Chef Chang's Momofuku: A Romance With Ramen A hip New York chef makes food inspired by his love for fresh, simple ingredients and classic Asian dishes. David Chang has four restaurants in his Momofuku empire and has just published a cookbook.
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Chef Chang's Momofuku: A Romance With Ramen

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Chef Chang's Momofuku: A Romance With Ramen

Chef Chang's Momofuku: A Romance With Ramen

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The New York City restaurant scene can be fierce, competitive and bankrupting, but David Chang is doing well. Thirty-two years old, he already has four critically acclaimed restaurants, another on the way. Now he's written a cookbook.

NPR's David Gura has this profile.

DAVID GURA: On a weekday at lunch, Momofuku Noodle Bar in the East Village is packed with people. Customers gathered outside the restaurant before it opened. Now they've crowded around wood tables. They line the bar that borders the open kitchen.

Michael Bedrick(ph) is from Manhattan. He says he's been to the restaurant once a week, every week, for two years.

Mr. MICHAEL BEDERICK: You have to be somewhat adventurous here, I think, to have the full experience. I don't think you want to just come here and have the ramen. I mean, you should have the ramen, but you should sort of experiment here. That's what it's about. It's sort of an alchemy of different things.

GURA: It is eclectic. There are pickled cherries and Tokyo turnips, pan roasted asparagus with miso butter and Szechuan crawfish with dried red chilies, soy sauce and scallions. But it's the ramen that made Momofuku famous.

Ms. HOSEFA CONCANNON(ph): There is pieces of pork bellies, of poached eggs, some crispy pork shoulder, some greens and a really beautifully done ramen noodle. The texture is lovely. It has a really nice toothiness to it.

GURA: Diner Hosefa Concannon is from Chicago. The proprietor of this place, the head chef, David Chang, is a bear of a guy with a boyish face. He's Korean-American, he grew up in Virginia just outside of Washington, and he worked hard to get those noodles to taste just right, to get that nice toothiness Concannon liked.

Chang traveled to Japan, where he ate a lot of ramen, and he started cooking professionally before it was cool, he says.

Mr. DAVID CHANG (Head Chef, Momofuku): All my friends were like, you're an idiot, what the hell were you doing? Come bank, go bank, be a lawyer, be a doctor, work at this dotcom. Everyone was working at a dotcom. Now it's different. It's very strange that you can get recognition because of cooking. I have a hard time dealing with that.

GURA: By now Chang's gotten plenty of recognition - certainly enough to silence his college buddies. James Beard awards, Michelin stars, and lots of good reviews. He says that his rise to the top of the New York restaurant world was fast, but it wasn't easy.

Peter Meehan used to review restaurants for the New York Times. He remembers his first visit to Chang's noodle bar, which used to be just up the street in a tiny space in an old fried chicken shop no wider than a one-car garage.

Mr. PETER MEEHAN (Restaurant Critic): The first time I went there, it was pretty bad. You know, the noodles were overcooked, the ramen was too salty.

GURA: It was so bad, he didn't even review it.

Mr. MEEHAN: And then about six months later I kept hearing from people that this place is great, you got to go back, you got to go back. And I went back and, you know, I was head over heels about it and went back a few times and wrote a pretty glowing review of it.

GURA: Chang got a following and a reputation - for his cooking, for his irreverence, and, Meehan says, for his temper.

Mr. MEEHAN: Korean termites was what they called the holes he used to punch in the wall of all the kitchens, you know. There was a point where they had, like, 20 pictures of Frank Bruni all up over the kitchen walls, but it was basically just to cover holes in the drywall that Dave had punched.

GURA: There's still a photo of Frank Bruni, the former restaurant critic for the New York Times, on the wall downstairs. But Chang has settled down. He's learning how to be a better manager and the walls look pretty solid.

But fame has taken its toll on him. His restaurant has grown into a small empire, he travels around the world to conferences, to give speeches, to judge cooking competitions.

Mr. CHANG: I am still burned out. I had to, like, look up the term burn-out and it seemed like I had the checklist and everything was there. I was like, I just tired of looking at food, tired of thinking about food, tired of it all, but I still love it, if that makes any sense. And I have been able to work with food, but not on an everyday basis.

GURA: We head into the kitchen, which is bustling. He's at home here - no question. The lunch rush is on and Chang's team of chefs is scrambling to prepare for dinner. Chang grabs a piece of striped bass, some thyme, some garlic, a hunk of butter, and he gets to work.

In a couple of minutes, the fish is on a plate with a side of broccoli romanesco. David Chang's food is hard to classify. Is it Japanese? He dismisses that suggestion. Korean? No. It's not that either. It's delicious, he says, and American.

Mr. MEEHAN: The Dave Chang cop-out on that is pretty good. Sometimes he calls it bad pseudo-fusion cuisine.

GURA: Peter Meehan is working with David Chang to, in his words, reclaim the word fusion, to give it new meaning. He's out of the reviewing business and he and Chang have collaborated on a new cookbook. And in that book there's the recipe for that famous ramen. And if you decide to make it, clear your calendar - it's time intensive and it isn't easy. From broth to bamboo shoots, it takes up almost 20 pages.

David Gura, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: And you can find David Chang's recipe for Fuji apple salad with kimchi and smoked jowl - whose jowl? - on our Web site, NPR.org.

You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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