Where to start with David Chang? His star has been burning bright for almost 20 years: There’s the Momofuku restaurant group (and the cookbook, which is as much fun to read through as it is to cook with); the Netflix shows, Ugly Delicious and Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner; his must-listen podcast The Dave Chang Show; and now, Eat a Peach, the memoir he never planned to write. If you know any of Dave’s work, you know his voice: A little edgy, a little blunt (ok, more than a little) and very, very funny, constantly challenging the ways we think about food and race, culture and success, rebellion and “bad” ideas. Now he’s challenging how we think about mental health. Dave took time to speak with B&N Reads before Eat a Peach was published, and here’s some of what he said.
DC: You know, it’s funny, I, I had no intention of ever writing this. I thought after a cookbook, I would never make another cookbook, let alone a memoir. And you know, I think that the conversation about mental health has changed. One of the things that allowed me to be a little bit more open about it, was I think, that over the years, many of my peers have come up to me and asked me for help because they knew that I saw someone. I’ve been seeing a psychiatrist since 2003, and when you start this journey (at least for myself) the last thing anyone ever wants to do is talk about it. I have to sort of own the place that I’m in right now; I have a soapbox and a platform. I grew up without any sort of role models that look like me, and I thought that maybe I could just be honest about my account as best as possible. I still feel weird. I still feel weird having it out there. It’s embarrassing as all hell.
You have to be whoever you think you are and in relation to your own life and your experiences, and I think the more anyone can sort of own up to that and be themself, the more powerful that message can be, and we can have more solidarity. And I think that’s the thing that I figured out. It’s not an epiphany or anything, there’s just no stereotypical Asian American. My good friend Dave Cho, he says, No one would have chosen you to represent Asian Americans.
Momofuku is, in so many ways, a living embodiment of my struggle with depression. And it’s an incredibly personal struggle that sort of played out in front of anyone that visited our restaurants that were small. Our first restaurant was 600 square feet, the size of one car garage, and you could see my meltdowns on display. And I just didn’t have the capacity to learn what was proper protocol, how to interact, how to express yourself. It really was therapy. And as much as I’d like to not have depression (which sounds like a frustrating cliché), I think remorse and regret come from repeating the same mistakes over and over, not the depression.
How do I learn?
I mess up. I mess up repeatedly. I just make different kinds of mistakes. Depression, to this day, is an engine for me, a default setting that I have to sort of fight every day. So as much as I’d like to not have it, I think right now I’m becoming a little bit more comfortable, knowing that depression has shaped who I am. I always say to people close to me that I try to judo move this quickly: There’re all these obstacles. I’m the immovable object. So how do you make something positive from that combination? That’s how I’ve looked at Momofuku all these years.
I want to be someone that grows and becomes more mature, wiser, more empathetic, and a better human. When I become complacent, that’s when bad things happen in my life. Some people get comfortable and stop growing at a certain age. I’m 42 right now, and in some ways, I’m learning the life experiences that most people had 12, 13 years ago. I’m really hard on myself. And, you know, the way I look at it: I have my health. I didn’t win the genetic lotto, but I was born in America. (I could have been born in North Korea.) I think I put that pressure on myself because I just know that you have one shot at this — I hate squandering opportunities. And I never want to feel like I’m mailing it in.
No idea was so bad that we shouldn’t try it.
So much of my angst was literally being Korean American and not fitting in with Korean people and not fitting with American people, which is why I feel like I’m so tied to food. But I also love sports, and Moneyball, and all of these data-driven things. I want to try as many ways as possible to collect data so I can reflect upon it — the Japanese call that kaizen — and then think about it in a different way. It’s that second part, hansei, the reflection part of what you did, that no one talks about. You can apply this to anything, including food. And I want to explore if something’s truly a bad idea or if it’s a bad idea because someone else said so. I know at some point in time, evidence, data and reason will win out. The only thing that prevents that from happening is cultural ignorance.
If you extrapolate from food to gender, you get something like: Women can’t vote. Who said so? Or, women shouldn’t get paid as much as a man. Who said so? I don’t want to spend time on all the same things smart people are spending their time on. I want to see where the smart people said, that’s dumb. And, unless someone shows me evidence as to why something is truly dumb, then I’m not going to believe it. And I want to see with my own eyes. American pragmatism, right?
Starting Ssäm Bar as a Korean burrito joint was a terrible mistake that weighed on me for like 10 years. But when I look back on it, I think, Oh, that was an incredibly painful way to get to this place that became amazing. And, you know, we made a bet. I thought that people would eat burritos, and Chipotle had yet to sort of become the thing that it is today, but I knew that it was going to be a big thing, which is why when I came back from Japan, I tried to get a job at Chipotle. That was a really embarrassing thing for me, to fail so publicly. It’s so hard to put yourself out there and for people to say, Yeah, he was a one hit wonder.
When we started Maple and Ando, we were just too far ahead of the curve. We knew there were going to be issues with delivery fees six years ago, and I did not want to partner up with any of the existing delivery services because they didn’t work. And I wasn’t going to be one of those people that said, Oh, I don’t want to work with tech. So we did it. We made a lot of mistakes. It was a lot of good things, too. Ultimately, it was a little too far ahead of its time. I do believe it was going to work, and if someone is going to do it someday, they’re just going to build upon a lot of stuff that we did.
There are plenty of embarrassing things that I’ve done that I’ve beaten myself up over. I realized it was part of the process. I didn’t show any aptitude for working with groups of people before in my life. But now there’s enough evidence to suggest that, you know, when I work in groups of people, good things happen. I like to win. I’m a very competitive person. I love sports. I love human ingenuity and human willpower. I love getting other people to feel like they can win as well — even when all odds are stacked against them. Like now, like right now in this world, right? How difficult it is, it’s terrible for the restaurant industry. I can spend hours on end being depressed. The only truly optimistic thing I can think about is how we can rebuild.
It’s funny, the early aughts was a really long time ago, and what happened then was a long time ago, but people feel that’s still who we are. I’m proud of what we accomplished and the tremendous influence we’ve had. If Momofuku is anything, it’s constantly moving and growing— and whenever we’ve gotten too complacent, that’s when bad things happen. I think that rebellious nature is always inherent in how I operate, to challenge authority, to question, but I think what’s gets lost is the why. I’m so fortunate to have Jerry Saltz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic in my life, because he’s like, you’re an artist. And that’s the funniest thing with food. I grew up cooking, thinking like, this is not an art. This is a craft, and there was something machismo and masculine about it. And that was stupid. Because when you make something, you’re expressing yourself — it’s not just an act of rebellion. It has to be meaningful to us. It’s not just about making money or getting recognition. Do we have something to say?
And we were aware of our deficiencies, highly aware of our deficiencies. If we had the funding, for example, when we first started, I don’t think we would have become as scrappy as we were. If I was a better technical cook, I probably wouldn’t be making ramen.
I’m attracted to the bad ideas. The East Village in the early aughts — before it became what it is today — was still a lot of Polish restaurants and shops. If you told someone you were going to go there, people would tell you that’s insane, that’s such a bad idea. You should open up in Midtown or Union Square. You shouldn’t open up in a mall. I’m like, huh? Wait. That means no one, no one that I think is really good or talented, will go to malls either. This is great. We can try to do something really unique. The uncool becomes cool. Opportunity, I think, can also almost be an act of rebellion.
But however we make food or however we make content, we hope — because we oftentimes fail in doing it, because it’s not for everyone — that it’s meaningful.