Ramen is a bit of an obsession in my family, so much so that if a wish-granting food fairy could magically whisk us off to any restaurant in the U.S. of our choosing, chef David Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar might just top the list. In his recently-published memoir, Eat a Peach, David Chang reveals the struggle behind launching Noodle Bar, his flagship restaurant, in one of the world’s most competitive food markets. And, as one would expect from an internationally-lauded chef, David expounds on his food philosophy and cooking inspirations. But this is not a how-to primer on opening a restaurant. Follow this simple step-by-step guide and you too could build a food empire with dozens of restaurants around the world! Nope. Like everything else in Chang’s life and career, this is the anti-story: a messy tale of struggle, pain, and success through sheer will and grit despite looking, feeling, and doing everything “wrong.”
For ramen neophytes, David Chang is the OG responsible for elevating ramen’s position from the salty, instant cup o’noodles favored by broke college kids to true culinary status worthy of recognition by gourmands. (Interesting side note, Momofuku is a nod to Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant ramen.) The 2004 opening of Noodle Bar also upended New Yorkers’ concept of what is considered “fine dining” in the United States. Chang questioned why dining in NYC could not be more egalitarian, like that found everywhere in Asia – technique-driven with a focus on good ingredients, but still thoughtful, accessible, and affordable.
David Chang’s first brush with greatness came, surprisingly, not from cooking, but golf. As a child golf prodigy winning multiple state titles, he received an offer to attend a top-tier prep school. While there, Chang writes of feeling inadequate, not fitting in with the largely wealthy Anglo student body, nor into the stereotypical Asian “model minority” crowd, and not even fully identifying with his own deeply religious Korean American family at home. The feeling that he did not belong anywhere – of being “other,” of having no clear sense of identity – pervades every aspect of David’s life. He spent his teens and early twenties directionless, floating between jobs, unsure of what was missing.
One can’t help but draw parallels between David Chang’s life and the trajectory of his restaurant. Momofuku Noodle Bar did not, in fact, start out as an overnight success. It wasn’t until Chang overhauled the menu, clarifying a vision and identity for his food, that it took off. Noodle Bar and his follow-up restaurant Ssäm Bar – whose concept he describes as “Asian Chipotle” – were David Chang’s response to never fitting in with the dining establishment. He created a space to fit his ideal, a place he wanted to eat but could never find. A place where millionaires could rub elbows with working-class stiffs and both come away with the same dining experience of good food, comfort, and fun.
Everybody has a story to tell, and I’ve found that the best, most affecting memoirs are the ones that are told with authenticity and a clear voice. This is one of those memoirs. David Chang reveals that, behind the scenes of his outward success, he battles relentlessly against depression, suicidal ideations, manic episodes, and violent mood swings, the result of bipolar disorder. He does not shy away from the ugly in this memoir, exposing the most terrible, and vulnerable, parts of himself. It is a humbling experience, in reading his words, to bear witness to David Chang’s creativity, talent and unapologetic honesty about who he is. You don’t even have to be a ramen-lover to appreciate it.