If Chef David Chang had a mission statement, it might be: it’s all about the food. Nothing else matters, including the inflated bogey-man known as “Front of House” — the ritualised culture of servers and their attire, or the plates made in Limoges, or the paper the menus have been printed on, or the tablecloth’s thread count, or that there is a tablecloth, or the pick-pocketing bill that is only accidentally about the cost of ingredients.
“I love the intensity of the fine-dining kitchen, but loathe the fine-dining experience,” Chang says, and adds: “Shouldn’t a three-course meal be 90 minutes? Do you know how hard you have to edit your menu to pull that off?” Then: “Twenty-seven minutes. That’s the average meal at Jiro’s in Tokyo.”
We are having a 63-minute lunch at Ssäm Bar, on 2nd Avenue, and my effort at following the “thread” (“Can you reinvent the lentil?” or “I want to make simple food new”) is not unlike catching a fish with your hands.
Chang doesn’t have a mission statement. He has an encyclopedia of them. Chang, 36, a proprietor-chef for nine years, has four restaurants, six bakeries, a commissary, a fermentation lab, a kitchen-tool thinktank, a magazine, plus restaurants in Australia and Canada.
I ask Chang to list 10 things that are important to him. “Japan”, he says and thinks. “Street food.” He pauses. “Hoping, one day, to pay everyone $20 (Dh73) a hour.” (Chang employs 600 people.) Then he is in flight again, those people who don’t care about food, they’re a preoccupation, and have no idea that, soon, they are about to discover how good eating can be.
I then glimpse a quality that Chang’s fast-talking, street-smart sassy persona keeps hidden: he is a softie. He has a profound capacity for empathy — it is evident in his lack of irony, or in how his cooks trust him, or in the undisguised sadness in his face describing a friend’s illness, and another’s death. He wears his heart, not on his sleeve, but under a magnifying glass.
It continues into his food. There is humanity in the way Chang works. It is unusual. That is his theme. Amid everything else — the innovation, the flash, the creative brilliance — Chang is a nourisher. His mission is making food. It carries enormous responsibility.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd