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  • >> Thanks so much for coming. I'm here to introduce David Chang, as you

  • know, the chef of Momofuku, Ssam Bar, Ko, Bakery and Milk Bar.

  • And after the talk, we'll do a little Q and A.

  • And then, up in Hemispheres -- if you were lucky enough to get a book -- David will be

  • signing books. All right? Thanks so much for coming.

  • Here's David Chang.

  • >> [Clapping]

  • David Chang: Thanks. Good morning everyone. Very strange. Google last week, San Francisco.

  • Google, New York. And I never thought, again, cooking would

  • lead me to both Google campuses. [laughter] Very strange. And yeah, I got into

  • cooking. And how I got here is very, very strange and

  • surreal. I started to cook, because I did very poorly

  • in college, because I spent most of my time with doing extracurricular activities, and

  • not enough time in the classroom, which is why Google would never, ever hire me. [laughter]

  • And it was a real struggle to figure out what I wanted to do after college, and cooking

  • was one of the few things that I knew I enjoyed. And it was one profession that my father

  • -- I could have chosen to be a garbage man, he would have been more pleased with the decision

  • I made. [laughter] Because he spent his entire life -- he immigrated

  • to this country, and he spent his entire life working 30 years in the restaurant industry

  • so I would never work in the restaurant industry. And it's ironic.

  • And you know, he sent me to the best schools he could and all that stuff -- and I still

  • wound up being a cook. And I wanted to see how far I could take it.

  • That was it. It was one time -- I mean, I've had a lot

  • of discussions recently about like, Is there anything pure?

  • Is there anything honest in terms of a craft anymore?

  • And, at that time, it was like '99. You know, it was either dot com or banking

  • or whatnot. And I just felt that cooking was one of the

  • few things that I thought was honest -- that you could apply yourself, and you could get

  • better every day. And it was remarkable, because you could use

  • your hands. You could sort of act like a total buffoon,

  • but still -- there's this total chaos -- but it's under this umbrella of this sort

  • of French system of a brigade. And I don't know.

  • I felt like I found my call and that I could do this.

  • And then, you know, I was never the best cook in the kitchen.

  • I worked for some great chefs -- for Jean George, Tom Colicchio, Daniel Bleu, Das Caramelini.

  • And spent some time in Tokyo. But I got out of the game.

  • And I say the "game" -- I say "fine dining game" -- because we normally associate great

  • food with fine dining. And when I started cooking -- and it wasn't.

  • I can't say it's 20 years. It was like ten years ago, you know, food.

  • You had the Food Network, but 'food' and 'cooking' wasn't cool.

  • Like, if any of you guys are thinking about career-changing and going into cooking school,

  • like think twice. [laughter] Because it's a hard, hard business. It's not

  • glamorous. And, you know, TV has made it seem much more

  • cooler than it actually is. So, you know, going back, I don't know if

  • I'd actually be cooking in this world -- that is like, today's like food world, because

  • it's just getting crazier and crazier. And I've had to, you know, learn to deal with

  • it. I got into cooking so I wouldn't have to speak

  • in front of people. [laughter] And here I am, speaking in front of all these

  • people, and I have no idea what the hell I'm talking about. [laughter]

  • So I've always sort of been a weirdly competitive person.

  • I think it has to do, again, with golf -- and this was before it was super-cool to

  • play golf. And I had the typical Asian father who was

  • like, trying to make me, you know, pro. And then, I realized that -- I'll never forget,

  • I was trying to qualify for this tournament, and I played -- all I did was play golf 365

  • days a year. I was trying to qualify for this tournament

  • in Houston, and I was eleven. Tiger Woods was already on the brochure of

  • the event. It was called the 'Big I' in Houston.

  • And he had already won it two years in a row. And that's when I knew -- I was like, "Yeah,

  • this guy's a lot better than I will ever be, so."

  • I think it slowly coincided with me just burning out on golf.

  • But, you know, there's something interesting between golf and cooking -- at least for me

  • -- because, when you're playing golf -- and I hate golf now -- is that, it's against

  • you. It's just you and the golf course.

  • And the only competition is the scoreboard and your competitors.

  • So, I am always measuring myself against people. I wish I had that sort of competitive drive,

  • you know, during school. That would have been great.

  • But, in cooking, you sort of see who is the best cook in the kitchen.

  • This guy's a sous chef, and he got there from this point and this point.

  • And, you know, I was very quick to realize that I was not naturally gifted as a cook,

  • which was one of the things I loved about cooking.

  • You don't have to be a super-star to become a good cook or a great chef.

  • You just have to apply yourself. You have to be fully committed.

  • And when I sort of learned that -- I was learning this, and I had the great mentors.

  • Craft was very, very important to me. Because, when Craft opened up, we had Jonathan

  • Benno, Mark Kinura, Octor Nuag, James Tracy. All these guys -- I mean people that will

  • never make it in the press. Like, I have a friend, Mac Kern.

  • He's a chef in Madrid in his own restaurant. Everyone that opened up that restaurant is

  • the chef at their own restaurant now, which is very rare.

  • And they all took me under their wing and beat the crap out of me.

  • And that's how you learn. And I learned quickly too that these guys

  • were better than me. So every kitchen I ever went to, I was always

  • comparing myself to the best talent in the kitchen.

  • And I would be like, "Well, there's no way I'm going to be better than this person."

  • It's a really weird way of looking at things. But I'd learn as much as I could.

  • And, you know, someone asked me -- I was like, "What should I talk about?

  • I have no idea." He said like, "What about opening up the restaurant

  • -- the first restaurant?" Well, I had just got back from Japan, I think.

  • Part of the reason I came back from Japan was, my mom was battling cancer.

  • And I was having a hard time working at Cafe Bleu, and working for Andrew Carmellini, who's

  • now the chef at Locanda Verde, and who is probably one of the best chefs in America

  • and supremely, supremely talented. I was also just -- working in that kitchen,

  • I was like, "There's no way I'm going to be as good as Andrew.

  • Why am I cooking in fine dining? Why am I on the Upper East Side cooking for,

  • you know, the audience that I could care less about?"

  • I care about the food, so I want to have the challenge of fine dining.

  • I want to have the pressure of fine dining. But why does this have to be in the environment

  • of fine dining? Something I didn't really put together till,

  • just about now, so. I left, and all these things started to happen,

  • right? Friends that passed away.

  • I was just in this weird spot, where I was just like, "I should be working at a new restaurant."

  • And 2004 was one of the greatest years in New York City culinary history.

  • You had Per Se open up, Mas opened up. Little bit later, you had Crew and Blue Hill

  • Stone Barns. All tremendous restaurants. Hearth opened

  • up. So it was a strange time for someone like

  • myself, who had been cooking four-and-a-half -- almost five -- years to be like, "Yeah,

  • I'm going to open up a Noodle Bar." And everybody knew that I was crazy about

  • noodles. And I wanted to make ramen, you know.

  • I had a plan to go to Tokyo and learn how to make ramen.

  • But instead, I learned how to make all sorts of different things.

  • And that plan sort of fell flat on its face, but it was a blessing in disguise.

  • So the reason I opened up the noodle bar was, I just needed to prove to myself that I could

  • do -- I could open up a restaurant. At the time, I was just like -- it was a challenge.

  • It was something that I could sort of -- if I could open up a 600 square foot spot

  • on First Avenue on almost no budget, like $130,000 -- that was my only goal.

  • The reason there is no -- there's a minimalist, and everything is plywood is not because we

  • were trying to be artistic. We had no money. [laughter]

  • And there was other reasons why. It was about a test to myself.

  • And that was the first and only goal I ever had for Momofuku, which is again why I pinch

  • myself every day for everything that's ever happened.

  • Which is why I'm so hard on myself and our crew, because I feel very blessed to be in

  • the position that we're in. So that restaurant opened up, and we failed.

  • And we continue to fail. And those are two of the things that became

  • cornerstones of our restaurant -- at least sort of our mantra.

  • It's like, "You know, if you're going to mess up, mess up big. Or just fuck up, but own

  • up to it." And number two was, you know, be accountable

  • for your actions. No excuses, because no one's going to care.

  • No one cares if we're going to go out of business. So, you know, there were a lot of things going

  • on, and we were going to go out of business after six months/seven months.

  • So again, right place, right time. We're learning how to run a business.

  • I had a terrible business plan. I didn't know how to run a business.

  • I didn't know how to run the cash register. You know, the only one person that wanted

  • to work with me was Joaquin Baca, because all my friends at the time were working at

  • these restaurants that were opening up. So I felt very slighted.

  • And things started to change. One thing happened, and awards started happening.

  • We became busier and busier. And the food really took a change right around

  • springtime when the market came around, the green market.

  • And I think it tied in with the size of the space, which is what I'm trying to get back

  • into the mode of thinking and how we do things at the restaurant, creatively speaking.

  • And again, it's been a progression of accidents. And this is an accident.

  • I didn't plan to have this sort of philosophy of how we create something.

  • But the first noodle bar, which is now Ko. And even Ko has its limitations.

  • It's 600 square feet. It's the size of a one-car garage.

  • Nobody in their right mind would open up a restaurant in 600 square feet.

  • I don't know what the hell I was thinking. But that's one of the beautiful things when

  • you're young and dumb. You don't know.

  • And I told myself, "Well, if I go out of business, I have the rest of my life to get out of bankruptcy.

  • I don't have a kid to feed. I don't have a wife to take care of.

  • You know, let's go all in. Fuck it." So that's how -- we always get to this point

  • of like -- our backs are against the wall. And that's when sort of the adrenaline starts

  • pumping, and we start to make very bold, bold decisions.

  • It becomes more difficult when you become a larger organization.

  • But, you know, Noodle Bar 600 square feet originally very limited in menu, about five

  • food items, mise en place, our "mise en place" in French means like basically the stuff you

  • prep out in a kitchen. It wasn't more than ten or 12 items.

  • So it'd be like scallions, bamboo shoots, pork shoulder, pork butt.

  • And when you only have so many ingredients, like five things to work with, after a while,

  • you just look at the same ingredients day after day, and you're just like, you're not

  • really thinking. And then, all of a sudden, things started

  • to click. It'd be like, "Oh, what if we batted."

  • We just -- it was almost like a Rubix Cube. If we just change this with this, then we

  • have a new dish. Then, we kept on evolving every day, changing

  • and changing. And then, we created a foundation in terms