In May 2016 David Chang appeared on The Bill Simmons Podcast, before this episode dropped I had heard exchanges between Simmons and his college friend and frequent podcast guest, Joe House, about the seemingly mystical spicy chicken sandwiches offered at Momofuku.
This was mere weeks before I was prepared to leave the 518 for only the second extended stint in my entire life to take on an internship in New York City and with nothing to cling to, no familiarity in the greatest city in the world, I immediately gravitated to those chicken sandwiches.
My Postmates bill that summer was astronomical, primarily due to Fuku+ orders from their 53rd Street location. And on my final full day in New York I walked to the physical location for the first time, which is so beautifully simple, and grabbed an order to go before settling in for the first game of what would be Chelsea’s Premier League winning campaign on a Monday against West Ham United. The perfect conclusion to the my summer in the city.
Fast forward about 9 months and I’m back in New York. About to start a job at the same place I interned and 2 days after I moved away from the Capital District for the first time, a Fuku and Nike collaboration would be releasing at Fuku’s main spot on 1st Avenue. Two of the brands that I hold dear were coming together to make a beautiful baby and I was determined to be a part of it.
But, before we get to that we have to back up.
In the 1960’s Chang’s parents emigrated to the United States, his father North Korean and his mother South Korean and they’d go from New York City to Washington D.C. and eventually the Momofuku founder would be born in Vienna, Virginia.
His father would turn the $50 in his pocket upon his arrival in the United States into the American dream, at first in the form of a few delis and then a successful golf supplies business.
Chang himself would thrive at golf as a junior player before his self-professed hot headed attitude would end his competitive playing days, that in retrospect made way for the gift he’s given us in the decade-plus since.
But, this temper, this rage, to use a brutal cliche, would be the fire that helped mold his career. I always tell people that nothing great emerges without a certain level of pettiness and Chang has certainly used this as a tool to forge his vision.
[Chang on his banned customers list]…That’s the kind of rage I used to wake up with and go to bed with. Basically the only people that were on that list had said, “You can’t do this. Fuck you Dave. Momofuku sucks. We don’t believe in you. You’re a fucking scourge on this earth, get the fuck out of the restaurant industry.” The fatwa was declared against those people.
Chang would go on to study religious studies at Trinity College, inspired by his own movement away from the Korean Presbyterian Church and would become enamored with Henry David Thoreau as well as marijuana. Not necessarily your typical recipe for a future businessman.
Again, while interested in this subject matter, his next step was as different as golf to studying religion. He would spend six months at the French Culinary Institute. And this type of diversion from the norm would become a theme, the primary theme, going forward and it was as he learned what these themes were supposed to be that he enabled himself and those around him to shatter them.
I think [Eleven Madison Park chef] Daniel Humm said it best: “It’s hard to break the rules until you know what the rules are.”
Following a stint working the dinner shift at Mercer Kitchen and answering phones on the side, Chang landed an opportunity through a connection of an aunt to work in a ramen bar in Tokyo that came with the perk of living in a homeless shelter. And though that didn’t last long, his experience in Japan contributed to what would become his own culinary personality.
The culture that surrounded him while there and the level of food, despite being dirt cheap, presented a quality that dwarfed that which was available in Manhattan.
He would end up landing a gig at Café Boulud, working 15 hour shifts with 2 hours of prep time each day to boot, sacrificing his body for food.
It was chip-on-your-shoulder cooking, like, all these other restaurants have twice as many cooks, all this new equipment, and we’re gonna fucking outcook them with nothing but our sheer will and technique.
This “us against the world” mentality that was established by Andrew Carmellini at Boulud, this relentlessness, would follow Chang into his own endeavors later on.
… I haven’t been spending that much time in this restaurant because of all the shit that’s been going on,” he began, “but the past two days I’ve had aneurisms because I’ve been so upset at the kitchen. On the cooks’ end, I question your integrity. Are you willing to fucking sacrifice yourself for the food? Yesterday, we had an incident with fish cakes: they weren’t properly cut. Does it really matter in the bowl of ramen? No. But for personal integrity as a cook, this is what we do, and I don’t think you guys fucking care enough. It takes those little things, the properly cut scallions, to set us apart from Uno’s and McDonald’s. If we don’t step up our game, we’re headed toward the middle, and I don’t want to fucking work there.
While at Boulud turmoil at home would begin to impact Chang. Fighting between his father and eldest brother over the family business and his mother’s cancer diagnosis would leave him so shaky that he was unable to sauce plates. And eventually this would lead him to the realization that he wasn’t a world class chef as conventionally defined. And as a result would define his idea of cooking.
The whole idea of ugly-delicious was, how do I make food that I’m comfortable making again? As I’ve gotten older, I’ve embraced all the things that I truly love eating. I’m not embarrassed about it anymore. Now I’m just like, I don’t give a fuck.
And with that knowledge he would return home to care for his mother and devise a plan.
A plan that would lead him to asking his father for start up money in the form of nearly $200,000 and signing his first lease for a storefront on First Avenue and Tenth Street in 2004 would soon follow.
With the help of a cook, Joaquin Bacca, who he found via a monster.com advert, he formed the would be foundation for one of the most beloved chefs and brands we have today.
Working seven days a week, ramen with shredded pork for $7, Momofuku ramen with pork and a poached egg for $12 and a cash only debut restaurant, the heat would intensify and his the shaping of his version of dining would continue.
We’re not the best cooks, we’re not the best restaurant—if you were a really good cook you wouldn’t be working here, because really good cooks are assholes. But we’re gonna try our best, and that’s as a team.
And since this initial spot 13 years ago, Chang has defied the norms and has had his mix of successes and failures that he’s used to keep molding that vision. The thing about David Chang is that there isn’t a finish line in his mind, if a finish line materializes that means they didn’t do enough.
The shitty part is when we’re not changing enough — whether it’s hubris or laziness, we are content — that scares the shit out of me
He’s a restauranteur, a television personality, Momofuku Ko has retained 2 Michelin Stars each year since its initial recognition in 2009, he’s seen his magazine, Lucky Peach, go under, he’s won numerous James Beard Awards, he’s had restaurants close, and now he’s had a Nike collaboration.
That takes us to the present.
Lean On by Major Lazer echoes from my phone to signify 7 AM. I roll out of bed in my studio apartment in the Financial District, 2 steps from work, but 2 miles from Fuku’s 1st Avenue location.
I shower, eat, and begin my journey out of the suit clad Wall Street bubble, through the almost fantastical and legendary New York City China Town to the final .65 miles on First Avenue. And then I see it as I approach at 8:20 AM.
A small line emerges ahead of me and I almost turn back, thinking about the discouraging e-mail I received from a Fuku staff member stating that there would be “limited quantities,” but I decide I’ve got nothing better to do with work not starting for another 86 or so hours.
And immediately folks started taking up the real estate behind me, and then taking up the whole block, and then around the corner. A line that started at 6:30 AM, three and a half hours before the scheduled release, would escape my line of sight by 9:30.
Dog owners, senior citizens, the bros behind me who claimed to be resellers and “day traders” (despite not being able to accurately explain index funds) and every demographic and socioeconomic inhabitant in-between would gather in a cluster awaiting the metaphorical gold at the end of the rainbow.
A Nike SB Dunk Pro “Momofuku” was the prize that awaited the timely and resilient.
Chang’s team wears dark gray — the same gray that inspired the ground color of the Nike SB Dunk High Pro “Momofuku.” “We wanted it to suggest an apron, basically,” Chang said.
And as the clock ticked by employees made the rounds with donuts from Dunkin’ Donuts to the initial short line. And the clock ticked by further and further. Later it would become known that the credit card machines were having issues, which delayed the release by nearly 90 minutes.
And as I wait in line, almost certain that there was no way I would be able to land a pair of 10.5s, more employees came down the line with chicken sandwiches, followed by another wave with strawberry-lemonade slushies.
And then Chang himself, an unlikely hero of mine that joined the likes of sports heroes, emerged and made his way down the line and was greeted like a rock star, as if Elvis Presley just came out onstage at HIC Arena in Hawaii back in 1973.
Petting dogs, stopping to shake hands and take pictures, he made his way down the entire stretch of bodies, which seemed to go on indefinitely.
And once he greeted everyone and I mean everyone, he returned to his base and just like that way the line began moving, little by little. Three, four, five at a time, people were let into Fuku and within minutes of their entrance they would emerge with tote bags printed with the famous peach and the Nike SB logo.
As I waited anxiously to see if my spot in line was good enough, if my alarm had been adequately set, an angry attendee emerged screaming at one of the employees who had diligently served us as we waited, “Do you know how much fucking time I wasted!,” and was answered with a shrug and nervous laughter.
And as he began soliciting those in line with offers for 10’s and 10.5’s the aforementioned reseller and day trader behind me began clamoring about how 10.5 was the most popular size in the United States, despite the global average being a 9.
I am an aforementioned 10.5. And I am sweating assuming my size has been completely snatched up.
Finally, I get summoned into the Mecca for the day. I wait around the wooden high top bar that stands between the door and the counter admiring the edited menu board to feature the day’s main attraction.
I see a tank top wearing, long-haired employee asking for sizes of those in line before radioing to the back. I hesitantly squeak out “ten and a half,” awaiting rejection, before he radios back and then nods. I have secured my piece of history for the price of 3 hours in line, 4 miles round trip on foot, a wicked sunburn on the left side of my body and $110.
I step up to the counter and throw my (dad’s) credit card (I couldn’t take any chances with my debit card having insufficient funds) and managed to utter “just the shoes.”
My tote bag with the shoes I have been day dreaming about in line are handed to me, and then I see him. David Chang, sitting in the corner of the restaurant with a sharpie chopping it up with those who have made it to the promised land.
I make my way over and wait while he wraps up a conversation with a shopper that shares a mutual friend. When my turn arrives I utter gibberish and make sure to let him know the wait was worth it and thank him before fumbling with my newly signed box just for a chance to shake his hand.
I wish I could have found the words to thank him more personally, strangely thank him, for a simple chicken sandwich that has defined my brief time in New York City.
This post contains quotes and anecdotes originally published in tremendous pieces written about David Chang that can be found below and should definitely be checked out:
NY Eater (again)