Full disclosure: In 2009, while in NYC, I trucked on over to the East Village Momofuku Ssäm Bar (listed as one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants that year). It was just after it had opened to glowing reviews of the chef (“David Chang single-handedly revolutionized cooking in America and beyond.”). He had also bagged a coveted James Beard Best Chef NYC award (the restaurant equivalent of an Oscar). Chang was a media darling (“one of the most respected and imitated Chefs of this decade” and later listed on Time magazine’s “2010 list of 100 most influential people.”). So it was with salivating anticipation that I set out for a highly promising memorable meal.
While waiting for said spread to arrive, I purchased a copy of Momofuku: A Cookbook, the 303-page New York Times bestseller (which, in 2010, was nominated for a James Beard Foundation cookbook award). I lugged that hefty recipe-laden tome back to Seattle where, after over a decade, it has never experienced a kitchen-baptism and has been irretrievably lost in the overwhelming debris of my chaotic life. Such is the ongoing saga of an indolent glutton’s best intent.
I don’t normally make a habit of ambulance chasing uber-swank restaurants, but when you have a limit of intake calories to surrender on a meager budget, one is vigilant to opt for guaranteed outcomes regarding bangs-for-the-buck. This focused foray was, therefore, intentional and exceedingly goal driven.
Given the confessional disclosure in the “what and why” of my early Momofuku (translation: lucky peach) experience, one might ponder the motive of my current return to the “lucky peach” pit. Fault the bloated spate of grim disclosures in the last few years involving episodic exploits in the culinary kitchens across the country: a ceaseless, serialized rollout of mounting melodramatic upticks. Not since Upton Sinclair’s 1906, The Jungle, (exposing the appalling working conditions in the diseased and contaminated meat-packing industry resulting in federal food safety laws) and Anthony Bourdain’s 2000 Kitchen Confidential – Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, (a behind the scenes look revealing the “crazy, dirty, sometimes frightening world of restaurant kitchens”) – not since then has squinty-eyed, furrowed-brow national attention and legal judgements been centered on searing scrutiny of today’s plated dining world.
A perfect storm of restaurant realities – once closeted, confidential and evasive hushed-ups – morphed into a torrential flash flood of headlined disclosures, exposing the disturbingly seamy-side of a sordid pots-and-pans, back-of-the-house business: #MeToo allegations and indictments related to harassment, assault, aborted pregnancy; toxic, blasphemous, acrimonious work environments; suicides by gunshot, hanging, leaps-from-tall-buildings; bipolar psychotic disorders, moody anxiety depressions and mental breakdowns; heroin, meth, coke and prescription drug overdoses. . . . The general public, grown accustomed to 24/7/365 increasingly salacious televised programming, scrambled to paw through this newest titillating series of “restaurants gone wild”.
And there, center stage, leaping out from his culinary closet was David Chang. The mega-successful chef-entrepreneur who rose to high-powered celebrity faster than biscuits in a hot oven. A rock star of the dine-in/dine-out crowd with a tell-all memoir spotlighting his own foibles and failures.
It was a startling revelation to me when he disclosed – in various publications, interviews and his recently published 2020 memoir – feelings of inadequacy, bouts with manic depression, anxiety, anger management, mental illness and self-destructive impulses (“No one gets angry like I get angry. . . I just turn into a complete maniac. My brain feels like it’s gonna explode. It takes me a day to recover – I have to lie down and put ice on my head. . . ” ). Likewise, the combustive environment he allowed and led amid his own restaurants: screaming profanities, violent threats, smashing walls, breaking of furniture, hurling tableware; bullying and mega abuse.
Well. It was a moment of “OH-ness” that I recalled my past Momofuku rendezvous that stoked my interest in traveling back in time. I was prompted to dismiss the yah-dah-yah-dah allure of his golden good-life to forage about the under-belly of the jolting, attention-grabbing reveals. (After all, I had eaten this man’s pork buns.) So, I joined with the rabble and proceeded to read his recently published Eat A Peach: A Memoir.
To begin, I was bewildered at Chang’s ability – even after over a decade of public knowledge of his disturbingly abusive, lurid, profane behavior – to duck the issue of condemnation and shunning by the public. Throughout the many years of continuous tirades, tantrums and excesses that have been broadly media streamed, he continues to enjoy remarkable success, accolades and the ability to employ workers for his sprawling empire. In fact, rather than conceal what he acknowledges as shameful behavior, he trumpets his transgressions, parading them in public like a self-made coat of many colors. Unlike the Biblical tale, however, Chang survives relatively unscathed. It is perhaps his openness regarding his “BAD BOY” image, replete with his repenting demeanor and psychiatric crutch, that he has managed to corner the market on forgiveness. A former Chang employee has written, “Among his talents, Mr. Chang has a gift for spinning pain into gold . . . . All his confessions have only added to his fame.” And so it would seem.
A book’s cover is usually the first point of reference that motivates one to delve further. Being a visual learner, Eat A Peach, with its tiny shadow-figure straining to force an enormous orange peach up an equally dark steep incline was a Sisyphean allegory worth, at a minimum, a thousand words. In Greek mythology, King Sisyphus was punished for his self-aggrandizing and deceitfulness, hence forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill which would roll down each time it neared the top. The peach, clearly the symbol of the Momofuku Group’s corporate brand, and the straining miniscule figure, obviously Chang, were portents of onerous revelations to follow. And Chang (with co-author Gabe Ulla) delivers.
Candid, direct, no holds barred, the author, knife drawn, splayed on the cutting table in the abattoir of his memoir, butchers himself into meaty portions seeking answers to who he is, has become, will become, and why.
When David Chang, whose epic culinary climb was launched with a humble, nano-noodle bar in 2004, it wasn’t clear from his early beginnings that success would follow him. The youngest son of immigrants from Korea, he had failed at almost every endeavor in his early life, suffered from isolation and loneliness throughout his childhood, wrestled with feelings of inadequacy, and bouts with mental illness that left him reeling.
But as luck would have it, success came in a sudden tsunami of fame and fortune. His is a chronicle of diverse, successive achievements that even he could not have imagined. His ever-expanding restaurant empire (NYC, Toronto, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Sydney, Australia) has spread like a virus. Current count: double Michelin stars and a Best New Restaurant James Beard Award for Momofuku Ko. He created over 16 rave-worthy restaurants as well as the plant-derived fast-food Impossible Burger, Fuku, a chain of quick-service chicken counters (which closed in 2018), Bang Bar, a breakfast/lunch Time Warner take-out stall, Ando, an on-demand delivery restaurant, and is part-owner in a chain of Momofuku Milk Bar bakeries. His Momofuku Culinary Lab in Brooklyn test-drives future food items, such as the Chili crisp crunch topping for countless dishes (a $10 5.3 oz. pack, available at peachykeen.momofuku.com).
He co-launched the cult favorite quarterly food magazine Lucky Peach in 2011 (now defunct) and co-authored best-seller Momofuku: A Cookbook. He stars in his own hit Netflix show (Ugly Delicious) with over 1.2 million followers, hosts a podcast (The Dave Chang Show) and hosted the 2012 premiere PBS food series The Mind of a Chef. In his most recent philanthropic endeavor, Chang was televised in 2020 as a celebrity contestant on Who Wants to be a Millionaire (winning a million dollars for his charity, the Southern Smoke Foundation, which provides crisis relief for restaurant workers struggling amid the COVID-19 pandemic). His expanding net worth is estimated at over $60 million (and climbing). He has a secure, comfortable family life (married in 2017; son Hugo born in 2019).
Eat a Peach is a book divided into two parts, predicated on the Sisyphean theme introduced on the memoir’s cover. Part One: Up the Hill. Part Two: Down and Back Again. The first 135 pages, defined by Chang, details “A more or less linear account of events I’ve had many years to reflect on with my psychiatrist…” The second 128 pages grapple with “Abandoning the chronological telling of this story to explore subjects I’ve yet to fully process with (my psychiatrist)…”. From these synopses, I surmised that Eat a Peach would be an on-the-couch therapeutic journal in search of a breakthrough regarding Chang’s mental and physical health. Fingers crossed, I mumbled to myself, “We shall see. “
I entered into the review process seeking a structured storyline with plot, characters, scenes, conflicts and resolutions well defined. What I found was a highly interesting, very readable, humorous, intelligent, profound and profane examination of a life in the making: a shifting storyline with a jumble of conflicts (some resolved; others not) with colliding characters and scenes. Its beginning already defined; its midpoint a scatter of ingredients in pursuit of a recipe for an outcome; its conclusion an unresolved enigma.
Chang’s open, easy style is an “everyman” book approach. One is quickly drawn – like a comrade in arms – to the kindred spirit of his narrative. “I’m a newcomer to art,” he writes. “I’m one of those guys who used to look at one of Rothko’s big blocks of color and roll my eyes.” Who hasn’t encountered a similar thought wandering about in today’s contemporary art world? Chang openly admits what many others might be thinking, but he has the courage to express it aloud, creating a powerful bond between writer and reader.
A straight-jacketed, bale full of unremitting tortured internal debates on his behaviors, Chang sheds – like a snakeskin of past bad acts – candid, confessions in frank statements with his newly acquired truths. Of his early acerbic criticism of Chez Panisse chef, Alice Waters, and the Bay Area cuisine that rocked the 80s restaurant scene, he complained derisively about California cooking as “more of a lifestyle than a cooking philosophy” represented by “figs on a plate”. He now apologizes for the derision, stating, “I didn’t count her among the true visionaries of modern gastronomy . . . . The thing she did seemed too obvious to be innovative.” and concludes, “. . . all at once, something occurred to me. . . She was the most radical, confident American chef of the past one hundred years. She put figs on a plate at a fine-dining restaurant and said, ‘This is cooking because I am a chef and I said so.’ ” Chang, in a moment of self-discovery, ruminates, “Was it really that long ago that I’d been unable to see it?”
Perhaps his painful 15-plus year journey of self-examination, psychiatric consultation and diagnosis helped goad him to explore how it was that he became a chef. What inspired, confounded and tormented him? What exhorts him to continue a pained rollercoaster career of highs and lows, clinging to a job that periodically urges him to end his life?
His answer may be found in the section, 33 Rules For Becoming A Chef, an idea he attributes to a New York magazine essay, How to Be an Artist. States Chang, “All my salient observations about the restaurant industry and usable advice are contained herein.” and cautions, “ . . .keep in mind that these rules are all highly subjective and . . . I’ve broken nearly every one of them at some point. That’s part of the process.” Among the rules are: Being a Chef is Only Partly About Cooking. Here he asks the would-be chef to respond to questions such as: Do you love washing dishes? How about mopping floors, taking out the garbage, etc. Do you intend to support a cushy lifestyle on your cook’s salary? And ends: Hopefully not.
Another rule: Don’t Go to Cooking School. Chang warns, “. . . the scenarios presented in culinary school bear no resemblance to a restaurant kitchen.” And in Rule 13, Embrace Paradox, he states, “I firmly believe that the greatest forms of creativity are born of paradox. . . . For everything you make easier, make something else more difficult. . . . a perfect dish is not one where the flavors are uniformly in balance, but rather one that is both too salty and not salty enough at the same time. Taken together, it is in balance. Leaning into this paradox is how you make food that is both delicious and unpredictable.”
Chang challenges every notion you ever had regarding reasons to become a chef in the belief that your decision will be improved by running through this gauntlet of general precepts.
In the section of the book’s Afterword, Chang states, “ . . . we have to learn from our mistakes. . . . I really believe that you can read this book as you would a history text about the excesses of the Roman Empire. . . . I hope this book will help us see the stupid areas that we gave too much attention to and the vital issues to which we didn’t give enough.” And ends with, “. . . my only advice to you is to aim for the best and fight like hell to avoid the worst.”
Chang may not have resolved the issues with which he has wrestled throughout his lifetime, but in facing a midlife crisis in Eat a Peach, he is at least attempting to work his way through them. An intelligent being, warped by anxieties and excessive behaviors, Chang’s engrossing, reflective, highly readable, often educational (and yes, “entertaining”) book is a scream for help, a plea for understanding, and the hope of forgiveness.