Why Did Momofuku's David Chang Diss California Cooking?

July 20, 2012 5:22 PM EDT | By Anthony Smith
David Chang
David Chang explains himself. (Photo: Creative Commons)

For carrying such a middling stick, celebrity chef David Chang sure does scream at the top of his lungs. It's the kind of rebellious, bad-boy behavior that made the culinary pantheon fall in love with him in the first place, even if the honeymoon is over and somebody has to do the dishes. Now, in a world where the hype has given way to many a detractor (my hand remains raised firmly in the air), Mr. Chang must now maneuver the careful trappings of the process of redefining his brand.

For some of us, the genius behind his moves so far feel like Momofuku has been defined for the first time. The immense success of the Ivan Ramen happening at the Momofuku Noodle Bar last Tuesday, in which an extremely worthy and relatively obscure ramen chef was invited to use the reach of the Momofuku brand to launch his career stateside, display more graciousness and generosity than the self-serving narcissism for which Chang has been criticized.

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In a talk he gave at City Arts and Lectures on Tuesday Night, Chang got a chance to show yet another of the facets he keeps hidden: a warm and necessary one. He admitted to a misstep here and there along the way to his culinary success. But most compellingly, falling just short of an apology, Mr. Chang got to explain some disparaging remarks he'd previously made about California cuisine.

"Do I regret saying anything derogatory?" Chang began, referencing an incident wherein he claimed he didn't like California cuisine and would never open a restaurant there, "No... Tony [Bourdain] got me totally drunk. And my words were taken out of context."

While we do not think that context was the issue there, we buy Mr. Chang's explanation: "I adore Alice," he continued, "I adore Chez Panisse. But what I was saying was that in every facet of culture throughout recent history, San Francisco has challenged the status quo. Technology, sexuality, music. Everything. Except food. With the exception of a few people... I don't see chefs being as passionate about challenging the old ways and embracing the new."

While we like that answer, we think it frames David Chang weirdly. It's hard to think about the man whose bold mind conceived of the Momofuku empire as needing others to blaze the trail first. We'll see what happens.

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