David Chang Broke All the Rules

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RENE JOHNSTON / Toronto Star via Getty Images

Superstar chef David Chang.

It may surprise you to learn that the Korean-American rebel chef David Chang, known for his delicious, creative food and brash, edgy attitude, majored in religion at preppy Trinity College in Hartford.

Much about Chang’s background is unusual. His father, for example, wanted his son to be a professional golfer, so young David spent hours and hours on the links practicing. After graduating from Trinity, he held a couple of odd jobs in finance but mostly sat at a desk and did paperwork. He wasn’t happy. He kept thinking back to his junior year abroad in London, when he ate ramen at trendy noodle chain Wagamama. And as a child, too, he had always loved noodles (“like any good Korean,” he jokes). His father frequently took Chang to a noodle restaurant near their home in Alexandria, Va., where Chang was, he writes in his Momofuku cookbook, “transfixed by the guy making noodles—the way he’d weave and slap a ball of dough into a ropy pile.” But Chang’s father never wanted his son to become a chef. He had worked in restaurants for a time, and constantly told his son cautionary tales about the business being stressful, high-risk, and frustrating. So Chang, who had sustained himself on cheap instant ramen throughout high school and college but always had an appreciation for noodles as a culinary art, tried to quash his curiosity and focus on less risky post-college plans.

That didn’t work. Frustrated with a desk job, he finagled a position teaching English in Japan, near Osaka, and was soon happier. He lived in a little town called Izumi-Tottori, where the biggest charm, for him, was the busy ramen shop he visited often. He befriended some of the cooks there and tried to learn about making real ramen, but his Japanese was imperfect and he had no training. He knew he needed a formal education in food.

Within a matter of months he called his father to say he was considering culinary school. His father told Chang he was out of his mind. But Chang’s father had already dealt with his son giving up on golf, so he’d just have to deal with the foray into dining. “I knew I wasn’t going to be holding forth on the conjugation of basic English verbs for Japanese kids for the rest of my life,” Chang writes in the cookbook. He moved quickly, packing up and heading to New York City, where he enrolled at the French Culinary Institute.

Chang graduated from cooking school in the spring of 2000 and managed to get a good job right off the bat: line cook at the Mercer Kitchen, one of French restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s many locales. Soon Chang heard buzz about Craft, which Manhattan chef Tom Colicchio would be opening soon. Colicchio, now widely known as host of the Bravo show Top Chef, had achieved success and food-world fame with his previous venture, Gramercy Tavern. Chang wanted to work at Craft, and attempted to do so, but the chef de cuisine there, Marco Canora, said they had no room. Chang, he offered, could answer phones if he wanted.

Canora was mostly kidding, but Chang was dead serious. He came over to Craft on his days off from Mercer Kitchen and took phone reservations. While he did, he stole glances into the kitchen and tried to soak up the techniques of the crew. Soon Chang graduated to doing some knife work in the mornings; he quit his job at Mercer and kept answering phones at Craft during the day. In time for the opening, he was working there full-time, and when they began serving lunch he became a cook. He cooked alongside already renowned chefs like Colicchio, Canora (who would later become a celebrity chef in his own right), and Jonathan Benno (who would open the Lincoln, a hot restaurant at Lincoln Center).

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Chang was working at Craft on 9/11. In his more self-indulgent moments, he says, he was already dreaming of the idea of starting his own restaurant. Looking back on it, he tells Fortune that 9/11 had a lot to do with pushing him toward that goal a few years later. He knew people who died in the attacks, and it led him to wonder what really mattered and what should keep someone from taking a risk. Opening a restaurant was suddenly less scary, since the worst thing that could happen was failure. “Failing just seemed like a good idea at the time,” he says.

He wouldn’t end up launching his own business until he spent two years cooking in Tokyo and a short period of time at home in Virginia. He moved back there after his mother fell ill; after she recovered, he returned to New York with $130,000 in startup capital from his father and some of his father’s friends. Before he even had a space, he had a name: Momofuku, which means “lucky peach” in Japanese but was also an homage to Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant ramen, the staple that had gotten Chang through late nights in his Trinity dorm. He also freely admits that he liked how the word sounded like “motherfucker.”

The rest happened like a whirlwind. In August 2004, Chang opened Momofuku Noodle Bar, in New York’s East Village, where he dedicated himself to two simple staples: ramen bowls and pork buns. The place soon earned some great press in places like New York magazine. Food blogs often criticized Chang for his obvious temper (he would frequently “explode” at employees, he acknowledges), but eventually his brutal managerial style didn’t matter, because the food was king.

By August 2006, Chang was doing well enough to open a second restaurant, Momofuku Ssäm Bar.The restaurant got its name from wrapped food, or ssäm, which means “enclosed.” Ssäm Bar earned its own regulars by staying open till 2:30 a.m. and offering non-ssäm options as well. With time the restaurant became known for the Bo Ssäm, a huge whole-roasted pork shoulder with oysters, designed for a group to share. A two-star review in the New York Times helped Ssäm Bar thrive.

Only two years later, in 2008, Chang opened his most expensive location, the obvious high-end offering among the arsenal, Momofuku Ko. The word ko means “son of” in Korean. As the son of Chang and, in a sense, the son of the two Momofuku restaurants that came before it, the place was Chang’s attempt to prove he deserved the awards. Many people in the food world were already vocal haters of Chang and his rapidly growing empire; he was eager to stick it to them. Ko has just 12 seats, serves only a tasting menu, and is a famously difficult destination to infiltrate. Dinner reservations can be made only online, and not until 10 days in advance. It’s like the way many college students today register for courses—wake up early, sit at the computer and wait for the first possible moment, then click through and hope for the best. It’s sort of insane, and also a bit of genius. The food proves that the headache of getting a table is worth it. In 2009, Ko received two Michelin stars, a confirmation of what Chang intended it to be: Momofuku’s crown jewel.

That same year, Chang and Christina Tosi (she had been working at wd~50, the renowned restaurant of chef Wylie Dufresne, when she met Chang, and soon joined Momofuku full-time) opened the first Milk Bar, Momofuku’s bakery, which offers trademarked sweets like the “crack pie” and “compost cookie.”

In April 2010, Chang opened a fourth restaurant: Má Pêche (“mother peach”), Momofuku’s first and only restaurant in midtown Manhattan, where it caters to the lunchtime business crowd. Má Pêche initially served French-Vietnamese fusion, but today has more American flavors.

Through all of this success and growth, accolades poured in. Chang was nominated for multiple prominent awards, including Rising Star Chef from the James Beard Foundation, which he won in 2004. In 2006, Food & Wine named him one of the best chefs of the year. But awards and honors made Chang anxious. He shirked praise and actually begged not to be given certain honors. (When the Food & Wine editor called to tell him he had made the magazine’s list of best chefs, he was so wary of being mocked that he asked her not to include him; she did not oblige.) The hyper-self-consciousness hounded him for years, but eventually—by the time Christina Tosi met him—Chang was at least a little bit better at accepting praise. “At some point,” she says, “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’s march toward establishing a modern culinary empire continued. Once Ko was humming along and all four Momofuku restaurants were stable successes, he cast his gaze beyond New York. In 2011 Chang opened Momofuku Seiobo in Sydney, Australia. At home in New York, he expanded Ssäm Bar and installed Booker and Dax, a high-end bar timed well for the local “mixology” craze, in the adjoining space.

In the fall of 2012, Chang made his biggest, most ambitious move yet: an all-Momofuku building in Toronto that contains three different restaurants and a bar. The plan had been hatched in 2010, when the developers of a much-hyped new Toronto hotel, the Shangri-La, approached Chang and asked whether he’d want to set up a restaurant adjoining their building. By that time he had offers to open new businesses in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Hong Kong, but those places were obvious choices, with clearly developed dining cultures. In Canada, Montreal was a known foodie haven, but Toronto’s food scene was still in its infancy, exciting and varied. “It’s different, I can’t quite put my finger on it,” he says. “It’s not Chicago, it’s not New York. There’s so much diversity. We get to take a chance, test out dishes we wouldn’t try elsewhere. It’s everything—the menus, the concept of the restaurant itself.” Chang took the offer with gusto.

On the first floor is a second Noodle Bar, on the second floor is a bar, Nikai, and on the third floor are two new restaurants: Daisho, a family-style place, and Shoto, which is a tasting menu only, like Ko. The space is something to behold, a multifaceted experience that shows off the style of his empire under one roof. “You don’t get those kinds of offers in New York or the U.S.,” he says.

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All of this, of course, happened very fast. Chang didn’t spend nearly as much time being a junior line cook as is the norm in the industry. And his eagerness to expand, expand, expand—at the risk of nearly becoming a higher-quality version of a fast-food chain—brought many critics of the chef and his business. David McMillan, co-chef of Joe Beef, a renowned steak and seafood pub-style restaurant in Montreal, says he’s one of many people lucky enough to have benefited from what he calls “the rise of Chang.” (In a 2007 New Yorker story, Chang cited Joe Beef and Denmark’s two-time “best restaurant in the world” winner, Noma, as his two favorite restaurants.) Yet McMillan is well aware that the man has his detractors. “You hear some talk here and there,” he acknowledges. “His CV from before his rise is not like most guys who have insane records … Dave came out of cooking school, did a little bit of working in New York, and had an idea and ran with it. But at the end of the day, everything he makes is delicious. And it’s not like the restaurants are pretentious. Just super-delicious food at restaurants with different price points.”

For some, that still isn’t good enough. They resent how quickly Chang brought the Momofuku name from cult appeal to mainstream fame in a few short years. But Chang, simply by pursuing his passion (and perhaps that’s part of what irks people; turning passion into career takes a certain mix of drive, luck, and circumstance), has already had a visible influence on global culinary trends. McMillan says that when he and his Joe Beef partner Frédéric Morin travel around the world to other restaurants and see what chefs are trying, “We see a lot of what he’s done popping up in other places.” He cites as examples the steamed buns at Sugar Shack in Montreal, or the many French restaurants that now offer kimchi trios.

Even as he charted a bold path in business, Chang never changed his stripes. That can mean anger, foul language, and other less-than-savory qualities. His profanity is the stuff of legend (“Let’s put pork in every fucking dish,” he decrees in an episode of the HBO drama Treme), as is his temper. But the latter is something he says he is working on. “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 … I should be able to communicate it so clearly that they get it.”

There are other challenges of being a restaurateur and people-manager that Chang also feels he should be able to handle better, or wishes he could figure out. For example, he asks, “how do you find a medium where you’re doing something meaningful and good for society, not just raping and pillaging… How do you sell something sustainable and have every part of serving food done on the higher level? That’s sort of what bothers me right now, is using organic and sustainability as a way to basically sell more stuff. That’s what people are doing, but I think there’s a better way. I just don’t know how.”

As if owning all of the restaurants isn’t enough of a tall order, Chang partnered with McSweeney’s publishing house to put out a food journal, Lucky Peach. He’s working on putting out exotic miso sauces, and a potential line of kitchenware. Through it all, he agonizes over the implications of what he’s doing. “Just putting our name on a pot and selling that is fine,” he says, “but I want to do it in a way that benefits us as a restaurant.” And as for opening restaurants, he admits, “I’m trying to grapple with how you do something on a large scale with multiple operations and not have quality decrease. That’s the expectation of a chain restaurant, but that’s not necessarily our goal. And I hate to chain restaurant but that’s what we are, in a sense, we’re a corporation now.”

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Whatever Momofuku’s ultimate goal as a business, its steward just wants to cook good food. Chang is so in love with what he’s doing that he doesn’t need to waste his time with much else. It’s a privilege and an achievement. Kevin Feige, head of Marvel Studios and another person profiled in Zoom, says of his job, “I’m certainly glad I have been able to fulfill a promise to my 12-year-old self.” That’s just what Chang did. He eagerly anticipated eating noodles with his father as a little boy, and he followed through, and now he’s cooking noodles for people all over the world.

 Adapted from Zoom: Surprising Ways to Supercharge Your Career by Daniel Roberts.