I have been following chef David Chang's career for a long time. He's best known for his Momofuku restaurant empire, and you may recognize him from his many TV shows (Mind of a Chef, Ugly Delicious or Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner) or hearing him on popular podcasts, like Dax Shepard's Armchair Expert.
When I learned he was coming out with a memoir, I knew right away I wanted to read it. Not just because I love dining out or I am in awe of the creativity of chefs, but because Chang has always been arrestingly honest about his struggles with mental illness.
This book takes you through each chapter of Chang's life so far, beginning with his struggles to fit in as a Korean American. He speaks openly about his parents and their tense relationship.
On page five, he writes, "Yes, they scold and punish us for poor grades adn the slightest misbehavior, but it's not just tough love. It is love that feels distinctly conditional. The downside to the term tiger parenting entering the mainstream vocabulary is that it gives a cute name to what is actually a painful and demoralizing existence. It also feeds into the perception that all Asian kids are book smart because their parents make it so. Well, guess what. It's not true. Not all our parents are tiger parents, tiger parenting doesn't always work, and not all Asian kids are good at school. In fact, not all Asian kids are any one thing. To be young and Asian in America often means fighting a multifront war against sameness."
If you are unfamiliar with Chang's story, it may surprise you to learn he was a competitive golfer for much of his childhood. In the book, he admits that he used to crush the competition until he started to get nervous about what other people thought of him. The more he worried, the more he underperformed.
He would give up golf, head to a private high school (weirdly the same school Brett Kavanaugh went to) and eventually land at Trinity College in Connecticut. Post-graduation, he was a bit aimless, until he made his way to Japan. There, he fell in love with the cuisine and became obsessed with how he could make Japanese-inspired food in the States.
Chang did go to culinary school and eventually found himself learning the ropes at Craft under Tom Colicchio (yes, the head judge on Bravo's Top Chef).
One of the most interesting sections of the book is Chang's retelling of his quest to open Momofuku Noodle Bar, his very first place in the East Village in New York City. He shares harrowing tales about the finances, the Health Department, the broken air conditioning, the neighbors who complained about the dumpster outside and certain smells. If you think a restaurant owner is simply the visionary for the food concept, think again.
Weirdly, Chang's inspiration for his second restaurant, Momofuku Ssam Bar, came from, of all places, Chipotle. On page 74, he explains, "I was never interested in doing anything fancy. Even Noodle Bar was dangerously close to being too refined for my taste. What Steve Ells, Chipotle's founder, was dong to bring higher-quality food to the masses was almost more impressive to me than Ferran Adria's innovations at elBulli. A business like Chipotle touches many, many more people than a little restaurant overlooking a Catalonian cliff (and makes much more money). I worship Ferran, but I was never going to be an Adria. But if a guy like Ells could change how the world eats by making Mexican food for white people, I wanted to give it a try myself. I mean literally, I wanted to serve burritos."
On a related note, if you haven't listened to Steve Ells' episode of How I Built This with Guy Raz, you must.
As the Momofuku restaurant group expanded, Chang made more hires. Including Watertown, MA native, Tim Maslow. His father, Paul Maslow, owned Strip T's in Watertown for over 30 years and Tim was credited with revitalizing the menu after his stint in NYC with Chang.
Christina Tosi, founder of Milk Bar, also came from Momofuku. On page 151, Chang recalls, " . . . Tosi was this Brady Bunch-looking character who knit scarves for the regulars, but underneath she was a massively creative cook - gifted but never too self-serious. While the rest of us at Momofuku raged and roared, she was an assassin."
He continues, "Her ascent began at Ko. I had always viewed dessert as gratuitous, an incongruous moment where the pastry chef would inevitably interrupt the story you'd been trying to tell through the menu. But the desserts Tosi developed for Ko greatly enhanced our effort. The opening menu culminated with a McDonald's-inspired fried apple pie that could bring the Hamburglar to his knees, and a panna cotta that tasted exactly like the milk that's left at the bottom of the bowl when you finish all the cornflakes. If 'cereal milk' seems like a cliché flavor today, it's only because she fucking invented it."
The number of locations and roster of talented chefs in the Momofuku universe continued to grow and grow and eventually Chang decided to open a spot in Sydney, Australia. Hearing all the considerations that went into global expansion was fascinating. In 2021, Momofuku has 14 locations worldwide. Personally, I'd love to experience Majordomo in Los Angeles.
As the reader, you are moving through this professional timeline with Chang, riding the rollercoaster with him, including his candid confessions about his mental health. He details his meaningful conversations with his therapist, Dr. Eliot, as well as the different medications he tried over the years to temper his mood swings. It takes a certain kind of bravery to share these deeply personal struggles with the world. It didn't go unnoticed.
Lastly, on a personal note, I appreciated this advice Chang gave to young people interested in pursuing a career in restaurants, "You never know who is going to hold the keys to the castle. It's tempting to think you're too important to speak to the young intern who's been sent to interview you or the blogger who only has fifty followers. But if they approach you respectfully and earnestly, you should never be so stupid and arrogant as to dismiss them. If you brush off one too many smart kids, you're bound to make a lifelong enemy out of a future media mogul."
If it isn't clear from this lengthy review, I loved this book. I felt like I was sitting across from David Chang, in his home or at the bar at Momofuku, drinking and eating as he regaled me with the story of his life. I could hear his voice with every word. When I would have to pause and close the book for a bit, I felt like I was standing up from the table I was sharing with him and I didn't want to walk away.
If you enjoy food, restaurants or stories about triumph over adversity - Eat A Peach is for you.
*David Chang photo courtesy of NPR. All other photography by Molly Galler.