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Chef David Chang On Depression, Being A Dad And The Burden Of 'Authenticity'

James Beard Award-winning chef David Chang says fatherhood changed the way he cooks: "I had never been in a position where I'm trying to generally feed someone else with love and I just want to nurture them."
Andrew Bezek
Penguin Random House
James Beard Award-winning chef David Chang says fatherhood changed the way he cooks: "I had never been in a position where I'm trying to generally feed someone else with love and I just want to nurture them."

Editor's note: This interview mentions suicidal ideations.

Chef and restaurateur David Chang isn't worried about making "authentic" food.

"I find authenticity to be very stifling," he says. "It's about preserving one idea and one way of deliciousness, and I think that can be a very dangerous thing. ... That's not to say that authenticity can't be delicious. But when it's the only way you can make a certain food, that is problematic to me."

The son of Korean immigrants, Chang likes to mix ideas and traditions in the kitchen. "That's what's beautiful about food. It can be anything and everything," he says. "That's what makes American cuisine so wonderful."

Chang's first restaurant, Momofuku Noodle Bar, which opened in Manhattan in 2004, was inspired by his time in Japan — and his desire to craft ramen dishes made from American ingredients. Since then, Chang has opened more than a dozen restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Toronto and Australia.

Chang notes that COVID-19 has introduced "seismic" changes to his industry. He has had to shutter two of his restaurants and temporarily relocate a third. The other locations have begun offering delivery services and selling specialty food products, like soy sauces and salt.

"We're doing anything and everything to stay afloat and to keep as many jobs as possible," he says.

Chang hosts the Netflix series Ugly Delicious, which focuses on foods and the cultures or mixes of cultures that produced them. In his new memoir, Eat a Peach, he writes about his struggle with bipolar disorder and suicidal thoughts — and explains how cooking and his restaurants have helped save his life.

Interview Highlights

/ Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House

On being embarrassed by his Korean immigrant parents when he was young and wanting to assimilate into his white community

When I was a kid, I was just so angry at why they couldn't raise us like normal white America. I remember my dad's mother staying with us for a short period of time, and how mean she was, and how frugal she lived, and how I just was not just embarrassed about the food — I was embarrassed by how [my parents] were raised, and I didn't want to be like that. I'm remorseful [for] not trying to understand that at a younger age and what they lived [through] and the experiences they had and just the cultural difference they had to overcome.

My parents wound up in Northern Virginia in the early '70s. I [can't] even imagine what that was like. Or even from my dad who lived in New York. My dad hated New York City. He would visit me occasionally, but he hated it because of the trauma he had living there, as a kid in his early 20s that didn't speak English in the early '60s. I can't imagine how hard that must have been. The older I've gotten, the more I'm moved by all they had to sacrifice and went through to give the family everything they needed.

On why he didn't want to pursue a career in traditional French fine dining

I was just so lost. I didn't know what I was doing. I think if I was better at cooking, compared to my peer group, especially the restaurants I was in, maybe I would have only cooked French food, but so much of how I wound up today was because I didn't fit in and I had to find my way and get some kind of expertise that no one else had.

One of the reasons I wanted to get out of French dining or fine dining in general was traveling abroad. And for me, the epiphany was, oh my gosh, in Asia, in Japan, in a city like Tokyo, that's so expensive, I never would have thought that people of all [backgrounds,] whether you're poor or rich, everyone can eat really well. ...

When I was in China, you could eat literally on 75 cents very well, but you couldn't do that in America. And I thought to myself, well, if you wanted to enjoy food in America in the late '90s, early aughts, if you told anybody, "I like to go out to dine," that was seen as elitist and snobbish, and that wasn't the case outside of the world. And that's when I tried to imagine, what's the delta here in America? Why is food only accessible or delicious for the people that can afford it? Why don't we have something that's a little bit more accessible, a little bit more affordable?

On being bipolar and having depression and suicidal ideation

When I was in Japan, that was my first serious manic bout. But when I came back as a cook, when I was working at Café Boulud, that was probably the lowest point I've ever experienced. ...

I can talk about it now in a way that I never was able to talk about when experiencing it, because I know it's not my fault; it's a chemical reaction in my brain or a lack of certain things that are working in my brain, and there are certainly other factors involved culturally. There's things that happened in my life with my father, my upbringing, and it's hard to want to live, as crazy as that sounds. You just think about all the different ways you can end it.

On how his depression and feeling like he had nothing to lose led to taking the risk to open Momofuku

Momofuku was an exercise in combating depression. Otherwise, a 26-year-old with very little experience should never open a restaurant — and that's what happened. If I wasn't depressed, I probably wouldn't name the restaurant as silly sounding as "Momofuku." Everything I did seemed like a decision that was a one-way ticket, because I legitimately told myself, "I'll see this as far as I can go, and if it doesn't work, well, this is all gravy anyway."

Living that way, it was very powerful. It made me grow in different ways, because I'm a wallflower by nature, I'm not whatever I am today. I changed in ways that I never thought — both good and bad. And depression was something that I used as a fuel to make me do things I would not normally do.

On learning how to be a better leader after having a consultant tell him how much his employees disliked working for him

I was a horrible boss, and I ruled with fear and commands. ... That's the hardest thing is I spent my entire life making sure I would never be like my dad, and I wound up being exactly like my dad to so many people and I just couldn't see it. ... Everything I did for a long period was, if it's good for me, it's good for the restaurant and it's good for the people that work for me. ... And then you realize, I could convince myself of anything. Again, that can be a very powerful thing for good and for bad, but the best way I could describe it ... when I realized that people hated my guts, it was when you realize that you're the smelly kid. The smelly kid never realizes they smell bad, and I had to really accept that I was even the worst kind of smelly kid. I was a smelly kid that always blamed everyone else for being smelly — and then I had to realize that I was the rotten one. ...

I'm still trying to change, Terry. This hasn't been an overnight process. And a lot of it is constantly revisiting how I've behaved or the things I've said, things I've done and revisiting and trying to analyze and how to be better and try to make sure that I don't repeat those mistakes. ... I'm just trying to be better, always trying to improve. And that's all I can do and not be the same person that I was in the past.

On learning of his friend Anthony Bourdain's death by suicide

Tony was a big brother to me. ... He was always worried that I was going to harm myself. And that's the problem. I always thought that Tony was the strong one. Tony was invincible. And I know a lot of people that are close to him maybe feel the same way, that we should have asked him how he was doing a little bit more. And actually there were always signs, if you think about it. I feel a lot of guilt, because I wanted Tony to be in service of me, and it wasn't exactly reciprocated. He was always worried about how troubled I was. ... Tony just white-knuckled everything. He was Tony Bourdain, until he wasn't. I think if anything, it's a reminder to anyone that just because someone is doing well and has everything going for them — the job, the family, the looks, the fame, whatever — doesn't mean that they're not going through something.

On being home more than ever because of the pandemic

I wrestle with this a lot, because this year has been so hard and I've been so blessed and privileged and I need to understand all of that goodness that I have in my life. And as terrible as things have been, I'm weirdly, strangely grateful, because I don't think at any other juncture or any other scenario, I would have been able to spend this much time with my family. And it's made me reevaluate so many things — being a dad, being present and realizing that no matter how hard I work or whatever, it doesn't matter. All you want for anybody ... is just unconditional love. You don't die with anything, and I want to be present.

On how becoming a father changed cooking for him

Cooking at home and actually cooking for my wife while she was expecting Hugo, like when he was in the womb, that's when I realized, "Oh, this is cooking." Cooking for restaurants is great ... but a lot of it was to feed me, ultimately. And I had never been in a position where I'm trying to generally feed someone else with love and I just want to nurture them, and cooking for my wife was the best, and then cooking while she was nursing had new meaning. Now it's feeding Hugo — and the strangest thing has happened. I now have learned a different way of cooking that I never thought that I ever would. It's now changed how I want to cook in general, like I care more about serving a bowl of soup that looks like just plain old soup, but made with love — as cliché as that is — just food made with love versus food that's trying to impress. ... I want to get back to that. I don't know what that means for restaurants, but for me right now, cooking at home, it's not a job. It's something I want to do.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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