It seemed almost impossible that I would learn anything new about David Chang when I arrived for lunch at one of his favorite Chinese restaurants, Wu's Garden in Vienna, Va.
The 32-year-old wunderchef of Momofuku Noodle Bar and three other acclaimed New York restaurants has won every conceivable culinary prize, including James Beard Foundation awards for rising star in 2007, best New York chef in 2008, and best new restaurant in 2009. And he has subsequently been profiled by every self-respecting New York and national publication.
The CliffsNotes version of those stories goes something like this: Chang is young, brilliant, neurotic, foul-mouthed - and, perhaps most important, pork-obsessed. Which made it all the more surprising to show up and find Chang eagerly awaiting a plate of Wu's braised tofu.
It turns out that Wu's is the kind of place where Chang is comfortable revealing such secrets, though he insists the rabid fans of his legendary pork buns will not be disappointed to learn he likes tofu. ("I like vegetables, too," he protests.) Chang, who grew up in Northern Virginia, has been coming to Wu's "forever." Chang loves the food, especially the braised tofu and the juicy, boneless braised chicken, one of his "favorite dishes of all time."
"This is a great Chinese-American restaurant," Chang said. "Outside of Las Vegas, do you think someone's going to put in the time to decorate a place like this? To make food like this? No, probably not."
Chang worries about Wu's and fears other great Chinese-American restaurants are slowly disappearing. It's not that Wu's isn't busy. The restaurant, which opened in 1974, is now welcoming its third generation of customers, says co-owner William Wu. It's that Chang worries about most things in his life; hence, writers' frequent use of the word neurotic to describe him. Right now, Chang's big worries include his cookbook, Momofuku, cowritten by Peter Meehan; a still-unnamed restaurant, his largest ever, set to open in midtown Manhattan in December; and just what role he can, and should, play in his exploding culinary empire.
"You know, I don't think you get better as you get older. You just don't, creatively," he said gloomily. "But I don't think I can tell everyone what is going to happen on each menu. I can steer where the food will go. I think that's where my power lies."
Chang's ability to create riffs on Asian flavors is the reason the chef has been a magnet for culinary awards and critical acclaim: There are the pork buns, packed with fatty belly and house-pickled cucumbers. But he also serves Brussels sprouts with kimchi puree and bacon dashi with potatoes and clams. "His food is more than cheap and delicious," raved New York magazine writers Rob Patronite and Robin Raisfeld in a 2007 profile of Chang. "It is the unique synthesis of his highbrow training with his lowbrow appetites."
His first culinary influences were his mother's Korean home cooking and the almost weekly trips to Wu's, where he learned about classic Chinese flavor profiles such as garlic, chicken broth, and scallions. His father was in the restaurant business but gave it up to open a golf retail store because "restaurants are a hard-ass business," Chang said. "He wanted his kids to have the best education that he could afford. So I got the best education he could afford" - Trinity College in Connecticut - "and the irony is, I squandered it."
The self-deprecation is vintage Chang. And the I'm-a-lucky-but-bumbling-idiot spin has become part of the Momofuku legend. The shorthand version: Chang worked at a few top New York restaurants, including Top Chef host Tom Colicchio's flagship, Craft. But, as with his father, his passion was always ramen noodles. In 2003, Chang's mother found she had cancer, and he took time off to be with her. When her health improved, he decided not to return to an established New York restaurant. He borrowed $200,000 from his father and set out to open a noodle bar that offered "food made with integrity at an affordable price."
At first, he and his co-chef, Joaquin Baca, cooked what they thought people wanted. There were dumplings and edamame and something that would be shocking to today's Chang fans: three vegetarian options. The restaurant was surviving but far from successful. So, with nothing to lose, the chefs began to cook what they liked: fried veal sweetbreads, head cheese, a Korean burrito called ssam. Diners and awards began to pour in.
Now, there's the cookbook. Momofuku (Clarkson Potter, October 2009) documents Chang's philosophy.
The recipes were adapted for home-kitchen equipment, but the ingredients are the same ones used in his restaurants.
"I had an early idea that there might be some bridge recipes to make it easier for people," said coauthor Meehan. "But Dave didn't want to do that. And ultimately, it made the most sense to represent the dishes as they were made at the restaurant."
Makes 1 or 2 servings
6 ounces plain ramen noodles
6 tablespoons Ginger Scallion Sauce (see recipe), at room temperature
1/4 cup each bamboo shoots, quick pickled cucumber
slices, pan-roasted cauliflower florets and/or sliced scallions, for garnish (optional; see Note)
1 small sheet toasted nori, for garnish (optional)
1. Cook the ramen noodles (without the flavor packet) according to the package directions. Drain, then combinewith the sauce in a large, wide, shallow bowl.
2. If desired, top with some or all of the following: bamboo shoots, quick pickled cucumbers, pan-roasted cauliflower, sliced scallions, toasted nori. Serve warm or at room temperature. (The yield is 2 cups; this recipe doubles easily.)
Note: To make quick pickled cucumbers, cut 2 Kirby cucumbers (12 ounces total) crosswise into 1/8-inch slices; place in a nonreactive bowl along with 1 tablespoon sugar and 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Toss to coat evenly. Let sit for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
Per serving (based on 2): 449 calories, 8 g protein, 58 g carbohydrates, 21 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1166 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar
Makes about 21/4 cups
1 or 2 bunches scallions (white and light-green parts), cut lengthwise or crosswise into thin slices (2 1/2 cups)
4-inch piece peeled ginger root, minced (1/2 cup)
1/3 cup grapeseed or other neutral oil
1 1/2 teaspoons usukuchi (light soy sauce, see note)
3/4 teaspoon sherry vinegar
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste
1. Combine the scallions, ginger, oil, usukuchi, vinegar, and salt in a medium bowl; mix well to form a chunky sauce.
2. Taste and adjust the salt, adding more as needed. The sauce can be assembled and used right away, but it tastes best after 15 to 20 minutes' time, which will allow the flavors to develop. Or cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days; stir before using.
Note: Usukuchi is a kind of soy sauce that is lighter in color and saltier than regular soy sauce.
Per 2-tablespoon serving: 42 calories, 0 g protein, 1 g carbohydrates, 4 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 120 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar