The cult of David Chang, the man behind Momofuku, Ugly Delicious and more

David Chang's signature ginger scallion noodles.
David Chang's signature ginger scallion noodles. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

David Chang's career has seen him go from boss chef to media mogul. Not that he wants to talk about it.

David Chang needs a hug. The kind of hug that says "you're doing a great job". Not that he'd ever buy into that. It's possible that one of the chef's greatest strengths – never believing his own hype – might also be one of his greatest weaknesses. Another is his inability to talk about himself. To a point that it's physically painful to interview the guy. It's a two-way street, though. David Chang is hating this as much as I am.

David Chang kicks convention at his restaurants across the globe.
David Chang kicks convention at his restaurants across the globe. Photo: Tamara Voninski

The chef behind the Momofuku empire doesn't care about doing media, because he doesn't need to. His current net worth, if you choose to believe the internet, is estimated at $60 million. But he probably isn't all that concerned with that either. He just wants to do good work.

That work, which began in a tiny restaurant on an unassuming street corner in Manhattan's Lower East Side, has progressed beyond cooking – something that happens to a lot of chefs – to an entire multi-media empire. That, like many of Chang's efforts, is a first.

So. Who is this guy and why should you care? Outside of the restaurant scene and the food nerd population, he's not a household name in Australia. And yet, over the past decade, he's been one of the most important influences on the international dining landscape.

More people are eating in restaurants that they might have previously overlooked simply because they're learning about them from TV or social media.

He got there opening a noodle bar in 2004 with a room furnished with stuff he borrowed from friends or bought from Kmart. And it was here that one of the most famous Momofuku dishes – Chinese-style steamed buns painted with hoisin, stuffed with roast pork belly and quick pickles – was born. It wasn't original. It just hadn't been done before. And thus, Momofuku exploded and expanded.

His second restaurant, Ssam Bar, started life as a burrito shop (it failed miserably) but then turned into something entirely different and wildly successful. It followed Chang's rule of thumb when it came to design: lo-fi fitout (the only decoration was a picture of his tennis idol, John McEnroe) with unapologetically hi-fi music and food.

By this stage, all of New York was woke to Chang while the rest of the world had pricked up their ears. Here was a classically French-trained Korean-American chef serving country hams (think of it as American prosciutto) on the same menu as deep-fried brussels sprouts dressed in fish-sauce vinaigrette. At the time, he referred to his cooking as "bad pseudo-fusion cuisine". But really, the entire Momo enterprise was – and remains – a pure celebration of personality. Bottled lightning borne of sheer force of will.

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His restaurant and cooking style was a culinary shift, sure, but really, it was also a cultural one. Globally, whether chefs knew it or not, they were paying more attention to the music in their restaurants. Why couldn't they play LCD Soundsystem, The Feelies and The Smiths, rather than Cafe del Mar? Those thick white tablecloths – did they really need them to produce a fantastic dining experience? And couldn't they just cook what they felt like, not what people expected?

Today in Australia, diners have become used to unapologetic restaurant soundtracks, bare tables, chefs serving straight from the pass and personality-driven menus. Flipping the bird to convention, which mattered so much 15 years ago, is now par for the four-course meal. You might argue that it was no more than a happy accident (or awful tragedy, depending on your taste in restaurants), but there's no getting around the fact Chang started it.

Perhaps his strangest restaurant move to date has been his decision to open his first venue out of Manhattan on an island continent on the other side of the world. Momofuku Seiobo at Sydney's Star Casino follows the same idiosyncratic style (the only art on the wall is a black-and-white photo of his music idol, AC/DC guitarist Angus Young) and flavour (fine dining Barbadian food) of his other restaurants. But perhaps by sheer dint of it being so far away, it has developed a personality all its own. If it wasn't called Momofuku Seiobo, you might never guess it was related.

Chang at one of his favourite New York City eateries, Great NY Noodletown restaurant.
Chang at one of his favourite New York City eateries, Great NY Noodletown restaurant. Photo: Gabriele Stabile

Momofuku Seiobo holds a special place in Chang's heart, partly because he fell in love with Sydney – something he never expected – and ended up living in Australia on and off for a few years. During that time, he travelled back and forth from New York to Sydney every couple of weeks, living in a state of perpetual jetlag. For anyone else, it'd be an odd move. For Chang, it was just a move.

Much in the same way his founding of a magazine was. In 2011, along with editors Peter Meehan and Chris Ying, Chang launched the quarterly food journal Lucky Peach (the title is the English translation of Momofuku). In its six years (it folded in March 2017 after 22 issues), Lucky Peach covered everything from apocalypse dining to how to clean a restaurant toilet, with articles written by the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Chinese food expert Fuchsia Dunlop. It was a game-changer – an independent food publication written with a sense of creative freedom.

Chang, Meehan and Ying are back together after a sabbatical, working to launch Majordomo Media – a multi-platform project incorporating editorial, television and podcasts. Chang believes people have an appetite for food knowledge, and stories about people and the dishes they make is where it's at. As a result, these stories are driving people to not just watch, but to eat. "I would say that more people are eating in restaurants that they might have previously overlooked simply because they're learning about them from TV or social media."

Chang's famous pork bun.
Chang's famous pork bun. Photo: Jennifer Soo

Meehan already works as a producer and appears on the Netflix series Ugly Delicious, currently in production for a second season. True to form, Chang is fairly dismissive of the fact he's once again hit it out of the ballpark, creating a sort of all-singing, all-dancing TV version of his deceased quarterly magazine. "We weren't trying to do it – it just happened. You never think you're going to work with Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville but here we are."

In some episodes of the show Chang looks as if he wants to be anywhere other than on camera, because most likely he does and doesn't bother hiding it. He's an uncomfortable guy when he's in the limelight. Which is unfortunate for a chef as famous as he is. He once appeared on the HBO show Billions just for being himself.

His podcast, The David Chang Show, is about as revealing as he gets, in that internet-savvy "bare all" kind of way. It's about things Chang likes: sport, art, music, comedy. And things Chang struggles with: depression, anxiety, imposter syndrome.

Char-grilled beef short rib with carrot and leek at Momofuku Seiobo.
Char-grilled beef short rib with carrot and leek at Momofuku Seiobo. Photo: Edwina Pickles

He attracts some heavy-hitters to his projects, too. On the podcast, Michael Schur, producer of the US series The Good Place, talks about incorporating ethics into comedy. Always Be My Maybe's Randall Park chats about growing up Asian American and cultural identity. David Wallace-Wells, deputy at New York Magazine discusses climate change and the future (spoiler – we're all going to die). But then there are also chef greats such as Noma's Rene Redzepi and WD-50's Wylie Dufresne, plus the guys from Montreal restaurant Joe Beef on how to stay authentic.

On Ugly Delicious, you'll see comedians Aziz Ansari (Master of None) and Eric Wareheim (Tim and Eric Awesome Show). The late restaurant reviewer Jonathan Gold, a former hip-hop music critic who pioneered diversification in food writing, late-night US talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel and actor/comedian/writer Ali Wong (she recently starred alongside Park in Always Be My Maybe, playing a top chef who loses her roots) also make an appearance.

All have a connection with eating, and perhaps it's that smart incorporation of music, art and comedy into his work that gives Chang legitimacy and longevity outside food. When other chefs go big fame hunting, they run the risk of becoming caricatures of themselves. Chang just gets, well, more Chang.

The bar at Momofuku Seiobo in Sydney.
The bar at Momofuku Seiobo in Sydney. Photo: Quentin Jones

I ask him what his biggest failure has been to date. "Every day feels like the biggest failure," he says. He doesn't like to take credit for any of it: the fame, the pork buns, the TV show, the magazine, the podcast, or building a media company from scratch. "We have really good people and I take too much credit for what happens."

Recently, Chang stepped away from the CEO role, handing over to 30-year-old Marguerite Zabar Mariscal (of Zabar's NYC delicatessen fame), who initially joined the company in 2011 as an intern. "We've always taken pride in replacing ourselves," says Chang.

I get the impression that he's a challenging guy to work with and ask him if this is the case. "Well, you either grow or you don't. You're either on the bus or you're not." Perhaps that's the crux of it. The cult of Chang relies on its followers being all in. He doesn't do things by halves; nor does he expect anyone else to. You grow with him or without him. You're in, or you're out.

And who wants to be out?

David Chang is appearing at two events at the Western Australia Gourmet Escape festival. On Thursday, November 14, he will lead the stage at the World Gourmet Symposium, 8am-5.30pm, Mandoon Estate, Swan Valley. Tickets from $390pp. He will also appear at the beach barbecue on Friday, November 15. Tickets are $235pp and the event starts at noon. Details: gourmetescape.com.au