TORONTO (Reuters Life!) - Chef David Chang says that after seven years of building his critically acclaimed Momofuku restaurant empire in New York, he’s ready to start exploring the bounty of other cities around the globe.
Known for his American-Asian brand of aggressive, adventurous comfort food, Chang, 33, is set to bring his unapologetic, un-fine dining culinary crusade to Sydney in the autumn and Toronto late next year.
He spoke to Reuters from New York about setting up in new cities and the bane of his existence — the pork bun that made him famous.
Q: How would you describe your approach to food?
A: “It’s not fine dining ... that much I know we were aiming for. The only thing that I want, sort of similar, to our New York restaurants is that we want to be a place where you can eat very well in a casual atmosphere ... I think the big Asian flavors that we’re always after are umami ... So we’re using American ingredients to replicate Asian flavors as much as we can. Umami is the fifth taste, it’s meaty, you can actually get it as monosodium glutamate. Umami is the natural form, MSG is the synthetic form. That’s a formula that we’re always after.”
Q: Why Sydney and Toronto?
A: “It sucks to be in New York in the summer, it’s terrible, so we can go to Sydney and work. We can work with new ingredients, it can be rejuvenating. We can bring people as a reward to go work in Sydney (and) the more I visited Toronto, the more I understood that ... it’s a great place to live.”
Q: How did your early experiences working in Tokyo and some of New York’s most reputable restaurants shape what you did on your own?
A: “I think if I had achieved more as a cook, I probably would not have tried to do (Momofuku) Noodle Bar ... I love the culinary aspect of fine dining but I didn’t love everything else that came along with it, the baggage ... It’s not that I was against it, it was also like ‘Well, I’m never going to be able to do this,’ you know, so why don’t I try doing something else.’”
Q: You have a reputation as the bad boy of American cuisine. What is the most outrageous thing you’ve done lately?
A: “I barely go out, I don’t drink ... I’m as boring and vanilla as you can get in my private life ... I’m not trying to be outrageous ... I think we’ve gotten less outspoken and more mellow over the past seven years.”
Q: You’ve warmed up to the idea of reservations. Are you still uncompromising about substitutions and vegetarian options?
A: “There are certain people that I adore in terms of the culinary world that literally have severe allergies, whether it’s to a cherry or to shellfish, people that I know have a ... real allergy. When I say vegetarians, we don’t want to cook for vegetarians ... there’s a lot of restaurants out there ... And when I see stupid allergies, I remember a recent request from someone saying I am allergic to green peppers but not yellow and red peppers. Really?”
Q: You’ve said it’s weird to be famous for something, your pork buns in particular.
A: Yeah, it’s weird and it’s also sort of like the bane of my existence. I wouldn’t be here now talking to you about anything if it wasn’t for those pork buns. It’s a blessing and a curse. If you don’t serve it people will riot ... and while we didn’t create it we certainly have seen imitators and now people are like ‘Oh, Momofuku pork buns aren’t as good as this place’s pork buns, and I’m just like well, OK good for them ... I don’t want to be famous. I’ll do whatever is best for the restaurant but it’s not like I want to be famous for anything. I’d rather be anonymous and forgotten.”
Pan-roasted asparagus, poached egg & miso butter (serves 4)
1/2 cup shiro (white) miso
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more if needed
1/2 pound thin to medium asparagus
2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
4 slow-poached eggs or regular poached eggs
Freshly ground black pepper
1) Make the miso butter: Combine the miso with 5 tablespoons of the butter in a small bowl and beat with a wooden spoon until well mixed; the butter should be one color, not a streaky mess. Reserve until needed; you can refrigerate it, well wrapped, for up to a few weeks.
2) Snap off the woodier bottom inch or so of each asparagus stalk. Use a vegetable peeler to shave away the tougher outer layer from each stalk, but don’t get carried away: you probably won’t need to peel the stalks more than 2 or so inches up from the trimmed end.
3) Heat the remaining 3 tablespoons butter in a wide skillet over medium-high heat. Line a plate with paper towels for draining the asparagus. When the butter sends up the first wisp of smoke, put the asparagus in the pan. (Do not overcrowd the pan; cook in batches if necessary, draining each one, and refreshing the butter if the butter from the first batch smells scorched.) When the asparagus start to take on some color, 2 to 3 minutes, season them with a generous pinch of salt and turn the heat down to medium. Turn them with a spoon or spatula so they can color on the second side, another few minutes. When the asparagus are nicely browned and tender (but not exactly soft), transfer them to the paper towels to drain.
4) While the asparagus are cooking, heat the sherry vinegar in a small saucepan over medium heat. After half a minute, add the miso butter, turn the heat to low, and stir to warm it through. When the butter has loosened slightly, it should still have a certain viscosity to it and shouldn’t be melted, remove the pan from the burner and put it in a warm spot.
5) Season the cooked asparagus with another pinch of salt if needed. Smear a quarter of the warmed miso butter into a thickish puddle in the middle of each plate. Divide the asparagus among the plates and top each with an egg. Finish each dish with a few turns of black pepper, and serve at once.
Reporting by Claire Sibonney; Editing by Patricia Reaney