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David Chang, the rock star of ramen, goes global

NEW YORK (AP) ― David Chang is not your typical celebrity chef. He has no television show, and most people outside the world of avid New York foodies would not have a clue who he was if they came across him on the street, an unassuming if intense-looking, 30-ish guy in a backward baseball cap.

But to those who worship the steamed pork buns at his Momofuku Noodle Bar or the rotisserie duck at momofuku ssam Bar, or compete in the fiendish online lottery for one of 12 seats at the high-end Momofuku Ko, Chang is a culinary deity: A man who at 34 already has won a slew of awards and two Michelin stars, been called a cultural demigod and compared to the top chefs of the world.

And now, only seven years after opening that first noodle bar in a former chicken wing joint the size of a one-car garage, Chang is going global.

He opened Momofuku Seiobo, his first eatery outside New York, late last month; he went all the way to Sydney, Australia to do it. Next year, a Toronto outpost opens as his sixth, not counting the four Momofuku Milk Bar bakeries run by his protege, Christina Tosi. The second edition of his admired food quarterly, Lucky Peach, the English translation for the Japanese “momofuku,” has just come out. He is still tinkering with the iPad app.

Among the truly hard-to-get commodities in Manhattan ― a midtown parking space, a taxi in the rain, a ticket to “The Book of Mormon’’― has long been a seat at Momofuku Ko, Chang’s high-end eatery with only 12 seats and a tasting menu that runs to 16 courses at lunch ($175), 10 at dinner ($125).

And so, a few days after meeting Chang, my fingers tremble a bit as I log on to the restaurant’s Web site at exactly 10 a.m., when seats open up six days in advance.

Dinner is not available, even with my most energetic clicking, but lunch is. I arrive early on the appointed day, determined not to lose the spot or the $150 they charge if you do not show.

Next to me is Rich Johnson, who’s come in from suburban Yonkers, New York, after trying on and off for a year and a half. I feel ashamed that I got in so fast. 
Chef David Chang prepares roasted rice cakes at Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York on Nov. 10.(AP-Yonhap News)
Chef David Chang prepares roasted rice cakes at Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York on Nov. 10.(AP-Yonhap News)

The Ko chefs, led by Chang’s partner, Peter Serpico, seem to have things running so smoothly that it is hard to imagine Chang finding something to criticize. But he is famous for holding the staff at his restaurants to absurdly high standards ― friends and colleagues argue that he is at least as hard on himself ― so it is not surprising when, as we wander into Ko a few days earlier during our interview, he sees something he does not like.

It is not the food, it is the cookbooks displayed on the counter. He has written one, of course, the 2010 “Momofuku”with co-author Peter Meehan, part memoir, part recipe book, peppered liberally with four-letter words and recipes that may involve pig’s heads and blowtorches. And now there’s “Momofuku Milk Bar,”by Tosi, famous for cool ingredients like cereal milk, the sweet stuff that remains once you finish your Fruity Pebbles.

Today, Chang thinks there are too many on the counter. “Let’s get all this (expletive) off of here,”he says.

Clearly he does not mind that I’m standing there, as I had been earlier at the Noodle Bar, where he had found something in the kitchen he did not like and proceeded to delay a photo shoot for a good 10 minutes while he discussed it with staff.

“We had to do that ― I haven’t been here in a while,”Chang says. Later, referring to his famous temper, he explains: “I don’t think I yell as much these days. There’s better ways to go about it. But you’re in a tough business. You might as well be the best. You either care or you don’t care. If you’re not trying to get better every day, what’s the point?’’

All this is part of what makes Chang special, says one of his champions, Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine.

“There’s something to Dave’s rabble-rouserness that’s very much part of his aesthetic,”says Cowin. “He’s very out there. He doesn’t hide who he is.’’

To stories of Chang chewing out some poor soul, Cowin responds by pointing out his loyalty to his staff and a desire to help them to the next level, like Tosi, now a name in her own right. “He’s had this huge success, but if you ask Dave what he really wants, he’ll say it’s to create opportunities for people,”Cowin says.

Chang himself says as much, reflecting on how his job is now to promote the brand. “We started as the underdogs of the underdogs,”he says. “But growth has been thrust upon us, and some people here need to start their own thing, or move up a step.’’

And so Chang travels a lot. The day we speak, he is about to head to Harvard for a microbiology presentation; his lab studies fermentation and even discovered a new fungus, he says proudly. It is all pretty funny, since, he says, he cheated his way through high school science.

“If I did better in school, I probably wouldn’t be doing this,”he quips.

In fact, Chang’s parents, Korean immigrants to the United States, wanted him to become anything BUT a chef. Chang grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, and attended Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, majoring in religion. But he had an obsession: Noodles, and not just any noodles. Ramen noodles. (“Momofuku”is also the first name of the man who invented instant ramen in 1958.)

In his cookbook, Chang describes a quest to become a ramen master, a quest that had him roaming through Tokyo, filling up notebooks with research, and slurping down an untold number of noodles.

He knew he needed a culinary education, so, back in the States, he studied at the French Culinary Institute, then had a series of kitchen jobs, at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Mercer, and Tom Colicchio’s Craft. Meantime, he wrote every Tokyo ramen shop he could think of for a job. Nobody replied. Finally he found work, first at a rather disgusting eatery, then at a soba noodle place, until that chef discovered Chang’s real love was ramen. “It’s soba or nothing,”Chang was told.

Back in New York, after a stint at Cafe Boulud, Chang embarked on his dream, founding the Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004 out of that tiny chicken wing joint (the space is now occupied by Ko; Noodle Bar has bigger digs). It took some initial failures, some reinventing, and a lot of Chang-style tantrums, but things caught fire, and at the one-year mark, he already was being nominated for top awards.

By the time Ko, the third restaurant, opened in 2008, New York Times critic Frank Bruni was calling Chang “the New York restaurant world’s equivalent of Tiger Woods or Roger Federer, armed with a spatula in place of a nine-iron or tennis racket.’’

“I loved how you never knew what was coming next,”says Johnson, 36, who works at a chef’s equipment store.

An admirer of Chang’s, Johnson nonetheless sees him as a sort of anticelebrity chef: “I really don’t think he’s into that,”he observes.

Chang shakes his head when asked about that whole celebrity chef thing.

“It’s weird,”he says. “All I know is that when I started, the goal was, you might get your own restaurant. It wasn’t for fame or fortune.’’
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