Momofuku’s low-cost, Asian-inspired American food has reinvigorated foodie culture for the masses and Chang’s ambition seems to know no bounds—in October 2009 he will release his first cookbook, with The New York Times food critic Peter Meehan. With awards and honors from James Beard, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, and
What inspired you to open a restaurant?
After I graduated, I knew I didn’t want to sit at a desk. I started cooking and I versed myself in it as much as possible, but I didn’t have any ambition or plans to have restaurants like we do today. My goals were to work under the best chefs I could, to take cooking as far as possible. From there it was a progression of accidents.
So it was born from your passion for food.
Yes, but the idea to open a restaurant was related to my experience playing competitive sports. In sports you have to play to your strengths, avoiding weak points in your game. I played golf every day as a kid. You’re always working against yourself. Cooking is very competitive in a similar way. I started cooking in 1999-2000. After that cooking became “cool.” In working with these chefs, I knew I would never be as good as them. I knew I couldn’t do what they were doing at the fine dining level. I wanted to do something completely different, and that ended up being Momofuku Noodle Bar. The only plan I had was to get the restaurant open, and I didn’t think of anything else.
You have several restaurants (Noodle Bar, Ssam Bar, Ko, and Milk Bar) now. How do you juggle so many projects?
It is not a singular effort. Anybody that tells you they’ve done it all by themselves in any business is full of it. We have a very smart, humble, ambitious team that ranges from people who wash dishes to people who are in cuisine, to people in the office. We’re trying to build a core group of people who are bound by the way we see the world and how we want to work together.
In New York, it must be difficult to stand out as a new restaurant. One of the things people love about Momofuku seems to be the branding and the overall attitude and style of the restaurant. Was this a marketing plan you came up with ahead of time?
The crux of Momofuku has been to grow organically and to let mistakes happen, and make smart mistakes, whether it’s the press, the menus, or the food—these decisions stem from the fear of failure and trying not to make the same mistake twice.
You’re fairly aggressive with your expansion and plans for the future. Is this part of your business philosophy, that one should try new things and constantly expand?
That’s part of it—growing: there are lots reasons for our growth. We have many employees now and we want to provide them with options. It’s very difficult to open up a restaurant. We’re fortunate enough to be able to open them, and we want to provide our employees with the opportunities to do what they want.
That’s an honorable goal, to provide for your employees.
It might sound Machiavellian, but it’s not. For instance: my good friend Tien Ho, who I’ve worked with for over a decade, wants to open a restaurant, like many chefs. And now he’ll have that opportunity with our Midtown project. He’ll still remain my partner at Ssam Bar, but now he has this own opportunity. It helps the restaurant group, but it also helps the individual. We try to think from a collective perspective.
You have plans to open a Midtown branch? That’s exciting.
Yes, in the Chambers Hotel. The same philosophy applies to all my employees—they need to be people who share our principles. We can argue about food and the details, but the big picture is understood. Christina Tosi, Momofuku’s pastry chef, has been given a lot of freedom to do what she wants because she’s hardworking and incredibly intelligent and it’s exciting for me to watch what will happen with Milk Bar.
Do you plan to expand outside of New York?
I think we’re going to focus on New York for now. It would be nice to have restaurants in other parts of the world, but we’re still learning how to operate our own restaurants. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.
You’re releasing a cookbook on October 27th. Do you still do a lot of cooking in the restaurants?
The irony is I cook less and less. I fill more of a camp counselor, older-brother role. I’m totally in awe of chefs who can operate multiple restaurants and cook in all of them. The most important thing is to trust the people you put in a charge and collecting as much information as possible. This year for me has been about learning to be a manager. Cooking is the easy part, and managing people is the difficult part. Yesterday I was at a Bon Appetit award ceremony and all these chefs have to give speeches. We got into the industry so we wouldn’t have to do public speaking!
What kind of advice would you give to a young entrepreneur who’s just starting out?
1. Find good legal representation. Make sure you have all your paperwork with the city ordinances in check. You have to be incredibly organized.
2. Be honest with yourself and try not to placate to the masses. What you’ve done has already been done before, so try to do it better.
3. Focus on trying to make it right. At the end of the day, the odds are against you, if you’re going to go out of business at least you can do it with integrity.
4. Don’t make excuses. Don’t let the economy be an excuse. This is still a business and you need to hold yourself accountable. The first year is the hardest, and you can’t have an excuse. Nobody cares. People want the product and you have to deliver the product with integrity. It’s what we strive for.