Potato Dashi Ramen with sour cream, Japanese yam, chive oil

David Chang’s Career Motivation from Momofuku Fame

The award-winning chef and TV host behind Momofuku and Majordomo Media inspired ICE students while discussing his book release.

David Chang's potato dashi ramen with sour cream, Japanese yam and chive oil. Photo by Andrew Bezek

Today, David Chang is a household name. The chef and founder of Momofuku has received six James Beard Awards including Best Chef: New York City in 2008 and Outstanding Chef in 2013. He was named Bon Appetit’s Chef of the Year in 2007 and recognized among Food & Wine's Best New Chefs in 2006, GQ's Men of the Year in 2007 and the 2010 Time 100.

While growing his restaurant empire, he launched Lucky Peach magazine and continues to host edgy food programs, from “Mind of a Chef” on PBS to “Ugly Delicious” on Netflix. More recently, Chef David hosted a roster of celebrities in food destinations on the Netflix documentary series, “Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner.” In 2018, he launched Majordomo Media, which hosts “The Dave Chang Show” podcast, covering restaurant industry issues with a range of thought-provoking guests.

Chef David joined ICE for a live stream about his culinary career in conjunction with the launch of his recently released memoir, “Eat a Peach.” Here are highlights from the star chef’s career advice at the virtual event.

On developing the Momofuku concept:

I had a lot of different jobs and I was very fortunate to work abroad. When I lived in Japan, I had real ramen for the first time. I knew that there was a discrepancy between the ramen that I was eating in Japan versus what was being served in America. It was the equivalent of saying, everyone in America knew what orange juice was, but they were only drinking frozen concentrate or Tang.

I was lucky enough to be at the right place when Japan was going through what was the beginning of a ramen boom. You had an entire generation of young people that said, “Screw it, I'm going to make ramen.” All of these new ways of making ramen started to develop. I saw that and I thought, wait, this is affordable, this is delicious, and people love it. Yet, in America, if you asked someone what ramen is, they’d think it's Cup Noodles. I didn't want to necessarily make ramen, but I wanted to do something that was an homage to it.

On introducing something new to the market:

It’s hard to describe how insane it was to tell people you were doing a noodle bar. People didn't even know what the hell that was. Nobody wants to be like, “I'm going to hitch my wagon to this guy. He's never proven anything.” That's why nobody wanted to work with me — I don't blame them. Even my friends didn't want to work with me. They were like, “No way, Chang, you're out of your mind. Why would I give up my position working at Per Se?”

Chef David Chang
Chef David Chang photo by Andrew Bezek

On forming a team:

Over the 16-plus years, we've been able to thankfully assemble some of the best and brightest in the entire business. I'm always in awe of how the hell that happened, so I'm very thankful.

Professional kitchen work is really a singular sport. Simultaneously a group activity, it's a team sport, too. In order to win, you have to realize that it's not about you, it's the benefit and the greater good of the team.

On leadership and building a devoted team:

You have to learn how to communicate. You can be the greatest chef in the world with the sickest recipe, but if you don't know how to get people to actually want to do it and to do it well, it's a bad recipe, right? You have to learn how to talk to people. You have to learn how to encourage people. You have to learn about their lives. You have to tailor how you speak to everybody. That's a lot of work.

It's going to take a great deal of empathy and patience and more importantly trying to add value, trying to understand that someone that you're teaching may more than likely not get it once or twice or three times. They more than likely will make a mistake. Your job is not to say, “Hey, you made a mistake.” Your job is to let them make a mistake. That's really hard to do.

The easiest way I can describe creating a winning environment (because I've been all kinds of bad parents) is to remind yourself that you can get anyone to do anything you want to do, especially if you're the chef in the kitchen. But, when your back is turned and you're away, is it the kind of environment where they're going to willingly want to do the right thing? That's integrity. Integrity in the kitchen is when you get no recognition whatsoever, but you still do it the right way. That's being selfless. You're going to get paid down the road, but it's not about you. That's really hard to do. I'm still struggling to do that.

On the chef community:

I stand on the shoulders of giants that came before me and are still here. That's what I think anyone that's entering this profession needs to understand: You didn't achieve anything, you've done nothing. I have done nothing. The only reason I'm allowed to do whatever I've done is because it has been allowed by everyone else before me.

On battling depression:

We need to destigmatize it. It's still too taboo of a subject. If I told you I was suffering from leukemia, nobody would be like, “Oh yeah, I can't believe you're not talking about it.” You want people to know, it's a mental illness, it isn’t anything different than any other physical ailment. Secondly, I think we need to address the chicken and egg scenario because a lot of professional kitchen environments seem to attract a lot of broken individuals, and we don't have a system that helps them out, whether that's the lack of legislation from the government that's providing benefits or the fact that we just don't have any system in place to give the proper structure and guidance to people entering this profession.

On race in the industry:

Everyone needs to ask themselves why the hell they're learning what they're learning and what was the source? I will say this: It's something I've battled a lot. By no means are my struggles even remotely close to what black culture has experienced in this country in the systemic racism. But effectively, you could see that microcosm in the restaurant world. There is not nearly enough diversity. There is not nearly enough representation, not nearly enough equality regardless of your skin color or gender, there just isn't. I think everyone in this business needs to look very hard at themselves. If you're telling yourself everything's okay, you're part of the f***ing problem.

On Rule No. 31 for Becoming a Chef — Keep your eyes on the prize:

Being a chef is one of the dumbest professions you can possibly enter. It's also the best job in the world. Don't take all of my warnings and negativity to mean that I don't love what I do, and please don't lose sight of what makes this job great. Feeding people is a beautiful act. With your cooking, you can transport people through time and space. You are a conduit for celebrations and a comfort in hard times. You champion the work of farmers and ranchers and artisans. You tell stories. You connect people and breakdown barriers. You are an artist. Don't forget it.

Pursue the best job in the world with a solid foundation from Culinary Arts at ICE.

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