Urban Legend

By Sara Dickerman

Published on September 6, 2009

I tried to eat at Momofuku Noodle Bar, David Chang's first restaurant in New York City, a few years ago. Pregnant and in high heels, I stood on the sidewalk with other would-be diners for what seemed like hours, peering through the window at the happy few who were perched on stools and basking in the comfort of Chang's glorious ramen and pork buns. Eventually my feet gave out. As a West Coaster, I always seem to be witnessing Chang's career from the outside: the ever growing archipelago of New York restaurants I've never been to (Momofuku Noodle Bar, Momofuku Ssam Bar, Momofuku Ko, and Momofuku Bakery & Milk Bar, at last count) and the steady stream of ecstatic reviews and culinary awards. So, I welcomed the arrival of the cookbook Momofuku (Clarkson Potter, $40). Coauthored by Chang and the food writer Peter Meehan, the book has given me an intimate sense of how Chang cooks and why his food must taste so good.

Though many serious chefs have trumpeted their fondness for fast, informal fare, few have staked their careers on it as Chang has, and none to such acclaim. What Chang sensed when he opened Noodle Bar was that people wanted to eat very well but that they also craved spontaneity and informality. Nowadays, whenever I see a trained chef open, say, a late-night taco stand, I know he's been drinking in some of Chang's enthusiasms.

Chang's own coming-of-age story—that of a Korean-American from Virginia finding his way in the world of professional cooking—is told in engaging conversational prose: from his abbreviated apprenticeships in New York and Tokyo (he was dumped by one Japanese chef for his devotion to the wrong noodle; "You're either soba or you're not," the master decreed) to the refinements of the two-Michelin-starred Ko (smoked eggs with caviar, shaved frozen foie gras), which he opened last year.

Chang is an ardent eater, and his book is in no small part a validation of the fatty, sticky-fingered, beer-slaked fare that you might find in Seoul, Tokyo, or Chengdu: dishes like pork rinds, ginger-scallion noodles, and fried chicken, which Chang has recently added to the Noodle Bar menu (in both battered Southern-style and triple-fried Korean-style versions). "I love, love, love, love, love fried chicken," writes Chang with his typical zeal, which is often offset by a touch of Larry David-esque self-loathing. "I will eat the worst fried chicken and love it."

Chang has absolved himself of the sometimes burdensome quest for authenticity. His is a hip-hop cuisine, intensely urban, globally sampled, pulsing with overlapping beats of umami, pork fat, and comfort-food nostalgia. The ramen broth I made from the cookbook had the customary kombu (kelp) and pork bones but was also flavored with a pound of bacon. I found myself drawn to simpler recipes like that one and the one for his addictive soy- pickled mushrooms. Still, the assemblage of ingredients seemed epic at times: when I made Momofuku's ramen, I was brewing broth, seasoning sauce, roasting pork belly and shoulder, and slow-poaching eggs (a nifty trick) for most of a weekend. Still, diving into the bowl made me feel as if I'd won the lottery or, less likely, found an empty bar stool at one of Chang's restaurants.

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