The timeline looks roughly like this: In 1998, Mario Batali gutted the space that was once home to the stodgy Coach House and replaced it with the loud and brilliant Babbo. The Times later cited Babbo’s “Led Zeppelin soundtrack” as “one of the dividing lines between a restaurant with three stars, which it unequivocally deserves, and one with the highest rating of four.” That missed the point. The whole idea was to fuse fine dining and rock and roll. Anthony Bourdain’s 2000 Kitchen Confidential destroyed the archetype of the foofy French chef in a toque and replaced it with an image of cooks as young tattooed badasses. Then, in 2004, a young neurotic chef named David Chang (no relation to Diane) opened Momofuku Noodle Bar, serving what Bourdain has called the kind of food that chefs themselves like to eat after-hours—that is, simple, ingredient-driven food, often global, that is unfailingly delicious but not necessarily expensive or stuffy. Somewhere along the line, young people even began to view cooking as a form of artistic expression. The idea of eating well wasn’t just democratized. It was now, improbably enough, edgy.
Diane Chang is a prime specimen of the new breed of restaurant-goer. The species is obsessive and omnivorous. Although they lean toward cheap ethnic food and revile pretension, they do not ultimately discriminate by price point or cuisine. They might hit a vegan joint like Sun in Bloom one day, its neighbor Bark Hot Dogs the next, then subsist on ramen for a week before blowing a paycheck on a sixteen-course lunch at Ko. They are not especially concerned with locavorism or sustainability or foraging. Sometimes nirvana simply takes the form of an authentic, ice-cold Mexican Coke. They abhor restaurant clichés (Carnegie Deli, Peter Luger) and studiously avoid chains (Olive Garden, McDonald’s) but are not above the occasional ironic trip to either. They consume food media—blogs, books, Top Chef and other “quality” TV shows but definitely not Food Network—like so many veal sweetbreads. Lucky Peach, Chang’s quarterly journal, is required reading. They talk about food and restaurants incessantly, and their social lives are organized around them. Some are serious home cooks who seek to duplicate the feats of their chef-heroes in their own kitchens; others barely use a stove. Above all, they are avowed culinary agnostics whose central motivation is simply to hunt down and enjoy the next most delicious meal, all the better if no one else has yet heard of it. Dish snapshots and social-network check-ins are a given.
As Chang and her friends plow through the menu at Wondee Siam, I feel no need to raise the subject of food. Discounting Marcos’s recent singlehood, which quickly turns into a discussion of his “Single Man diet,” the topic is virtually the only one on the table. A conversational pattern recurs: a restaurant name-drop, a quick Zagat-style assessment, next topic. The amazing Chinese New Year dinner at a Vietnamese place on Orchard (“You have to know the chef”). Lone Star barbecue (“So. Delicious”). A server at Roberta’s (“stuck-up”). Red Rooster (“My girlfriend is really good friends with the chef,” but “it’s just a scene”). This leads to a sidebar on “scene” restaurants—Miss Lily’s, La Esquina, the Smile—with the conclusion that the food is always disappointing.
At one point, Chang turns to me. “So what’s your favorite restaurant in New York?” she asks. Without thinking, I give my standby answer, which hasn’t changed in the past four years or so: Eleven Madison Park. I feel the air whoosh out of the room. “Ah.” There falls a pause while I savor, perhaps for the first time, at age 35, the full extent of feeling old and out of touch. It’s not that the group doesn’t respect chef Daniel Humm. It’s that my answer is so pathetically predictable. I should have said Torrisi, I think. No, Parm. They are probably way over Torrisi already. On the food-as-indie-rock matrix, I have just accidentally confessed to loving the Dave Matthews Band. Chang gives me a forgiving look and reaches for more crispy pork.
Diane Chang was born in a predominantly Chinese community in San Gabriel Valley, near Los Angeles. Her early life was steeped in the tastes and aromas of Sichuan cuisine. Chang’s China-born grandmother, “an amazing, amazing cook,” taught her traditional dishes. As for the local options, “We had Sizzler,” she deadpans. She hadn’t tried American food until grade school, when the one-two punch of sugar and salt predictably floored her. “Like, Lunchables? So much better than the fish my grandmother just spent two hours on,” she says, laughing. “Then you get older and you wise up.” But not before gaining fifteen pounds on UCLA cafeteria food. At the dorm, Chang had an all-day unlimited cafeteria pass, “like a MetroCard for food,” so she ended up popping in for a snack every couple of hours. Trying to right her ways, she developed an eating disorder, and gave up carbs. “Bread is her greatest frenemy,” says her friend Katherine, a former food-magazine staffer. “Who is she kidding? She loves food too much to deny herself anything.”