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Chef Chang's Momofuku: A Romance With Ramen

Momofuku cookbook
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Chef David Chang can never get enough ramen: big bowls of noodles in pork-based broth.

A few years ago, after attending the French Culinary Institute, Chang opened a tiny restaurant in New York City's East Village as a tribute to his noodle obsession. His friends thought he was crazy. Soon, crowds clambered to get a seat at Momofuku Noodle Bar, which, in its original location, was about as wide as a one-car garage. Chang's restaurant took off, and over the next few years, he opened three sister restaurants.

Diners and critics have trouble labeling Chang's cuisine, which is inspired by Asian and Southern cooking — he once lived in Japan — among other traditions. Above all, it centers on fresh ingredients. When he first started out, Chang used to make daily pilgrimages to Greenmarket farmers markets in Manhattan.

Chang simply describes his cooking as "American" and "delicious."

"We don't want to be just a Japanese restaurant," Chang says. "We don't want to be just a Korean restaurant. Why don't we just try to make delicious food? It just shows you how categories and labels fail to actually describe what is happening."

He is a big fan of Pavement, the rock group, and he sees parallels between their biography and the story of how his restaurants became so successful. It's a learning process.

"They didn't know how to play their instruments when they first started," Chang says. "I sort of feel like we were this band that knew how to play a few chords, and over the years we learned how to become a band. We might not be virtuosos, but as a band, we're learning how to play music. There are some arguments and there are some hijinks, and there are, you know, some sad moments in between, but at the end of the day, we're still learning how to play our instruments."

Chang's Momofuku team might still be working out the kinks, but New York City has accepted him as a full-fledged phenom. All four of his restaurants have been reviewed glowingly by critics. Chang's every move is documented in the city's food blogs.

Peter Meehan used to review restaurants for The New York Times. He says that Chang, who is 32, still seems surprised and bewildered by his success, and he never wants to be complacent.

"He's incredibly frustrated with it because the menu isn't changing enough," Meehan says about Ssam Bar, one of Chang's four restaurants. "Despite the fact that it's full all the time, despite the fact that it's got all these awards. He needs it to be better because he's worried well, if we get complacent nobody's going to come and we're going to go out of business. The sky is always about to fall on Dave Chang."

Chang is a hard worker, very involved in each of his restaurants. During his first few years in business, his quick temper was almost as infamous as his food.

"He's mellowed out somewhat since then," Meehan says. "But if he sees a dirty spoon or a station that's not set up properly, he can be completely set off."

Chang planned to take this year off, to travel less, to focus on his cooking. Instead, he has spent a lot of time trying to become a better manager. And he has co-authored a cookbook with Meehan.

Momofuku includes hundreds of recipes, from all of Chang's restaurants, including his famous ramen. A word of advice, however: If you attempt it, clear your calendar. The recipe, from start to finish, is almost 20 pages.

So, what is it about Chang's cooking? What has made him so successful as a chef and restaurateur? According to Meehan, he's at the forefront of a national trend.

"You're seeing it in Chicago and Los Angeles and San Francisco," Meehan says. "You're seeing great chefs doing more casual concepts. You know, Dave is part of this wave of younger chefs who are trying to liberate great cooking from the trappings of fine dining."

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