In 2006, after moving out of the dorm, Chang grew more serious about food as a hobby. She cycled through several identities, from going vegetarian to joining a group called the Burger Club, which was exactly what it sounds like—friends and strangers comparison-eating their way through the L.A. hamburger scene. She began to hit progressively more-obscure places, spurred on by blogs and trying to one-up friends. Chang’s college years coincided with the first explosion of websites like Chowhound—“The ones that were super bare-bones,” she says, “just people talking about food. The food blogs are still big, but they really had their moment in the early aughts. And I think that’s why food became such a thing.” She ate at obscure L.A. haunts, and began frequenting a nameless pop-up Burmese restaurant that operated on weekends out of someone’s garage. After one visit, she got food poisoning. She later reasoned that by Sunday evening, when she had eaten it, the chicken was no longer fresh. So she stopped going—on Sundays.
This was also the time where her trips to New York began, for job interviews and, of course, food. On one such sojourn, Chang managed to get into Momofuku Ko in the first months of its existence, despite the furious loading and reloading of the restaurant’s website at precisely 10 a.m. that landing a reservation requires. She impulsively booked a party of four—the maximum number Ko’s arcane rules allow—and then realized she had no idea whom to invite along. “I was just out of college at the time, so nobody had money,” she remembers. “I was super-poor. It’s like, which one of my friends will shell out 160 bucks for a lunch?” The impasse lasted until Chang’s then-boyfriend found a way to expense half of the outing as client entertainment. The lunch took up three hours, involved sixteen courses, and left Chang, the would-be un-foodie, unimpressed. “Remember when he just made burritos?” she asks, sighing, the culinary equivalent of claiming R.E.M. sold out after Chronic Town.
Besotted with New York, she landed a job and moved here in January 2010. “I was about to be paid close to nothing, but I decided that the pay cut was worth it to live in one of the most exhilarating cities in the world.” She bunked with an old friend in an apartment on the corner of Allen and Broome. It was a perfect young food lover’s destination: one foot in Chinatown, one on the LES. The first thing she did on her first day as a New Yorker was get coffee from 88 Orchard, then banana bread from Babycakes, dumplings from Vanessa’s, and finally a litchi martini at Congee Village. Her first real New York restaurant experience, however, was Blue Hill, with the same ex-boyfriend who footed the bill for Ko. “Since food was a major part of our relationship, we knew we had to pick somewhere delicious for dinner,” Chang remembers. “I was a big fan of Dan Barber.” She had acorn-squash pasta that she didn’t like: too stringy. “Honestly, I don’t remember too much about the meal,” she says, a statement directly contradicted by the previous one, “but the whole experience resonates to this day because I felt kind of out of place among a lot of older, more affluent people. But, oddly enough, wondering how the cost of the meal will affect my budget made me feel more of a New Yorker.”
Chang earns about $70,000 a year; her rent in Park Slope, where she lives now (“the worst food destination ever”), runs $1,100 a month. As for the rest, “I spend it all on food,” she says flatly. During the one week I asked Chang to keep tabs on her restaurant-going and market purchases, she ate at fourteen restaurants, pizza joints, and cafés, and spent $350. The largest single bill she racked up was $58, although Han Joo, a Korean barbecue spot in Flushing famous for its slanted grills that pour rendered pork fat onto kimchee, required a $38 cab ride. Chang also made a few dishes at home, including potatoes with crème frâiche and smoked paprika (a re-creation of a brunch favorite from Vinegar Hill House), pozole, chile verde, a red-lentil soup with pistou, and a fennel salad, the last two from New York Times recipes. When it comes to grocery shopping, Chang hits the nearby Grand Army Plaza farmers’ market every Saturday and buys the rest of her provisions in precision-targeted outings: meat at the Park Slope outpost of the cult upstate butcher Fleisher’s, spices at Sahadi’s. During the week she recorded her purchases, there was only one backslide into the mainstream. After the $20 organic chicken she saw at the farmers’ market proved a little too expensive, she grabbed a couple of shrink-wrapped chicken breasts at Key Food.