The I Chang

Photo: Hans Gissinger

David Chang has nothing against vegetarians. He just doesn’t like to cook for them.

That much is made clear on the menu of his East Village restaurant Momofuku Noodle Bar, which offers exactly one vegetarian dish—ginger-scallion noodles. OUR ONLY VEGETARIAN OPTION, it reads in boldface type, as if to say, “Hey, you can take it or leave it.” A further examination of the menu, with its exuberance of pig tails, pork necks, Berkshire bellies, and boutique bacon, might lead you to speculate as to whether Chang was kidnapped by a gang of vegan hippies at a young age and then force-fed wheatgrass and raw parsnips and this is his revenge.

Why would someone choose to run a restaurant with only one non-meat or non-fish option in a vegetarian-friendly neighborhood like the East Village? “Well, I guess it was because I don’t like people telling me what to do,” says Chang.

And when Chang was struggling to keep Noodle Bar afloat in the months after its August 2004 opening, everyone was telling him what to do: “From day one, people would say, ‘You need more vegetarian options! You need more vegetarian options!’” Even casual passersby felt obligated to chime in with unsolicited opinions. “I’d be outside having a cigarette,” recalls Chang, “and people would walk by me and say, ‘Mo-mo-fuck-u, what a stupid name!’”

Back before Momofuku Noodle Bar was a certified hit, before it won widespread critical acclaim, before there was a rabble of foodies parked outside its door every night at 5:30 sharp, clamoring to get in, Chang remembers receiving a phone call. “It was a lady who said she was a vegetarian,” he says, “and that she got something to go, and there was broth on the side, and she drank it.”

“I said, ‘We don’t have any vegetarian broths,’ and she said, ‘Well, you should, and anyway, somebody said it was,’ and I said, ‘Well, that must have been a miscommunication.’”

“You can’t do this to the vegetarians!” the lady bellowed, before threatening to sue Chang and put Momofuku Noodle Bar out of business.

“I got so pissed off,” says Chang.

So pissed off, in fact, that the very next day, in a public-relations gambit that would give Danny Meyer night sweats, Chang and his co-chef, Joaquin Baca, removed every vegetarian dish from the menu (back then there were still a few) except the ginger-scallion noodles.

“We added pork to just about everything else,” says Chang, giggling like a schoolgirl.

“We said, ‘Fuck it, let’s just cook what we want.’”

David Chang is something of a culinary rebel. In a town overflowing with precious temples of gastronomy and $2.50 falafel shacks, he has defiantly carved out a tasty, idiosyncratic middle ground with inventive new riffs on traditional Asian flavors. His food is more than cheap and delicious—it is the unique synthesis of his highbrow training with his lowbrow appetites. And it is, apparently, just what New York was hungering for. In less than two years, Chang shot from obscurity to a James Beard nomination, Food & Wine magazine changed its own selection criteria to name him one of the country’s Best New Chefs, and Noodle Bar’s success touched off a wave of imitators, sending phrases like “Berkshire pork” and “housemade pickles” reverberating across menus around town. “For a lot of people, it was such a new concept,” says Craft’s Tom Colicchio. “A cool place where you could get really good food fairly inexpensively with no pretense and no bullshit.”

The world was Chang’s oyster, or at least his pork-belly bun. So instead of enjoying the moment, instead of going upscale and trying to become the ethnic-food equivalent of Thomas Keller, instead of teaming up with a moneybags gastropreneur or Vegas tycoon to clone Momofuku across America, what did Dave “Fuck It” Chang do?

He opened a burrito bar.

Not just any burrito bar, mind you, but a quirky, cafeteria-style Asian burrito bar in the East Village specializing in ssäm, a Korean word that means “anything wrapped.” In this case, anything wrapped means everything from Berkshire pork to organic chicken accessorized with edamame, azuki beans, and kimchee purée, all folded with rice into a flour pancake. Chang calls it Momofuku Ssäm Bar, and the decidedly unconventional (not to mention schizophrenic) approach he has taken there is to figuratively build a whole second restaurant on top of the first, essentially creating two restaurants in one. The first, in an early shift, offers burritos to anyone who wants them. The second, in a late shift, caters to a crowd of culinary aristocrats and off-duty chefs after the space transforms itself from a burrito bar each evening into a full-service restaurant with a menu that reads like some kind of lunatic gourmand’s death-row wish list (four types of country ham, a whole wheel of Epoisses, fancy corn dogs). And still, there’s more: With the burrito profits he hopes to rake in, Chang plans to spin off more Asian-burrito bars, all in the service of bankrolling the ambitious efforts of his talented colleagues—who otherwise couldn’t afford to open their own restaurants—in a revolutionary kind of culinary collective. “It’s too hard to open up a restaurant now, even if you’re really talented,” says Chang, who plans to make his chefs and managers co-owners. “I believe it’s got to be more of a group effort. By doing this, we can attract more talent and change the way things are done.”

Late night at Ssäm Bar.Photo: Bumblebee Studio

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.

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.

It would have been easy for him to go another route. He was flooded with offers. Everyone, not least his own customers, thought he was nuts. “Why don’t you just open up a bigger Noodle Bar?” was a constant refrain. “Yeah, we could have done it,” says Chang. “And sure, we want to make a lot of money, too. But we wanted to take a chance and experiment. We wanted to do it because we thought it would work.”

The seeds of Chang’s fast-food fixation might have been planted in Tokyo, but they were nourished by another major influence closer to home. “I tried to get a job at Chipotle when I got back from Japan, but they wouldn’t hire me,” he says. “They knew what I was up to.” It’s easy to see the parallels between Ssäm Bar and the Tex-Mex monolith that’s invaded Manhattan. “A lot of this is premised on what Chipotle’s done: Make affordable, good food, and do it with integrity.”

According to Chang, “There’s a reason people do fast food.” It’s easy to replicate, for one. Chang was wary, too, of cannibalizing Noodle Bar’s business. “Not to say that we want to raise the average check,” he says, but if that happened, “we’d have Ssäm Bar there as a cheaper alternative.” And he was looking for something highly profitable to finance his chefs’ collective. Chang knew no investor would swallow that kind of risk. By putting Noodle Bar up against Ssäm Bar for a loan and establishing two lines of credit, Chang staked everything on his Asian burrito.

So far, despite the undeniably delicious food, the gamble hasn’t paid off. In its first few weeks, Ssäm Bar sat empty most hours, its glass façade putting Chang’s miscalculations on painfully public display. Chang was hoping to sell 100 ssäms at lunch but was lucky to move that many all day.

Right away, Chang started making adjustments. He added options like brisket and tofu to the ssäm menu, and, in a decidedly un-Changian concession, he even let people customize their own. Business picked up little by little, but it was still nowhere near what he’d projected.

With daytime lagging, a kitchen of restless cooks, and $1 million in loans to pay off, Chang let the rest of the team persuade him to launch the late-night menu in late September, months earlier than scheduled. From Wednesday through Sunday, 10:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m., the ssäm station shut down and the ranges were fired up. Chilmark oysters were shucked, Finchville Farms country ham was sliced, and cooks served up such offbeat, elegant fare as fish-sauce-dressed fried cauliflower with chilies and mint, and a banh-mi-by-any-other-name three-terrine sandwich. To drink, there was sake, beer, and sparkling wine. With the lights dimmed and the conversation buzzing, Ssäm Bar assumed a different personality, low-key but lively, with a steady flow of local chefs, hungry revelers, and foodies making pilgrimages from distant Zip Codes.

Soon, late night was outpacing daytime, but Noodle Bar was still subsidizing both operations. That wasn’t the only problem. The restaurant’s dual-concept schizophrenia was confusing, to say the least. “People came in at night and wanted a ssäm,” says Chang. “Or they’d come in during the day and want a banh mi.”

The first of this year, Chang did something he’s unaccustomed to. He officially gave in. The burrito-bar hours were curtailed to 11 to 6, and the late-night hours, complete with table service, were expanded to 6 to 2 a.m., seven nights a week.

Chang obsesses over his missteps. “The location was a miscalculation,” he says. “If we opened in midtown, we’d do really well.” It might have been an error, too, he now says, to create such a sleek stage for what really amounted to a self-service cafeteria. But mostly he believes that “people really wanted Noodle Bar. I can’t even stress that enough, how pissed off people were that we didn’t open up a bigger Noodle Bar.” What they tend to forget, though, is that Noodle Bar wasn’t an instant smash either. “It’s a restaurant; it’s not a movie that doesn’t change,” he says.

In the coming weeks, Chang plans to add daytime delivery at Ssäm, something Mario Batali has been encouraging him to do from the start. Chang is also making self-imposed management changes. Even though Ssäm Bar started out as a team effort, he says, “I’m such a control freak, my hands were all over it. I’m trying to let go.”

And what if none of it works? There are always other options. “People take a big shit on Vegas, but to a restaurant owner or chef, it’s so fucking hard to open a restaurant in New York City,” he says. “You’ve got to fight the goddamn community board to get a liquor license. You’ve got to go through hoops to get building permits. And here you have people in Las Vegas who want you there, who want to help you. Yeah, it’s a fucking armpit. But at the same time, it’s a legitimate opportunity to do something, make some more money, and to do it without all the crazy headaches. I wouldn’t say no now. I’ve always said if we were going to do another Noodle Bar, it would probably be in a place like Vegas.”

If he gets the right offer, he just might take it, he says. “As long as it’s on our terms.”

The I Chang