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Taking a different path to his own kitchen

Submitted PhotoDavid Chang
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ASPEN David Chang has been known to disparage his experience at French Culinary Institute. And while he seems to want to distance himself from the criticism he has leveled at the New York cooking school I liked the French Culinary Institute; I did learn a lot, Chang says now he still doesnt believe that the six-month training offered there was the best education experience.A lot of students want to take the shortcut route to being a top chef, a celebrity chef, said the 28-year-old Chang, by phone from New York. Im not a fan of the short-term, super-expensive cooking course. Its not like you go to, say, journalism school and call yourself a journalist.I think its better to work in kitchens.So Chang, whose father made a career in restaurants, including having owned several American bistros in the Washington, D.C. area some years ago, made his way into the kitchen. Several of the top kitchens in New York, in fact: first Mercer Kitchen, then Craft (described by New York magazine as the most influential restaurant to open in New York this decade) and finally, Caf Boulud (owned by Daniel Boulud, of the New York landmark, Daniel). In those upper-echelon spots, Chang received the education he was seeking. Mostly what he learned was that he didnt have the stomach for making complicated, expensive dishes for a fine-dining clientele. Chang didnt even complete the one-year hitch he had signed up for at Caf Boulud.Chang says there were a lot of things going on at the time, including some family situations. Mostly, however, he says, I didnt like cooking that food anymore. I liked the atmosphere its raw, intense, busy. But theres too many fine-dining restaurants, and everyones doing the same thing. And they were all better than me. None of my friends came in there.I was thinking, what does the future hold for me? The chance of getting my own kitchen was slim to none. For me, fine dining was dead.Actually, the chance of opening a place like those to which Chang had become accustomed was slight. But if he adjusted his sights mightily downward, he could open a restaurant and escape the rarefied realm of fine dining.I told everyone I was opening a noodle bar, said Chang. Everyone said, Yeah, right.Chang was completely serious so serious that, before taking the job at Caf Boulud, he spent a year in Japan, hopping from jobs in one noodle bar to the next. Chang, a native of Arlington, Va., worked in shops that specialized in ramen noodles and in soba noodles, in shops with 12 seats.Returning to New York, Chang had his heart set on Japanese cuisine. But he had little interest in sushi and, consequently, just as little attraction to any of the Japanese restaurants in New York. People said, you should work for the best chef, which was Andrew Carmellini, at Caf Boulud, he said.

Of his decision to leave Caf Boulud early, Chang says, Ill take that to my grave. Its hard to imagine, though, that, if he could do it over, hed do it any differently.Two years ago, Chang opened Momofuku, with his co-chef and co-owner, Joaquin Baca. The location, First Avenue between 10th and 11th streets, is a long walk from the epicenter of Manhattans dining scene. Momofuku opened with 27 seats, five items on its menu, two employees and few customers.The restaurant is the size of I cant think of anything that small in Aspen, said Dana Cowin, editor in chief of Food & Wine magazine. Its a hole in the wall, with plywood chairs and tables. Chang practically boasts when he says Momofuku is cramped, wildly uncomfortable.Despite the modest dcor, and even more modest food noodle shops are the Japanese equivalent of fast food Momofuku has captured the attention of the restaurant industry. Chang is working on a second spot Momofuku Ssm Bar, specializing in ssm, a dish he compares to Chinese mu shu set to open this summer. At the Food & Wine Magazine Classic in Aspen, which runs through Sunday, Chang will be celebrated as one of Food & Wines 10 Best New Chefs. He will certainly be the only one of the group who focuses on the noodle.Chang has had no desire to replicate the noodle experience he witnessed in Japan in New Yorks East Village. Instead, he has aimed to elevate the experience. The menu now up to some 30 items changes seasonally, based on what fresh ingredients Chang can find in local markets. Momofuku uses heirloom Berkshire pigs and slow-poached eggs. Where most American noodle bars import stabilizer-filled noodles from California or Japan, Change gets his fresh from New Yorks Chinatown, a few subway stops away.From day one, the goal was to serve great food at an affordable price, said Chang. I couldnt cook better than my peers in a fine dining room. But I could do better than the neighborhood restaurant, which doesnt necessarily use the best ingredients. I just try to get the better ingredients. At the end of the day, its how good your ingredients are.

When I mentioned Momofuku to Ryan Hardy, chef at the Little Nell, Hardys response was one he probably would not have had if I had brought up the latest high-concept New York eatery. Tell him to open one up in Aspen, exclaimed Hardy.The success of Momofuku, and Hardys enthusiasm for a noodle shop, indicate what may be a sea change in dining. Fine-dining is on the way down. In Aspen, Hardy points out the closing a few years ago of Charles Dales Renaissance, which for a decade set the standard for Aspen restaurants, and the quick failure of the ultra high-end Manrico. D19, on the other hand which Hardy says couldnt be more grassroots has thrived in its six months.The 30-year-old Hardy started his career with an interest in fine dining. It was awe-inspiring, he said. But the sense of awe washed away instantly after an overwhelming meal at a restaurant he wont name.It was way over the top, too long, too much food. I went back to the kitchen and decided, this was not right, he said. Hardy traveled to Europe, and became entranced by a more low-key experience. Everyday kinds of meals were always more family-style food, traditional food. Those were the meals that blew me away. Thats when I found my niche, continued Hardy, who has tried to instill comfort and simplicity in the fine setting of the Little Nell. I want people to feel relaxed and casual about their food. I dont want to blow people away with foam, and smoke and mirrors.Hardy notes that the current drive toward seasonal and organic ingredients is happening away from the highest-end restaurants. You dont see that in Ferrn Adra, at El Bulli, whos kind of the father of ultra-modern cuisine, said Hardy.Chang and Hardy agree that a major problem with the upper-end of dining is that its far too crowded. There are too many restaurants and not enough talent, said Chang. Hardy says that apart from four New York spots Per Se, Daniel, Jean-Georges and Le Bernardin all the hot places to go are little neighborhood bistros with great salads, great pizzas.



One of Changs favorite things about Momofuku is the clientele. His friends eat there regularly. He says he has gotten immense support from the culinary industry.The one segment that remains unimpressed are Japanese diners. Most of them go, Eech! Theyd give me an F, said Chang. He compares it to a German chef who opens a BBQ joint, using German produce. A diner from Memphis, who grew up immersed in a BBQ culture, probably wouldnt go for the German twist on a pulled pork sandwich.Thats what happens with 99 percent of Japanese expats, said Chang. And I understand that. Its a bastardization of what theyve done.Chang says it is out of respect for Japanese culture that he has Americanized his noodles. Unable to get top-quality dried bonita for his soups, he uses instead a bacon base unheard of in Japan.If you want Japanese food, go to Japan, he said. Were in America; Im cooking American food. I have too much respect for Japanese culture and food to try to mimic that verbatim.Were different. We took ramen and made it our own. We didnt dumb it down. Momofuku has taken on a persona that reflects who we really are.Stewart Oksenhorns e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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