"There is a resurgence of prohibition" - David Chang interview, Part 1
David Chang is the culinary “badass” behind the Momofuku restaurant group in New York, Sydney and Toronto, founder of the food-focussed quarterly Lucky Peach magazine, a member of Cook it Raw, occasionally a judge on Top Chef and Masterchef, a regular highlight of any food festival and an occasional puppet to Anthony Bordain’s words on the HBO series Treme. Recently, he has partnered with Bulleit Whiskey to create the chaser in a cocktail equation that adds up to a pickleback. The classic pickleback is a shot of whiskey, chased with a shot of brine from a jar of pickles. Sounds delicious, doesn’t it? Not really, according to Chang.
In true Chang fashion, he tells us of how he strives to take something classic and make it better, displays his bartending skills and proves that, he too, is human and in much need of a holiday.
It’s something I drink. They’re allowing me to partner up with them and do what I want to do to represent them. They’re allowing me to do a pickleback and not do a pickleback.
Because you’re using lemons?
I have to tell you, I’ve never had a pickleback.
And nor should you. Just because someone invented it and some people liked it doesn’t mean it can’t be better. I take something traditional and make it better. I do drink Bulleit and it’s affordable and a small batch whiskey. I learned a while back to take a whiskey and drink it with a twist of lemon and I started adding that to all the bourbons and rye. They’re traditionally very delicious paired with citrus, usually lemon; an Old Fashioned with oranges, a Manhattan with bitters... I was trying to get flavour and take it from there. Whatever the origin was, salted cucumber pickle juice with dill flavour is not my cup of tea. While I certainly have probably had one late at night it is something I do not look forward to. I don’t want to pound shots.
So you just have one as a digestive?
Ha, yeah. Right. So how do we do something that isn’t silly, takes on the concept of the pickleback but doesn’t inherit the same thing? Something that sort of pairs flavours that have been used for a long time. Think about Australia, as a cook I don’t want to tell bartenders what to do, and I was trying to think about people pairing flavours in the future. I’m not asking people to get really special ingredients, it’s just pickled lemons. Everyone has lemons and Australia grows them really well. Every bartender has leftover lemons, particularly juiced ones that get thrown out. So how do we make something that doesn’t require anything? It’s just salt and sugar on lemon rinds and making a drink out of that. It’s not supposed to taste like a fresh lemons, or that jar of pickles over there, it’s supposed to taste just like salt with an undertone of lemon. It without question pairs better for me than…than…
[Chang picks up a jar of pickled cucumbers]
dill, mustard seeds and whatever is in here.
So why are we using actual pickles as display at the Speakeasy Event with Bulleit?
I think it is to show that the concept has evolved and I was thinking about this yesterday as I ate at Porteno last night and it’s a perfect example of taking an idea and making it great in Australia. There is a difference between blindly making something authentic and constantly derivative out of the same thing and then taking something and marrying it with what is literally around you. I think Porteno is the ultimate Australian restaurant. Everyone is trying to do retro something and they know full well that the guys at Porteno are living in a modern world with iPhones and stuff and the restaurant is just what they like which is very important. You’re not in a 1950’s rockabilly house, you’re not in Argentina, and it’s a giant room that used to be a tavern. It’s a simple concept but representative of who they are and paying respect to two concepts and times which are important to them. It is rare to find and hard to do and that is what I was trying to shoot for, that type of marrying of ideas.
Everyone is always going on about trends, I am assuming from what you said, you can really only achieve true cuisine when you’re in that area. You can pay respects but you have to know that things are grown and raised differently and they will taste different. Even the water is different. It is about appropriating to your surroundings.
Yes! Absolutely. It’s cool to understand what is prohibition, but if I was in Australia, which I am, it is great to understand what is going on and to be influenced by it and it seems there is a resurgence of prohibition. Let’s use that as a starting point and not an end point. It seems that people are trying to build roads to 1920s prohibition America, that’s their goal and not their starting point.
So you’re not trying to change what people do, just merely suggesting? When a bartender has the original recipe and tries it and realises it doesn’t taste great in 2012, you’re encouraging them to refine it so it tastes better.
Absolutely, that’s why you said that in two sentences and you’re better at this than I am, writer. You just summarised everything I was trying to say.
Lucky Peach. You don’t write but you have Lucky Peach!
No, I don’t write. I just give them ideas, I just tag along now. I help out marginally at best.
You tag along? You seem to be working quite a lot for someone who just tags along. You’ve just opened a three level Momofuku in Toronto with lines around the building.
Not anymore. Only for opening week, I swear.
So what is next?
Enjoying some holidays. Spending some time in New York, spending some time here. I have been travelling quite a lot. What is next is I don’t know…Start a band?
God no. I think it’s just spending some time in New York and figuring out how I can improve everything. I think I painted myself in a corner cos I don’t know what to do with myself except for work. Focussing on the lab in the restaurant is a goal. Most of our focus has been on fermentation and deepening our understanding of microbial growth in food. That interests me a tremendous amount. We’re just lucky that people want us to work on concepts but I think the next year or so we’re going to focus on our original hometown. It just doesn’t seem like it’s going to stop any time soon.
[Chang pauses to rub his eyes]
It’s just about focussing on “How to make it better and is it about growing?” This is the year about not getting larger to get better, it’s just happened. I always say that I’m trying to take some time off, that’s always the goal. It was originally meant to be a year off, and now it’s maybe a month.
The time you spent in Tokyo with James Murphy and Aziz Ansari, was that time off or work in the guise of time off?
Definitely work in the guise of time off, but that’s how I get time off these days because it is hard for me to separate what is work and what is personal. Work is my personal life now, almost. I certainly haven’t figured out my work/life balance out yet.
Last time you were here, you said that Momofuku Seibo wasn’t quite there yet. How is it measuring up now?
It’s never going to quite be there. Nothing is there. If you say you’re there, you’re screwed; you get complacent. I think we’re better than where we were last year when we opened up and hopefully in the next year at this time we are better than we are today. That is all I hope for and that we continue to try to be the best and put ourselves through our highest standards. Ben and Richard work really hard, as do the whole team, they’re really great and we want to see how much further we can push it.
Part 2, coming soon…