I’ve never met David Chang, the hotshot chef/owner of the Momofuku restaurants in New York, nor have I ever tasted his food. From the various profiles I’ve read of the dude, he seems like the kind of guy I’d either be best friends with or wouldn’t be able to stand.
My all-time favorite story about him comes from this 2008 New Yorker profile:
At Noodle Bar, a junior line cook had been cooking chicken for family meal—lunch for the staff—and although he had to cook something like seventy-five chicken pieces and the stoves were mostly empty, he’d been cooking them in only two pans, which meant that he was wasting time he could have spent helping to prep for dinner. Also, he was cooking with tongs, which was bad technique, it ripped the food apart, it was how you cooked at T.G.I. Friday’s—he should have been using a spoon or a spatula. Cooking with tongs showed disrespect for the chicken, disrespect for family meal, and, by extension, disrespect for the entire restaurant. But the guy cooking family meal was just the beginning of it. Walking down the line, Chang had spotted another cook cutting fish cake into slices that were totally uneven and looked like hell. Someone else was handling ice-cream cones with her bare hands, touching the end that wasn’t covered in paper. None of these mistakes was egregious in itself, but all of them together made Chang feel that Noodle Bar’s kitchen was degenerating into decadence and anarchy. He had screamed and yelled until a friend showed up and dragged him out of the restaurant, and his head still hurt nearly twenty-four hours later.
The following afternoon, Chang called an emergency meeting for the staff. Something was rotten in Noodle Bar, and he meant to cut it out and destroy it before it was too late.
“I haven’t been spending that much time in this restaurant because of all the shit that’s been going on,” he began, “but the past two days I’ve had aneurisms because I’ve been so upset at the kitchen. On the cooks’ end, I question your integrity. Are you willing to fucking sacrifice yourself for the food? Yesterday, we had an incident with fish cakes: they weren’t properly cut. Does it really matter in the bowl of ramen? No. But for personal integrity as a cook, this is what we do, and I don’t think you guys fucking care enough. It takes those little things, the properly cut scallions, to set us apart from Uno’s and McDonald’s. If we don’t step up our game, we’re headed toward the middle, and I don’t want to fucking work there.
“We’re not the best cooks, we’re not the best restaurant—if you were a really good cook you wouldn’t be working here, because really good cooks are assholes. But we’re gonna try our best, and that’s as a team. Recently, over at Ssäm Bar, a sous-chef closed improperly, there were a lot of mistakes, and I was livid and I let this guy have it. About a week later, I found out that it wasn’t him, he wasn’t even at the restaurant that night. But what he said was ‘I’m sorry, it will never happen again.’ And you know what? I felt like an asshole for yelling at him, but, more important, I felt like, Wow, this is what we want to build our company around: guys that have this level of integrity. Just because we’re not Per Se, just because we’re not Daniel, just because we’re not a four-star restaurant, why can’t we have the same fucking standards? If we start being accountable not only for our own actions but for everyone else’s actions, we’re gonna do some awesome shit.”
Fuck yeah. Fires me up every time I read it.
3 replies to “David Chang on Integrity”
Hmm, my reaction is the opposite:
1. He cares about the integrity of the restaurant but isn't there enough to model it. And his immediate reaction to decay is screaming at people.
2. He thinks it's good that someone apologizes for something done wrong by a completely different person. Sounds like Stockholm Syndrome to me.
I think of you as a great teacher. Does David Chang sound like a great teacher?
I knew this one was going to be a controversial one for folks who know me, and I've taken some heat offline.
I don't believe in treating people like shit, and I'm not an advocate at screaming at people. However, I also don't think that screaming at people inherently makes you a bad leader or a bad teacher, and it most definitely does not mean you're not modeling integrity.
While I don't advocate screaming at people, I think it's far better than coddling people and not holding them accountable. The fundamental point I'm making here is that if you want to be great, you need to care, and you need to hold yourself and your team accountable.
That said, there are better ways of doing that than yelling at people. This is the dominant norm in kitchen culture, but we're starting to see notable, public exceptions to this rule. Eric Ripert in your town is a great example of this:
Well, Mr. Chang does have a point with what he's saying. All professional chefs treat their dishes like a work of art. Everything from cooking to plating must be as perfect as possible.