But five months into its young life, Ssäm Bar is off to what Chang concedes is a disappointingly slow start. “This isn’t the cash cow we thought it would be,” he says. True, the late-night Ssäm Bar has achieved a certain cachet, but “I definitely fucked up in thinking that we’d have a bigger lunch business.”
After a short-lived moment of Momofuku Noodle Bar glory, Chang finds himself questioning the very things that have made his career so successful to date: his quirky vision and refusal to compromise. Saddled with a million-dollar loan and ever aware of his staff of top-notch cooks with visions of Momofuku-funded projects of their own in mind, Chang fluctuates almost hourly between doubt and confidence, optimism and regret. Should he bag the burritos and start dishing up noodles? Should he relocate to midtown, where he’s sure Ssäm Bar would thrive? Should he enter the Witness Relocation Program? Chang, in other words, is at a career crossroads, wondering if he, the unlikeliest upstart, has bitten off more than he can chew.
“I never planned for this,” Chang says one unusually warm fall morning, knocking off some payroll work in the doorless closet that passes for an office in Momofuku’s dank basement. Behind him, prep cooks are bracing for the lunch rush, cleaning shrimp and grabbing bottles of soy and Sriracha off the tightly packed shelves. Upstairs, Black Sabbath is already blasting and a chef named Scott Garfinkel is experimenting with a new, typically Momofukian lunch special, a smoked-duck soup with rillettes-stuffed matzo balls. Chang, a buzz-cut 29-year-old Korean-American built like a small Czech weight lifter and seldom seen out of an exceedingly well-worn pair of tan twill Levi’s, quits out of Microsoft Excel and slings his Crumpler messenger bag over his shoulder. There’s blood-pressure medication to be picked up at Duane Reade, a sample bowl to be returned to Bowery Kitchen Supplies, and ten pounds of mutsu apples to lug back from Migliorelli’s stand at the Union Square Greenmarket. Another day in the life of an East Village restaurant mini-mogul.
Chang’s success at Noodle Bar wasn’t something anyone could have predicted. The youngest son of Korean parents (his father owned restaurants in suburban Virginia), Chang had always loved noodles but never contemplated cooking professionally until discovering Alan Yau’s pioneering Wagamama during a college semester abroad in London. “That restaurant was so ahead of its time,” says Chang.
But Chang’s real culinary awakening came in Japan. After enrolling at the French Culinary Institute, and doing early-career stints at Mercer Kitchen and Craft, the noodle-obsessed Chang wangled a kitchen connection in a Tokyo ramen shop. Finding himself living rent-free in a homeless men’s shelter and working for one of its more unbalanced residents (a ramen chef who “laughed his ass off” when Chang nearly severed a finger with a cleaver) wasn’t exactly what he’d hoped for. He moved on to less-perilous posts at an izakaya and the Tokyo Park Hyatt. But mostly, he ate. “Japan changed the way I think about food,” Chang says. “It’s a food culture. And food didn’t have to be great on just a fine-dining level. You could eat really well. Even fast-food chains were awesome.”
After eight months, Chang returned to New York and a line-cook position at Café Boulud, where he found himself struggling to keep up in what he calls “a kitchen full of ninjas.” If that kitchen had twelve cooks and all of them were awesome, he reasoned, his chances of getting his own high-end restaurant were “minimal.” By then, Chang had had his eureka moment at Wagamama, eaten at hundreds of ramen bars, and trained under some of New York’s most acclaimed chefs, and although he might not have known it at the time, he was developing his own culinary personality, one that didn’t find its ultimate expression in rigid Japanese tradition or classic French technique. At 26, an age when most ambitious cooks are content to toil anonymously on the haute cuisine slow track, Chang was getting antsy. “I wanted to do something different, and I knew it wasn’t going to be fine dining.”
In August 2004, Chang opened the restaurant he’d been conjuring since that first Wagamama lunch almost a decade earlier. He called it Momofuku Noodle Bar. Momofuku means “lucky peach,” and also happens to be the name of the man who invented instant ramen, Momofuku Ando, who died earlier this month. Chang’s dad helped raise the $130,000 it cost to build the 650-square-foot cork-and-plywood-paneled noodle bar, done on the cheap by the same Japanese architect who’d built ChikaLicious around the corner. Before he opened, he spent a week apprenticing at Rai Rai Ken, a nearby noodle shop. “The guy said, ‘You’re gonna fail,’” remembers Chang, and he had no reason not to believe him.