Days from opening, he’d already lost his minuscule staff to more-established kitchens. “It’s a hard sell to be like, ‘I’m opening up a noodle bar, we’re going to serve ramen’—essentially, that’s all we did for the first few months—‘how would you like to work for me?’ he says. “Everyone was like, ‘You’re a retard. You’ve never been a sous-chef anywhere.'”
Happily for Chang, that didn’t much matter to Joaquin Baca, a 28-year-old cook from New Mexico who was having a hard time getting his foot in the door at Manhattan restaurants.
They opened the doors with a menu of hot and cold noodles that Chang was reluctant to categorize as Japanese, Korean, or, worst of all, fusion. After his time in Japan, where ramen was religion, he knew better than to claim authenticity. But customers were slow to respond to the spartan space and the streamlined, untraditional menu. Alone behind the dining counter, the two cooks glowered sullenly at the comparatively bustling Sapporo East across First Avenue. Chang remembers thinking, “Let’s cook better than those guys, then let’s try to raise the level from there.” And they did—sourcing Berkshire pork for their house ramen and crowning it with fresh Greenmarket corn and slow-poached eggs. “We had nothing to lose. No one expected anything from us.”
Why run a restaurant with only one non-meat or non-fish option in a vegetarian-friendly neighborhood? “I guess I don’t like people telling me what to do,” says Chang.
Except, of course, themselves. One cold December afternoon, the two chefs took a cigarette break, and Chang told Baca that if they went out of business, it wouldn’t be for lack of trying. “I knew there was no way we could have done more,” he says. “We worked like maniacs. Having that freedom made us say, ‘Fuck it, let’s start cooking now.’ That’s sort of what changed it for us.” Soon, they hired three more cooks and expanded the menu, and in April, they diversified it with a section called “Spring” (later changed to “Local”), incorporating more farm-fresh Greenmarket produce and giving rise to such elegant, original combinations as asparagus with miso butter and a slow-poached egg, or local tomatoes with tofu and shiso. But more than their own determination, more than the new staff, Chang attributes the change in Momofuku’s fortunes to the support it received from the restaurant community.
“I remember one day, maybe our second month into it, our dishwasher didn’t show up, we were down big-time, and all my friends from Café Boulud came in to eat,” he says. “They all washed dishes that night. I think what really carried us at the end of the day was that we really took care of the cooks. The word really spread.” And it’s a fact of life in the restaurant world that where the chefs go, so go the groupies and the gourmands.
Mario Batali, who makes a point of hitting all the new places, was an early fan. “It’s fun, it’s delicious, and it offers value,” he says, likening the pleasure-per-square-foot ratio to other tiny venues like ’ino and the original Tasting Room.
“He was really smart to do what he did,” says Marco Canora, Chang’s onetime boss who’d left Craft to open Hearth. “He found a niche, and people latched on to it.”
Not only did Chang and Baca, by then partners, survive the first year, August 2005 was Momofuku’s best month yet. After that, says Chang, “it grew so fast, like it’s on steroids.” In its first year, Noodle Bar took in under $500,000; the year after that, $1 million. This year, Chang is projecting sales of $2 million. Then there were the James Beard and Food & Wine honors. Chang, whose renegade spirit is tempered with characteristic self-effacement, is at a loss to explain it all. “It’s like lightning in a bottle,” he says. “We caught it.”
Momofuku Ssäm bar’s opening party on August 21 was a Who’s Who of New York food cognoscenti. Martha Stewart was in the house, as were the Batterberrys of Food Arts fame. Food & Wine had colonized one table. Wylie Dufresne sauntered in with his girlfriend, Every Day With Rachael Ray’s Maile Carpenter. Pork ssäms and lettuce wraps flew out of the kitchen and were wolfishly devoured and washed down with Korean beer and Chang’s favorite soft drink, Dr Pepper. Blogger Ed Levine made quick work of a pile of pork buns. Chang looked shell-shocked. He had no way of knowing that that night would be the best reception his ssäms have yet to get.
In February 2006, as Noodle Bar was riding the wave of its newfound popularity, Chang signed a lease on 207 Second Avenue, a onetime Chinese dive that had sat vacant for twelve years. It was close to Noodle Bar and more than twice as big, and the $10,000-a-month, fifteen-year lease Chang negotiated was way below market. It was just the spot, Chang thought, for his second venture, an idea he’d had even before he dreamed up Noodle Bar: a very fast, very casual Asian-burrito bar.