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.
The culmination of the Momofuku experiment so far is likely Ko, a small, 12-seat counter that opened in 2008 to as much acclaim, praise, and awards as any restaurant in recent memory. Reservations are only available online a week beforehand, and disappear within seconds. The narrow, plain space is a food theatre, with diners perched by the kitchen, and served directly by chefs. Ko takes the high-low democratic core of Chang’s whole philosophy to its zenith. There are no tablecloths, and you hang your own coat on a peg below your seat, but the tasting menu—a procession of a dozen or more small dishes, ranging from a bite of crisp, bubbly fried pig skin to an elaborate palate cleanser of shaved foie gras, pine nut brittle, and Riesling gelée—is as inventive and well executed as nearly any on the continent. It sounds fussy, and it can cost upwards of $200 per person, but it’s also the type of place where the young chef cooking has no qualms about drumming along to a Rush song with his serving spoon.
The Toronto Momofukus will bring all of these elements together in a three-storey glass box adjacent to the Shangri-La. Lucky Peach will be a fast-paced noodle bar at street level, “with new noodles, new broth, new everything,” says Chang, over the phone from New York. Upstairs, in the main space, will be Daisho, the largest of the three, where Chang and his Toronto chefs de cuisine, Sam Gelman and Mitchell Bates (both previously at Ko), will try out an expanded communal-meal concept.
“What I gather from the Toronto dining scene is that it’s either really small, chic neighborhood spots or massive fancy restaurants and then the ethnic places, like great Chinese food,” says Chang, who envisions communal entrées as the perfect bridge between all of these.
Inside Daisho will be a smaller, 22-seat counter restaurant, manned by Bates, which will be similar in its approach to Ko (it may have a separate name, it may not). Chang’s particularly excited about working with wild game (something he can’t serve in the U.S.), and insists that, while, yes, there will be pork buns and fancy ramen, Toronto’s menu will be as original as possible. “Inevitably,” he says, “the failures are the places that try to do a cookie-cutter restaurant.”
Chang’s biggest challenge here, aside from the usual snafus of the restaurant business, is how Momofuku Toronto, largely run by imported talent from New York, will be received by the very restaurant community he’s influenced. “He’s still a trendsetter,” says Anthony Rose, a Chang fan, who recently left The Drake Hotel in order to open his own restaurant later this year. “People will have to up their game a little.” Many chefs, like Susur Lee, have expressed enthusiasm for Chang’s arrival, but there are others with reservations about a big-name chef dropping into the market, planting his flag, and sucking up both attention and business before he flies back to New York.
Adrian Ravinsky, who co-owns 416 Snack Bar, has tremendous respect for Chang, and credits him as an influence on the concept and cooking at 416. Ravinsky once took a Greyhound bus to New York after scoring a reservation at Ko, a meal he refers to as “mind blowing,” but he doesn’t feel it’s fair for Chang to open in a hotel here, when there are plenty of talented local chefs who could use the exposure that a high-profile space like that would bring. “He and Boulud, as chefs, have no vested interest in the city—it’s just a franchising cash grab,” Ravinsky writes in an email. “I think that Toronto holding a parade for the guy as he arrives for five minutes is just…sad sounding. For all of us.”
It’s something that concerns Chang, who dealt with the same issue before opening in Australia. “What I learned was that we had to be very respectful to chefs in Sydney, and we have to blend in and become good neighbours,” he says. “Why the fuck would they want us here? This is their town!” To Chang, gaining approval of the local culinary “fraternity,” as he calls it, is his primary goal. “If people are feeling threatened and people are upset, it means we’ve fucked up and not done the right thing. I don’t want chefs to be pissed off.”
Davis, of the James Beard Foundation, knows Chang well and brushes aside any concern around this as a symptom of Toronto’s persistent inferiority complex. “I think he’s going to lighten everybody up a little,” he says, laughing. “[Chang will] invite everybody, feed them good food and drink, and pass a few joints. It’s not about showing Toronto what to do; it’s about having a good time.”
It’s hard to see how Momofuku Toronto will be a bad thing for the city. It will inevitably draw tourists and media attention to more restaurants than just those at the Shangri-La, and offer a place for young chefs (who will go on to open their own restaurants) to learn with the best. As for the argument that it’ll bankrupt other restaurants that serve pork buns or communal roast pork, that doesn’t hold much water. Terroni is no less crowded because of the success of Pizzeria Libretto or Enoteca Sociale, and Susur Lee still packs them in.
Besides, the bombastic Chang of years past has mellowed, as the demands of a growing restaurant empire, and the physical toll of his kamikaze management style, have forced him to reevaluate things, especially his health. “I used to be willing to die for my restaurant,” he says. “I’m not so sure now. I had the tendency to blow everything up all the time…. Now it’s about putting really talented people in the right places and letting them shine.” These days, he says he feels more like a GM than the star hitter, spending most of his time in the test kitchen, working on new ideas to disseminate to his restaurants. The wall he broke down between fine dining and casual food remains in ruins, but ironically, Chang, a man who has done more than anyone to shift the tide away from the classical European kitchen, longs for a little of that world he left in his wake.
“Now we have a generation who worked at a meatball store and a hamburger place, and these are the new sous chefs and chefs du cuisine,” he says. “I’m continuing to send cooks to the last few kitchens that are very French…. I want to make sure those standards, while they evolve, don’t get watered down. Breaking the status quo is great, but it’s important that people pursuing newness and greatness are trying to push the envelope, not trying to do something that seems cool. There’s nothing cool about cooking.”