Keep your Oscar, I'll take my Character: Chef David Chang

Opening my interview with Chef David Chang, winner of one of the first USA Networks “Character Approved” awards, I had first to apologize for the unanticipated ménage à trois. Usually, a proper introduction, perhaps a glass of wine, would precede such an adventure. Not this time. The person connecting our call told me she was staying on the call as she was connecting us. Hello!

Well, the motto for the network is “Characters Welcome...”

Chef David Chang, photo courtesy of USA Networks

Since David Chang, is a celebrated chef, a well-known provocateur with a potty mouth, AND Asian, I immediately thanked him on behalf of all Asian kids around the world for making our parents squirm, just a bit. I mean, his folks must be kvelling, bursting with pride, but also a bit taken aback.

For the non-Asians out there, let me fill you in: getting an award for being "a positive influence" when you refuse to follow rules or be polite is positively unheard of. A 1.9 GPA first year in college? That’s practically grounds for banishment. We, most of us Asian-American kids, grew up with dire warnings that if we didn’t follow rules, didn’t buckle down, didn't get good grades and behave; we would never amount to anything. So we owe a debt of gratitude to this character who truly did it his own way.

Even though we live in Boston, we’ve been to his restaurants several times, taken friends, recommended them countless times. Read my review of my first Momofuku Noodle Bar experience here: A Happy Temple of Pork. I was thrilled to have a chance to chat with the man myself, party line or not.

What exactly is this “Character Approved Award"?

USA Character Approved Award, photo courtesy of USA Networks.

USA Networks, whose own characters include brilliant misfits, detectives with Obsessive-Compulsive disorder, hypochondriacs, antisocial types; created this award to recognize people from various fields who fit the following criteria:

  • Cultural Impact of Honoree: Each honoree must be changing the cultural landscape of his or her field through innovation, creativity and ingenuity. ?
  • Legacy of Honoree: Each honoree must be doing something that will change the face of his or her industry for future generations, whether by breaking records or breaking the mold.?
  • Persona of Honoree: Each honoree must be a character in his or her own right, with a distinct voice, personality and style.

Let’s take these in order, and look at the iconoclastic chef.

Cultural impact:

James Beard awards and nominations, two Michelin stars, four New York Times' stars, Food & Wine, GQ, and Bon Appetit honors; the list goes on and on, year upon year. He is known for innovation, even when that innovation includes devotion to simple foods like ramen and burritos. He finds all the accolades “very strange” a phrase that came up repeatedly. It’s as if after all these years of success, he really still has a hard time believing it.

Now he has four restaurants and as the reputation grows, so does the pressure to not disappoint. He’s pretty maniacal about that, too. It’s a core principle that his staff must share whether it's a simple ssäm or an expensive meal. “Even at the $100 check price point, I want the customer to walk out, smack their head and sort of say: Wow. That was a great experience.”

Legacy:

As exquisite as his food is, Chef Chang’s legacy may be in treating customers and employees with startling egalitarianism. Even liberal New Yorkers were a little taken aback when he opted for a completely automated phone reservation system at Ko. Though he disarmingly describes it as “being lazy” he quickly notes he’d rather have people doing productive work than fielding special VIP requests.

Disgruntled guests accustomed to VIP favors elsewhere would do well to remember even Chang’s own parents got a bill when they came in to dine. Favoritism is definitely not tolerated with guests. He works hard to foster a more egalitarian environment within his staff, too. He is quick to credit staff for much of the restaurants' success. He has very specific hiring goals. He wants staff with “integrity and a strong moral compass,” confident people willing to take risks, ready to debate and create together. Making mistakes has to be okay. It’s a big family he’s trying to replicate, one that can tolerate conflict. He wants his restaurants to be the kinds of places where people really want to come work.

Staff share new ideas via email so even if he’s traveling they can communicate through Blackberry. “Everyone gets to say ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘that sucks’ to new ideas. We don’t want too much ego, that stunts growth. Take a position and have the confidence and logic to back it up.”

The now-famous pork belly buns have evolved to include a breakfast version that joined Bob Evans and Holiday Inn Express breakfasts in a recent Esquire Magazine rating of best breakfasts. This came about from the sort of creativity and trust he inspires. He credits staff like Corey Lane for expanding the wine/beverage program and Ssäm Bar’s Christina Tosi, for the pork bun ouevre. Chang says these are perfect examples of the talented team, wearing many hats. It's an outcome of the culture he’s creating which does not vaue sacred cows, even if that cow is a pig and one that came from the owner himself, like the original pork bun.

It may not be the economy to expand, but Chang is keen to add-on in order to create opportunity for staff he wants to retain; giving them an opportunity to grow. After five years in the business (“it’s like dog years”) he’s a little crispy, but finds travel helps to refresh him.

His persona?

He describes himself as "a lunatic" who's “just lucky to be in the right place at the right time.” He’s quirky and unafraid to admit it. He told Bourdain that he likes chicken nuggets, after all. Adding chicken fingers to the list when we spoke, he confessed to liking “pretty much any mechanically separated meat.” He outed celebrated chef Wylie Dufresne for liking Kraft singles. (Not the first celebrated chef to share that secret food love, between you and me.) He chuckles as much as he swears.

Cooking is over-romanticized, says Chang. “It is not all about creativity. It’s about tenacity - hard work and being at it, every day. Creativity comes from tenacity.”

He says they do their best work when they are doing it "independent of what people might be thinking." He credits that epiphany with the turnaround of his fledgling business. If it wasn't floundering, it was not initially thriving, either. "Empathy, humility, confidence enough to handle conflict and do what we do best" - these are things he seeks, demands in staff.

Though he did much of what he did to avoid being in a desk job, the ultimate irony is that as his business grows, Chang is finding he’s spending more time behind a desk. But he’s confident in his staff and thinks it would be selfish if he shirked management of the business to stoke his ego by being in the kitchen more.

When he recently got “coached” about his appearance on Martha Stewart’s show, he said, “I didn’t train to do TV, I’m a fucking cook! I say that to people all the time, we’re not in the “hospitality business”, we’re in the fucking food business.”

There’s that trademark honesty, again. This ruthless adherence to a set of simple principles, and two goals: serving good food, and delivering a great experience for guests and staff.

His success and his way of accomplishing it, both make him a true character. We approve!

Other Character Approved Honorees include:

Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia; Lupe Fiasco, Hip-Hop Superstar; Shepard Fairey, Artist and Street Art Sensation; Jennifer Siegal, Celebrated West Coast Designer; Charles Best, Founder of DonorsChoose.org; Patrick Robinson, Head Designer for Gap.