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Fast-food creation

David Chang, chef-owner of New York's Momofuku Noodle Bar, has been selected as one of Food & Wine magazine's best new chefs for 2006. (Grant Delin)
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David Chang has been known to disparage his experience at French Culinary Institute. And while he seems to want to distance himself from the criticism he has leveled at the New York cooking school – “I liked the French Culinary Institute; I did learn a lot,” Chang says now – he still doesn’t believe that the six-month training offered there was the best education experience.”A lot of students want to take the shortcut route to being a top chef, a celebrity chef,” said the 28-year-old Chang, by phone from New York. “I’m not a fan of the short-term, super-expensive cooking course. It’s not like you go to, say, journalism school and call yourself a journalist.”I think it’s better to work in kitchens.”So Chang, whose father made a career in restaurants, owning several American bistros in the Washington, D.C., area some years ago, made his way into the kitchen. Several of the top kitchens in New York, in fact: first Mercer Kitchen, then Craft (described by New York magazine as “the most influential restaurant to open in New York this decade”), and finally Café Boulud (owned by Daniel Boulud, of the New York landmark, Daniel). In those upper-echelon spots, Chang received the education he was seeking. Mostly what he learned was that he didn’t have the stomach for making complicated, expensive dishes for a fine-dining clientele. Chang didn’t even complete the one-year hitch he had signed up for at Café Boulud.Chang says there were a lot of things going on at the time, including some family situations. Mostly, however, he says, “I didn’t like cooking that food anymore. I liked the atmosphere – it’s raw, intense, busy. But there’s too many fine-dining restaurants, and everyone’s doing the same thing. And they were all better than me. None of my friends came in there.”I was thinking, what does the future hold for me? The chance of getting my own kitchen was slim to none. For me, fine dining was dead.”Actually, the chance of opening a place like those to which Chang had become accustomed was slight. But if he adjusted his sights mightily downward, he could open a restaurant and escape the rarefied realm of fine dining.”I told everyone I was opening a noodle bar,” said Chang. “Everyone said, ‘Yeah, right.'”Chang was completely serious – so serious that, before taking the job at Caf; Boulud, he spent a year in Japan, hopping from jobs in one noodle bar to the next. Chang, a native of Arlington, Va., worked in shops that specialized in ramen noodles and in soba noodles, in shops with 12 seats.

Returning to New York, Chang had his heart set on Japanese cuisine. But he had little interest in sushi and, consequently, just as little attraction to any of the Japanese restaurants in New York. “People said, you should work for the best chef, which was Andrew Carmellini, at Café Boulud,” he said.Of his decision to leave Caf; Boulud early, Chang says, “I’ll take that to my grave.” However, it’s hard to imagine that if he could do it over, he’d do it any differently. Two years ago, Chang opened Momofuku, with his co-chef and co-owner, Joaquin Baca. The location, First Avenue between 10th and 11th streets, is a long walk from the epicenter of Manhattan’s dining scene. Momofuku opened with 27 seats, five items on its menu, two employees and few customers.”The restaurant is the size of … I can’t think of anything that small in Aspen,” said Dana Cowin, editor in chief of Food & Wine magazine. “It’s a hole in the wall, with plywood chairs and tables.” Chang practically boasts when he says Momofuku is “cramped, wildly uncomfortable.”Despite the modest dcor, and even more modest food – noodle shops are the Japanese equivalent of fast food – Momofuku has captured the attention of the restaurant industry. Chang is working on a second spot – Momofuku Ssäm Bar, specializing in ssäm, a dish he compares to Chinese mu shu – set to open this summer. At the Food & Wine Magazine Classic in Aspen, which runs today through Sunday, Chang will be celebrated as one of Food & Wine’s 10 Best New Chefs. He will certainly be the only one of the group who focuses on the noodle.Chang has no desire to replicate the noodle experience he witnessed in Japan in New York’s East Village. Instead, he aimed to elevate the experience. The menu – now up to some 30 items – changes seasonally, based on what fresh ingredients Chang can find in local markets. Momofuku uses heirloom Berkshire pigs and slow-poached eggs. Where most American noodle bars import stabilizer-filled noodles from California or Japan, Change gets his fresh from New York’s Chinatown, a few subway stops away.”From day one, the goal was to serve great food at an affordable price,” said Chang. “I couldn’t cook better than my peers in a fine-dining room. But I could do better than the neighborhood restaurant, which doesn’t necessarily use the best ingredients. I just try to get the better ingredients. At the end of the day, it’s how good your ingredients are.”

When I mentioned Momofuku to Ryan Hardy, chef at The Little Nell, Hardy’s response was one he probably would not have had if I had brought up the latest high-concept New York eatery. “Tell him to open one up in Aspen,” exclaimed Hardy.The success of Momofuku, and Hardy’s enthusiasm for a noodle shop, indicate what may be a sea change in dining. Fine dining is on the way down. In Aspen, Hardy points out the closing a few years ago of Charles Dale’s Renaissance, which for a decade set the standard for Aspen restaurants, and the quick failure of the ultra high-end Manrico. D19, on the other hand – which Hardy says “couldn’t be more grass-roots” – has thrived in its six months.The 30-year-old Hardy started his career with an interest in fine dining. “It was awe-inspiring,” he said. But the sense of awe washed away instantly after an overwhelming meal at a restaurant he won’t name.”It was way over the top, too long, too much food. I went back to the kitchen and decided, this was not right,” he said. Hardy traveled to Europe and became entranced by a more low-key experience. “Everyday kinds of meals were always more family-style food, traditional food. Those were the meals that blew me away. “That’s when I found my niche,” continued Hardy, who has tried to instill comfort and simplicity in the fine setting of The Little Nell. “I want people to feel relaxed and casual about their food. I don’t want to blow people away with foam, and smoke and mirrors.”Hardy notes that the current drive toward seasonal and organic ingredients is happening away from the highest-end restaurants. You dont see that in Ferrn Adra, at El Bulli, whos kind of the father of ultra-modern cuisine, said Hardy.Chang and Hardy agree that a major problem with the upper end of dining is that it’s far too crowded. “There are too many restaurants and not enough talent,” said Chang. Hardy says that apart from four New York spots – Per Se, Daniel, Jean-Georges and Le Bernardin – “all the hot places to go are little neighborhood bistros with great salads, great pizzas.”



One of Chang’s favorite things about Momofuku is the clientele. His friends eat there regularly. He has gotten immense support from the culinary industry.The one segment that remains unimpressed are Japanese diners. “Most of them go, ‘Eech!’ They’d give me an ‘F’,” said Chang. He compares it to a German chef who opens a barbecue joint, using German produce. A diner from Memphis, who grew up immersed in a barbecue culture, probably wouldn’t go for the German twist on a pulled pork sandwich.”That’s what happens with 99 percent of Japanese expats,” said Chang. “And I understand that. It’s a bastardization of what they’ve done.”Chang says it is out of respect for Japanese culture that he has Americanized his noodles. Unable to get top-quality dried bonita for his soups, he uses instead a bacon base – unheard of in Japan. “If you want Japanese food, go to Japan,” he said. “We’re in America; I’m cooking American food. I have too much respect for Japanese culture and food to try to mimic that verbatim.”We’re different. We took ramen and made it our own. We didn’t dumb it down. Momofuku has taken on a persona that reflects who we really are.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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