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David Chang grows up

October 11, 2012, 12:00 PM UTC

David Chang

David Chang took a risk when he opened his first New York restaurant in 2004. The restaurant, called Momofuku (meaning "lucky peach") featured elegant ramen dishes chock full of meat. Momofuku opened in the East Village, a finicky, foodie New York neighborhood. But the franchise quickly developed a cult following -- Chang now has six restaurants and bars in New York, each with its own personality, specializing in everything from stiff drinks to a dessert so addictive it's called "crack pie." The craze for Chang's carefully crafted dishes has gone global. In October 2011, Chang opened his first non-New York restaurant outside in Sydney, Australia. This September, the franchise made its debut in Toronto, spurring Chang to hire about 225 people. Next year is an open book: new hire totals will depend on how many more restaurants Change opens, but for now, the chef predicts to bring between 25 and 50 more people on board.

New York’s favorite ramen chef has earned a healthy share of haters.

“Are we still paying attention to this guy?” asks an anonymous commenter about David Chang on the popular food site Eater. “His cooking is as sloppy as his palate and composition.” Antoinette Bruno, the influential head of the online food magazine Star Chefs, has called Chang “overrated.” Gawker calls him a “mouthy chef” who “isn’t exactly family friendly.” Another commenter, on the foodie website Grub Street, calls Chang “Darth Vader.”

Chang’s legions of fans, though, appear to disagree. The Korean American chef, 35, has had wild success with Momofuku restaurant group, which he began in 2004 with Momufuku Noodle Bar, a casual walk-up ramen bar in New York City’s East Village, and has grown to eight restaurants (four of them outside the U.S.) and five locations of his bakery, Momofuku Milk Bar. The company also has two bars, Nikai in Toronto and the posh Booker and Dax in New York.

This fall, Chang makes what is perhaps his biggest move yet, opening an all-Momofuku building in Toronto that houses three different restaurants and a bar. What started as a 27-seat East Village ramen joint now boasts more than 500 employees, two cookbooks, a quarterly magazine, and an R&D lab. It is, in other words, a bona fide culinary empire. Chang has mixed feelings about this expansion, even as he bores full-steam ahead—and as his empire grows, the chef is undergoing his own evolution, reconciling his identity as a food artist with his responsibilities as a businessman.

Much of Chang’s criticism comes, no doubt, from his success. Every industry has competition, but the culinary world can be especially vicious. And anyone that lives in New York and cares at all about food has probably suffered from Chang overload at some point. He seems to be everywhere: He appeared on HBO’s New Orleans drama Treme last year. He pals around with Anthony Bourdain and Rene Redzepi of the renowned Noma in Copenhagen. Martha Stewart raves about his food (“It was with great pleasure that one day I tasted David Chang’s pork buns,” she says in a blurb on the back of his cookbook). The über-cool New York cocktail lounge PDT offers the Chang Dog, a deep-fried, bacon-wrapped, kimchi-slathered ode to His Changness.

But Chang also has an attitude that can invite rebukes. He named his restaurant Momofuku because it means “lucky peach” in Japanese, but also in part because it sounds like “motherfucker.” His profanity is the stuff of legend (“fuck her, man … let’s put pork in every fucking dish,” he says in the appearance on Treme; in 2009 he ridiculed Food Network personality Guy Fieri’s “fuckin’ sunglasses and that stupid fuckin’ armband.”) In interviews with Fortune he dropped F-bombs with gusto. And by his acknowledgment, Chang has a temper that in the past led him to “explode” at employees, though he is working to soften his edge. “Dave is a big personality, obviously, and a divisive character,” says Chris Ying, editor-in-chief of Lucky Peach, the food magazine Chang launched in late 2011 with Ying and Peter Meehan, both of publishing house McSweeney’s. “There are people who love him and Momofuku,” Ying says, “and then there are people who, for whatever reason, have a problem with him.”

It could also be Chang’s unconventional path to success that rattles critics. Typically, when people finish culinary school they take a bottom-rung job toiling away as a line cook somewhere. They work through the ranks, eventually becoming a sous-chef and then perhaps a chef de cuisine. Chang got right in at the best places and didn’t stay for very long before setting out on his own. His rise has been meteoric; as soon as his first restaurant was a hit, he began opening new ones. And unlike other chefs, he has no outside investors; Momofuku has always used its own funds or bank loans, with the exception of a $130,000 loan from his father and his father’s friends and a small amount of money Chang borrowed from his brother. And in the midst of the digital media revolution he launched a quarterly magazine, Lucky Peach, which for now exists only in print, none of its content online. The first issue has sold out, and Chang thinks it’s “sort of fun” that people cannot get their hands on a copy.

All of this somewhat expectedly irks culinary traditionalists. David McMillan, co-chef of the noted Joe Beef in Montreal—one of Chang’s favorite restaurants—says any Chang backlash is just jealousy. “Okay, his CV from before his rise is not like most guys who have insane records,” he says. “But at the end of the day, everything he makes is delicious.”

The son of Korean immigrants, Chang grew up in Virginia and majored in religion at Trinity College. He had always loved noodles, which he says is true of any Korean, and after Trinity he went to Japan to teach English. Once an obsession with ramen hit him full-force, he moved quickly, entering the French Culinary Institute in New York and then doing relatively brief stints at the restaurants of big-deal chefs like Daniel Boulud and Tom Colicchio.

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By the time Chang was 26 he wanted his own place. He says 9/11 had a lot to do with it: “I had some friends who had passed away, so it was like, ‘Does anything really matter?’ Failing just seemed like a good idea at the time.” In 2004, Chang opened Noodle Bar, where he poured himself into two simple staples: ramen bowls and pork buns. His initial hope was just to make it to one year, but the interesting (and delicious) things he was doing caught on. In 2006 he opened Momofuku Ssam Bar, a casual setting with higher prices that initially was known for the Bo Ssam, a whole roasted pork shoulder with oysters, designed for a big group. Only two years later, in 2008, Chang opened his most expensive location, which has 12 seats, serves only a tasting menu, and is a famously difficult destination. (Reservations can only be made online, six days in advance.) Ko received two Michelin stars the following year, which it has kept ever since.

Friends say that when Chang first began getting press and winning accolades, he was intensely uncomfortable. He stressed over his quick rise and tried to deflect attention. Christina Tosi, who met Chang when she was working at Lower East Side restaurant WD-50 and eventually joined Momofuku and became chef and co-owner of Milk Bar, says, “I think at some point, someone high enough must have real-talked him and said, ‘Stop complaining; just do the work. If people think you are this amazing, own it.’ ” Chang began doing just that, and the march continued: In 2010 he opened Ma Peche, which initially served French-Vietnamese fusion. Then came Momofuku Seiobo in Sydney.

But it is the Toronto venture that has been his biggest undertaking of the past year and probably his most ambitious project to date. Two years ago the developers of the new Shangri-La Hotel there approached Chang and asked if he’d want to set up a restaurant adjoining their building. Despite having offers in D.C., Los Angeles, and Hong Kong, he went for it. Chang says the deal was too good to pass up: an entire building, next door to a posh hotel, that boasts a different style of restaurant on each floor (first a Noodle Bar, then the bar Nikai above it, and on the third floor the two new restaurants: Daisho, a family-style place, and Shoto, which, like Ko, is tasting-menu-only). The space allows him to put the tiered, multi-faceted approach of his empire under one roof. “You don’t get those kinds of offers in New York or the U.S.,” he says. Noodle Bar opened first and on its third day served 1,000 people. (Noodle Bar in New York is still Momofuku’s highest-earning restaurant.)

Along with the ambitious Toronto project has come a softer, mellower Chang. His friends and associates say he’s changed, and indeed, Chang’s own reflections suggest that he’s becoming less of a bad boy and more of a boss. It could be because he doesn’t have a choice. To get a handle on the Toronto scene and ensure the continued success of his far-flung empire, Chang—who recounts in his cookbook how chef Marco Canora teasingly called him an “army of one”—now has to rely much more on his team.

In fact, Chang says that what most excites him right now, apart from food, is staffing. “If I have a really bad cook or a bad manager or bad sous-chef, I previously would have fired them or lost my temper,” he says. “But now I realize that if I’m so right, then I should be able to communicate it so clearly that they get it. Can we make them an asset? It completely breaks how I used to do it, which was to explode in temper. I can’t do that anymore. I don’t have the energy.” The claim of low energy is dubious at best, but colleagues say they have noticed his new level of Zen. “Dave is a little calmer. He’s more realistic in the way he deals with certain things,” says Tosi.

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Tosi and others who work with him also say he is coming into his own as a leader. “Dave has this great balance of being a boss and having an ego and a vision, but also knowing when to push someone and say, ‘Stop asking me for guidance; stop treating me as your boss,’ ” she says. “He’s become really good at reading people.” Ying, of Lucky Peach, calls Chang “a savvy leader” who “cultivates the people he works with.” And the Momofuku staff has started to adopt some Chang-isms: One of them is that while you can always add, you can’t take away. It’s a classic mantra in cooking—once an ingredient goes in you can’t take it out—but here it applies to an enterprise that is growing more and more corporate, and can never go back to the way it was.

The question of growth is a great source of anxiety for Chang. “I’m grasping with how you do something on a large scale with multiple operations and not have quality decrease,” he says. “That’s certainly the expectation of a chain restaurant, but that’s not necessarily our goal. And I hate to say ‘chain restaurant,’ but we’re sort of a corporation now. How do we defy that concept, where people assume each restaurant can’t be good?” It’s a fair question now that Momofuku is sprouting new limbs, like a potential line of kitchen equipment. He also agonizes over the moral conscience of running a restaurant, wondering how to make Momofuku sustainable and eco-friendly, but not in a showy manner. “What bothers me,” he says, “is using organic and using sustainability as a way to basically sell more stuff.”

These issues eat away at him. “The neurotic nature is always making Dave, and all of us, wonder, ‘Is this selling out?’ ” says Tosi. “ ‘Do I want to sell out, and what does that even mean? Do we want 500 Noodle Bars? Do we want the pork bun to be a household name?’ ”

For now, Chang is mitigating his fears by painstakingly weighing every opportunity, whether it’s a restaurant, a menu item, a new hire, or the pistachio miso he is experimenting with in the Momofuku lab. “It’s fascinating to me, people that don’t care about food,” he says, still crazily ambitious. “I want them to care.”