Dolinsky peppered him with questions about expanding Momofuku to Chicago, Chang explained why he chose to expand to Toronto as he did.  “We just don’t have the opportunities to go into a new building in New York that sort of gives us this space…we could never do something in a large space…more importantly, getting everything new: new pipes, new water mains, new everything is really exciting…that’s the stuff that breaks all the time in New York…to carve out a new space was really exciting.”  So, the newness and the magnitude of the space in Toronto carried some weight (contrasting as it does with Chang’s older properties in New York); but, as Dolinsky continued to press on with his questioning, Chang revealed something more, something central.

“This is an opportunity to do something where…we have room to make mistakes.  You know, that’s very important to me…When you’re under the spotlight, whether it’s in New York or Chicago or, let’s just say we open up in London [where] the scrutiny is so intense, it’s hard to grow.  And, you can’t grow unless you make mistakes…You need that incubation period to really find your voice and to grow.”  What Chang wanted, then, was the relative obscurity of the Toronto food scene where he and his staff could learn from their mistakes without too much scrutiny.  He was speaking in very Changian terms; but, then, there was a bluntly worded clincher.  “You know, if José [Andrés] is known for modern gastronomy, René [Redzepi] is known for terroir foraging and bringing that together in Scandinavia,” Chang explained emphatically.  “We want to be the king of mistakes.”  The pithiness of the remark, the sense of irony in it (as if anybody would really want to be that), and its identity-giving properties gave it immediate import—and, in only a way that David Chang and his worldview could make believable.

When Zero Point Zero, the production company behind all of Anthony Bourdain’s successful shows, launched a new series called “The Mind of a Chef” on PBS in the fall of 2012 (with none other than Bourdain himself as narrator and executive producer), the focus of the first season’s 16 episodes was Chang—who was, now, a bona fide TV star (if not an aspiring “King of Mistakes” as well).  The show’s format was a mix of travelogue, personal history, and cooking demonstrations—all informed by Chang’s culinary influences and interests.  Among the places that the show examined was, of course, Japan—where Chang reverentially indulged in ramen.  However, Chang explored other locations as well—such as when he foraged for food with René Redzepi in Copenhagen and when he sampled pinchos with Juan Mari Arzak in San Sebastián, Spain.  Other episodes, with varying levels of specificity, revealed Chang’s love of pork, smoked meats—including Alan Benton’s bacon, steamed blue crabs from his days as a child growing up in Northern Virginia, and, not unexpectedly, instant ramen—which Chang, not knowing any better (and, making a mistake), used to eat without broth like a giant dehydrated cracker.

Of course, the show could not have aired 16 installments without David Chang making explicit mention of mistakes—which he did in episode 12 (entitled, “Fresh” and which explored the idea of freshness in food).  At one point in the episode, along with segments on ikejime, a method of paralyzing fish to maintain quality, and dry-aging meat, Chang, along with Daniel Burns who was then the head of research and development at the Momofuku Culinary Lab, demonstrated how they had sped up the making and intensified the flavor of Momofuku’s ramen stock by first freeze-drying the constituent shitakes, chicken, and pork, which, when turned into powdered form, was added to boiling water.  Once poured out over a fine sieve, the clear stock became the glorious end product; and, the “sludge” in the mesh of the sieve, collected from the spent shitake, chicken, and pork powders (which Chang thought to instinctively discard) became, for Burns, the inspiration for a new creation—called, “mushroom chips.”

David Chang taking a bite out of a brick of ramen on Mind of a Chef Season 1

David Chang taking a bite out of a brick of ramen on Mind of a Chef Season 1

Burns, at the time, thinking there was something useful in that sludge (and extending the spirit of experimentation that is at the heart of any test kitchen), had rolled it out onto a non-stick baking mat and placed it in a dehydrator where it was, thusly, transformed into something crispy—something that looked like a gossamer sheet of toffee.  When it was snapped and broken into pieces (“chips”), Burns discovered that it was full of umami (that elusive but cherished “sixth flavor” that so many chefs seek to create in their food).

“You never know what gold you can dig up out of total garbage/trash, and that gold came from trying to make a stock that we all were laughing about,” Chang said in explaining the origins of the mushroom chips.  Then, he got into character and expounded on mistakes.  However, this time, unlike on previous occasions, his words were directive, specific, and quasi-systematic in an almost teacherly way.  “Once you make that mistake, keep a journal of how you made those mistakes.  Then, you can sort of chart your growth in terms of how things were made.”  To tie the lesson in error into a tidy summary, Chang evoked—of all people—James Joyce who, more often than not (if Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake are any examples), is mostly incomprehensible but who, in Chang’s mind (at least, in this instance), perfectly punctuated the moment.  Quoting Joyce, Chang asserted confidently, “Errors are the portals to discovery.”

However, this openness to discovery, this error-making, and ancillary journal-keeping is a rather nonlinear and unpredictable process of…yes, making mistakes.  Of course, for Chang, that’s the fun of it, no doubt.  Indeed, the essence of what it means to cook—with the mission of pleasing the customer always at play—is to discover that next flavor combination and to make a noteworthy dish (something, perhaps, more of an entrée than simply a garnishing mushroom chip) no matter how difficult and cumbersome it may potentially be.  In the end, Chang himself understood that.

“There’s no genius chef,” Chang stated recently.  He seemed as resolutely confident as ever in his remark.  “There’s nobody that’s just born out of the womb that can do it…like, I think, you have to sort of, like a scientist, just continue to make mistake after mistake after mistake and keep track of that…But, that’s what we want.”  If nothing else, in words and deeds, it seemed to be both tedious and hard—but, as a challenge, something quintessentially Changian at its core.

These remarks came as Chang, in his usual, collegial manner, sat down with Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame on his new web series, The Talking Room.  There, in subdued lighting in Savage’s personal library and surrounded by shelves of books that framed their conversation, Chang, at one point, responded to a question by referring to Pascal Barbot, the famed chef at L’Astrance in Paris.  Yes, he lacked genius (as Chang’s aforementioned quote indicated); however, Chang, affectionately gushed about Barbot’s deficit of genius (in a way that we would all aspire to)—particularly, as it is manifested in Barbot’s signature foie gras and white mushroom “pie” (which consists of layers of foie marinated in verjuice and shaved mushrooms that is plated with a blotch of roasted lemon purée and an enticing drizzle of hazelnut oil).

David Chang talking to Adam Savage on The Talking Room

David Chang talking to Adam Savage on The Talking Room

How did such a seemingly haphazard but utterly delicious assemblage of ingredients come to be?  Apparently, Chang was convinced that it must have taken Barbot years of “accidents” to conceive of it.  “When you eat it…you realize like, this guy’s been working on this dish in his head for years…Of course, he has.  It happens by accident…it’s a series of accidents.”  It was Barbot’s “big mistake.”  And, Chang, gesturing and scratching his head, wanted his.  Savage was scratching his head as well.  “But, doesn’t that become a difficult thing,” Savage asked.  “To maintain an atmosphere where the mistakes can yield the accidents that yield the really exciting discoveries?”

Chang, acknowledging that difficulty, especially as Momofuku has grown so large, offered the confession that it’s really “embracing the inefficiencies” that leads to the kind of discovery that he wants—and not the convenient solutions that would be readily available.  He disdainfully pointed to the example of not wanting to put “a trio of Wagyu sliders on the menu” and “with three different kinds of ketchup” because it would be too easy…too efficient and, ultimately, too safe, too sterile, too free of the mistake making that characterizes, in Chang’s mind, the essence of culinary creativity.

“That is like the lowest hanging fruit type of thing, Chang explained plaintively.  “The efficiency of that…we don’t want.  We want…to try to make a dish or struggle for it; and it might take a much longer time, but you’re going to create a much more beautiful, more delicious, more memorable dish by sort of making mistakes along the way.”  It was an explanation that felt very much at home; but, surely, for those unfamiliar with Chang’s way of working, it must surely have sounded counterintuitive to want to be inefficient.  What kind of business model is that?

But, of course, as one who wants to be the “King of Mistakes,” as Chang has so dutifully admitted, he must surely welcome the messy, fussy, convoluted path.  Nearing the end of their conversation, Chang, looking at peace, boiled it all down and said to Savage, “We’re after the big mistake.”  Really, could he have been in search of anything else?  It was bold and sounded like everything that an interviewer of David Chang would have wanted to hear.  Chang, then, asserted strongly with a magnificently concise line, “I think flavor actually comes from failure.”

In the end, those words, despite its definite allure, might ultimately lose out to some phrase with “mistake” in its wording (of which several good ones appear in the preceding paragraphs) if Chang ever got around to choosing a title for his autobiography (if and when he ever writes it).  They would have to.  But, they ring ever true given what we know about David Chang and his philosophy.  If flavor is what we want when we dine at any of the Momofuku restaurants, then, we also know—if we encounter it—that it didn’t just pop up out of thin air.  Much trial and error would have, invariably, gone into its making.  It’s not unlike a coach who, after a few losing seasons under his belt, gets his act together and wins the Super Bowl.

Nobody’s a genius; and, most of us aren’t chefs, nor do we plan to open a restaurant any time soon; but, the mistakes involved are as potentially universal as eating.  David Chang—James Beard Award winning chef and de facto King of Mistakes—has tapped into a winning formula by pushing himself hard and…well, fucking up once in a while.  And, that’s okay.  We, who have enjoyed his food, have all benefited from his mistakes.  Let’s hope that he continues making them.


Copyright 2013 (Corbo Eng).  All Rights Reserved.

All images are screenshots (unless otherwise stated).


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