The renegade chef behind New York’s revered Momofuku restaurants has arguably influenced Toronto’s food scene more than anyone else in recent years. This summer, the man himself plans to set up shop in our backyard—and Toronto chefs are conflicted.
A few years ago, when I was living in New York, I noticed a trend emerging among food lovers visiting from Toronto for the weekend. I’d offer recommendations on where to eat—everything from delis and pizzerias to hip new restaurants—but they’d inevitably inform me that they already had plans: Friday night, they were heading straight to Momofuku Ssäm Bar, then lunch on Saturday at Momofuku Noodle Bar, dinner at Momofuku Ko, followed by lunch on Sunday at Momofuku Má Pêche. Of course, they made sure to mention an obligatory stop at Momofuku Milk Bar for a slice of crack pie (basically a diabetic’s nightmare, in pie form). I saw this pattern play out on Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and in iPhone photos of foodies, food writers, and chefs from Toronto hoisting a pork-belly bun, smiling like they’d just climbed Everest. It was Momofuku mania.
In case you’ve been living under a rock—or food-lust just isn’t your bag—Momofuku is a restaurant group based in Manhattan’s East Village. It operates four restaurants in New York and one in Sydney, Australia. There are also five Momofuku Milk Bar bakery outlets in New York, featuring Willy Wonka–style stoner dream snacks, like cereal-milk soft-serve ice cream and “compost cookies” (containing crushed chips and pretzels). Momofuku also has two best-selling cookbooks (one savory, one sweet), as well as a quarterly culinary magazine, published by indie literary stalwarts McSweeney’s, called Lucky Peach (which is roughly how Momofuku, a Japanese word, translates into English).
You should care about all of this because, by the end of August, Toronto will boast not one, not two, but three Momofuku restaurants, all opening next to the new Shangri-La Hotel at University and Adelaide. It is the largest single Momofuku project to date and it’ll be the first time that Toronto feels the up-close-and-personal effects of the restaurant’s firebrand chef, 34-year-old David Chang. He’s not the first famous chef to open up shop here (his old boss, Daniel Boulud, is also coming this summer), but for a man who has visited our city no more than three or four times, Chang has arguably had a greater influence over dining in Toronto in recent years than scores of chefs who have toiled in our finest restaurants for decades. Which means his arrival, whether you like it or not, is a big deal.
The son of Korean immigrant parents, Chang grew up in the suburbs of Virginia and spent his early 20s working, without much acclaim, in some of New York’s best fine-dining kitchens. He also lived in Japan for a time, studying the way even simple foods were prepared with exacting precision, and, in 2004, he opened the Momofuku Noodle Bar, serving high-end ramen soup with toppings like fatty pork belly and an egg soft-boiled over many hours, so carefully that the yolk would ooze out in slow motion.
Noodle Bar languished on the edge of bankruptcy for months as Chang fired and hired scores of cooks, flew into rages, punched holes in walls and, finally, just said fuck it. He began cooking and serving whatever the hell he felt like, and freed those remaining on his team to do the same. The results were stupendous: chefs cooking what they wanted, combining Chang’s demanding standards and precise, highly refined technique with any idea that popped into their heads, like a communal fried chicken dinner, both American and Korean style, served family style with moo shoo pancakes. Reimagining comfort food was their specialty. They would take something as humble as the chicken wing and brine it, roast it, glaze it, and fry it, until they’d elevated it to an exalted place. It was as if Monet and a team of Impressionists began drawing comic books.
The reinvigorated Momofuku soon gained traction with chefs, as well as the emerging food-blogging community, which spread the legend. “He kinda stumbled into setting up shop right when this machinery of hype was perfectly positioned to hype him,” says David Kamp, author of The United States of Arugula, a history of modern American dining culture. “Even though he’d poo-poo the hype machine of blogging, it really served him well to raise his profile to this wunderkind status.” Eating at Noodle Bar became a must-do for foodies visiting New York.
Chang opened Ssäm Bar in 2006, with the notion of doing Asian-style burritos. Again, the idea flopped, and Chang, after many tirades and breakdowns, once again let his cooks swing for the fences, producing brilliant dishes that looked deceptively simple (and were anything but), like a bowl of charred Spanish octopus that practically puffs, and communal meals such as the Bo Ssäm—slow roasted, incredibly tender pork shoulder, bone and all, served with lettuce wraps, a dozen fat oysters, homemade kimchi, and other Korean-influenced condiments. The dish easily feeds 10, costs $200, and needs to be ordered days ahead of time, but it reinvigorated the idea of communal dining in America.
“I remember sitting at the counter the first time and I didn’t even know what to order. I just had never eaten anything like this,” says Alan Richman, GQ’s food critic, who profiled Chang in 2007. “Nobody understood that food, but it was just so good….His dishes were a little bit Korean, a bit American, with some Japanese condiments on top.” Chang’s central achievement, which set him apart from his colleagues in high-end restaurants, as well as those in traditional ethnic holes-in-the-wall, was the marriage of utterly refined European kitchen technique and service (without the stuffy European attitude) with what could be considered “simple” food. “[He ushered in] the acceptance of informal dining…noisy, crowded, shared tables, no reservations…there was nothing elegant about it,” says Richman, who claims Chang is the most important chef of this century. “He changed the very nature of dining.”
As the cult of Momofuku grew (some fans have even tattooed the namesake peach onto their bodies), Chang’s influence as a tastemaker spread beyond New York, shaping restaurants everywhere, including Toronto. Plywood walls and DIY decor replaced lavishly designed spaces. Dressed-down servers and crews of tattooed chefs, no less talented than their buttoned-up counterparts, began slinging refined versions of comfort classics in restaurants that blared rock and hip-hop and offered good value and, most importantly, fun. “It’s a model that is apparently successful,” says Kamp. “David Chang was essentially the template for all of that.”
In Toronto, it helped usher in a boom of unpretentious mid-range restaurants with great food, no (or restricted) reservations, and cocksure young chefs who are as much at home carving up pork parts as they are at swearing on Twitter. Places like The Black Hoof, Woodlot, and Atlantic, to name but a few, were born of that Momofuku meme.
Partly, the success of Chang’s format was due to ideal timing. “There was a recession,” says Jen Agg, owner of the Black Hoof. “High-end places got hit hard, and people wanted fun restaurants, good food, and [Momofuku] was more a general influence.” Still, she says, “anyone who suggests that Chang hasn’t been hugely influential on their casual dining restaurant is kidding themself.”
For Mitchell Davis, vice-president of the James Beard Foundation (and a Torontonian), Chang’s rise signalled a generational shift in the world’s kitchens. “His impact has been almost more on chefs than on dining. I think part of his appeal has been his ‘fuck you’ attitude: I’m going to do what I want to do, I’m going to put good food in the place I want, work harder, make mistakes, and make it awesome.” This is probably why so many chefs worship Chang. Though he’s incredibly, relentlessly demanding (to the point of being borderline abusive), he stands up for his cooks, gives them better salaries and benefits than most places, and opens restaurants for them to run when they’ve outgrown their current roles.
Next page: Why some local restaurateurs aren’t thrilled about David Chang coming to Toronto