The untold truth of David Chang

He's a chef. A bad boy. A television star. David Chang is many things — first and foremost a formidable cook. His pork buns, ramen, fried chicken and more have put him on the culinary map, and today Chang is a restaurateur with more businesses up his sleeve than most of us could even imaging juggling. 

After Chang opened his first restaurant, Momofuku, in New York City, he became an instant sensation. He was young and passionate and had an attitude that diners and critics alike found irresistible. These days, you can catch him on his shows Mind of a Chef and Ugly Delicious on Netflix, but he's still busy at work in his several restaurant kitchens spread across the globe. 

Underneath his edgy kitchen persona, though, there's the story of how he got to where he is today. What events shaped him and who helped him on his way? Read on to find out the true story of David Chang.

David Chang majored in religion, then worked in finance

Known for his bad-boy persona, it's easy to believe that David Chang dove into the kitchen head first. But it turns out that his life before cooking was actually pretty mellow

He attended Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he majored in religion. Once he graduated, he moved to the world of finance. Lucky for us, he found his desk job painfully boring, and he eventually made his way to Japan to teach English. There, his childhood love for food was re-ignited, and the rest is history. 

Though his finance days are long behind him, these days he's still interested in the spiritual side of life. 

"Religion is actually something that if I wasn't doing cooking I'd probably go to divinity school or something like that," he said in an interview with Big Think. Once you've unraveled the mysteries of creating the perfect pork belly bun, deciphering the secrets of the universe is the next logical step, right? 

David Chang was inspired to cook by noodle chain Wagamama

Though he loved noodles as a child, often thinking fondly of his days watching the cooks make them at a restaurant he frequented with his father in Alexandria, Virginia, David Chang lost touch with cooking for a while in his teen years. Then, studying abroad in London, he encountered Wagamama

Chang would slurp up bowls of the chain's ramen regularly, and it brought back memories of the restaurant of his childhood, further solidifying his love of even instant ramen noodles

Part of the reason he eventually moved to Japan to teach English was because of his ramen obsession. When he tried to learn to make delicious noodles there and realized he had a backlog of cooking information he needed to brush up on, it gave him the push he needed to consider culinary school

When he finally opened his first restaurant, Momofuku Noodle Bar, it's no wonder than on the menu, along with his now-storied pork buns, were steaming bowls of near-perfect ramen. 

David Chang's father didn't want him to be a chef...at first

Considering the dismal statistics (70 percent of all restaurants fail within 3-5 years of opening), it's no surprise that David Chang's financially-savvy father was less than enthusiastic about his son attending culinary school. His father had initially wanted Chang to be a pro-golfer, so was already disappointed that he'd traded in his golf clubs for a low-level teaching gig. But throwing even that away for a chance to work in a kitchen just seemed like too much. 

Yet Chang proved himself. After attending the French Culinary Institute and graduating in 2000 he started out as a line cook at posh Mercer Kitchen in New York City. Then, he landed a gig at Tom Colicchio's Craft, answering phones on the reservation line before finally being allowed in the kitchen. 

He worked his way up, eventually going back to Japan for two years to learn more. Experience in hand, Chang showed his father that he was serious about making cooking his career, and along with some friends his father gave Chang $130,000 in startup funds so he could open his first restaurant, Momofuku.

David Chang has an all-Momofuku building in Toronto

David Chang's popularity exploded as soon as he opened the first iteration of Momofuku in 2004. Since then, he's opened several restaurants across North America, helped open 16 locations of Milk Bar with partner Christina Tosi, and several bars. But the most impressive feat has to be his building in Toronto, which over time has housed several different Momofuku Restaurant Group restaurants. 

When it first opened, the three-story building hosted different Momofuku restaurants on each floor. On the first floor was Momofuku Noodle Bar, on the second floor the bar Nikai and the Momofuku Milk Bar bakery, and on the top floor, two restaurants — the family-style Daisho and tasting menu-only Shoto. 

In 2018, Daisho and Shoto closed. But the space didn't stay barren for long. The two restaurants were shuttered so that Chang could open an even bigger restaurant in their place.

Kojin opened in June of 2018 under the watch of executive chef Paula Navarrete. The restaurant focuses on hyper-local ingredient sourcing, with most of the food coming from within 100 kilometers of the restaurant, and though many of its flavors skew Canadian, Navarrete's Columbian heritage makes itself apparent in many of the dishes.

David Chang had a food delivery service, but it failed

Delivery food is everywhere these days. How many apps do you have on your phone just for ordering food? If you're anything like us, it's an embarrassing amount. 

But disappointed with the traditional offerings on delivery apps, David Chang was an investor in app Maple, which set forth to revolutionize the industry. 

Instead of relying on couriers who would pick up food from existing restaurants, Maple would have an in-house kitchen with a menu curated by famous chefs. Each meal would be about $12-15 and be delivered within 30 minutes.

Unfortunately, it wasn't a sustainable enterprise. At the end of 2015 it was reported that they were losing money on each meal, to the tune of $9 million for that year alone. Maple shut down in 2017. 

Chang's second entry into the business, a delivery-only restaurant called Ando, was likewise unsuccessful. Opened in 2016, Ando shut its doors in 2018. The delivery market just became too crowded. Luckily, Chang still has many restaurants in his empire to keep him busy. 

David Chang's food magazine Lucky Peach was super popular, but it had to fold

When Lucky Peach (the English translation of "Momofuku") magazine came out with its first issue, foodies around the country were immediately smitten. 

There were the customary long-form scholarly articles but done with a new bent. Snark was abundant, creativity apparent in each page, and the food documented was obviously phenomenal. 

It wasn't a lack of success financially that caused the magazine to fold. When it announced its closure, it was printing 74,000 copies of each issue, 90 percent of which had been paid for ahead of time. 

Instead, it came down to the elusive "creative differences" between Chang and collaborator Peter Meehan. Meehan claimed that they had disparate visions for the magazine and its funding, and Chang said that he planned on searching for new financial partners so that Lucky Peach could still live on.

Though Lucky Peach has yet to resurface, it did manage to print four cookbooks in its heyday, so if you're still mourning the closure of the magazine, you can at least hold on to those tomes. 

The popularity of David Chang's Ugly Delicious hasn't come without criticism

It's no secret that David Chang's Netflix show, Ugly Delicious, has become a huge success. It was quickly met with critical acclaim and renewed for a second season (via The Hollywood Reporter). Even with its 100 percent Certified Fresh Rotten Tomatoes score and critics hailing it as a love letter to America's melting pot of food, it's not gone without its fair share of criticism. 

Even when the show made efforts to address the issues of "racial politics" in the food world, it's still received backlash for not doing a good enough job. A Reappropriate writer described Chang's attempts at addressing racial issues at times as "ham-fisted" and "disappointingly unnuanced."

The show's episode on barbecue also caught flak for presenting an episode that was mostly "filler" and ignoring the influence of Black Americans in barbecue culture

The criticisms didn't go unnoticed by Chang either. "I've read every criticism, whether it wasn't inclusive enough through African Americans or through women, I just know that we had one season, and we did our best, and we had no intention of trying to be exclusive," the chef said. Chang promised to take those criticisms to heart when shooting future episodes.

David Chang launched a new Netflix show in October 2019

David Chang is certainly a busy man and prior to rolling out the second season of Ugly Delicious, Chang found the time to shoot a second show for Netflix — Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner

The show premiered in October of 2019 with four episodes that feature Chang bouncing around the globe and munching on... breakfast, lunch, or dinner with celeb pals like Seth Rogen and Chrissy Teigen. While the show does touch on the origins of certain foods, that's certainly not a driving goal as in Ugly Delicious. Reviews of the show have compared it much more to a formulaic travel show with the allure of the featured celebrity being a real selling point.

As for whether or not there will be a second season — after all, four episodes isn't much — that's yet to be determined. Delish reports that Chang is already working on a show with Teigen for Hulu called Family Style. He also has to deliver on that promised second season of Ugly Delicious. Either way, fans of Chang will have no shortage of streaming shows to choose from.

David Chang thinks Cassell's in LA has the best patty melt in the world

David Chang has literally eaten around the world, and we trust his expertise when it comes to food. So we're totally on-board with his go-to diner order — the thing he'd order in a heartbeat without looking at the menu.

Ready for it? He'd choose a patty melt, on rye, with American cheese. But it wouldn't be just any patty melt.

According to Chang, the best one in the world can be enjoyed at Cassell's in Los Angeles. Apparently, they have a special griddle that cooks the cheese to perfection, setting their melt apart from all the rest and making it hard to replicate even in his own restaurant kitchens. 

Chang loves them so much that he voted for Cassell's on his ballot for The World's 50 Best Restaurants, and he's even considered adding their melts to the menu of one of his restaurants. "It's just one of the best goddamn things you could eat anywhere," he insists. 

We're not the only ones now craving a patty melt, right? 

David Chang called Anthony Bourdain Uncle Tony

With their similar no-cares-given attitude and reputation for general culinary bad-assery, it's no surprise that David Chang and Anthony Bourdain were close. So close, in fact, that Chang called the late Bourdain "Uncle Tony." 

Bourdain acted as a mentor to Chang, especially once Chang started to enter the world of food television. "Tony is one of the most amazing, magnificent human beings ever," he said in an interview. "People always ask, 'Is he as awesome as I think that he is?' I'm like, 'Yes, and still way more awesome than you could believe.'"

Understandably, then, Chang was devastated by Bourdain's death in June of 2018 (as were we all). But rather than keeping silent, he was inspired to speak out about his own battles with depression. 

On an episode of his podcast, The Dave Chang Show, he talked about his own struggles, and how he never thought he would make it past 30. He hopes that by being open about his own mental health battles, it will help reduce the stigma surrounding depression so those who need it most can get help. 

As for his friend, Uncle Tony? 

"In many ways he's been my mentor and my North Star, 'cause he trailblazed a path that would not be available to me otherwise. I am in great debt to him, I miss him so much." 

David Chang continues to build his restaurant empire

David Chang may not be on the level of McDonald's entrepreneur Ray Kroc — he probably doesn't want to be either — but he's certainly no slouch when it comes to opening restaurants. It's been over a decade since the chef opened his first Momofuku eatery and he's racked up quite a few other restaurants in the time since. 

Chang's most recent restaurant is Bar Wayō which opened in July 2019 and in a break from Chang tradition, noodles don't dominate the menu. "There's lots of bar food, though," Chang told Grub Street. "You'll find shrimp cocktail; onion rings with trout roe and.... a hamburger — well, a hamburg dip."  

Bar Wayō is the eighth restaurant opened by Chang in New York City, however, the chef has expanded his restaurant empire far beyond Gotham. Chang's restaurants can be found in Boston, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Toronto, and even Sydney. 

Chang by no means appears to be finished with his expansion of the Momofuku empire either. Vancouver will be getting its own Chang-owned noodle house in 2020 (via Eater). Who knows, perhaps if your city's restaurant scene is cool enough, Chang will set up shop there next.

David Chang has a love/hate relationship with the restaurant industry

Considering how many restaurants David Chang has in his fleet, one would assume that he loves the restaurant business. "Love" might be an overstatement, however, as he's revealed to GQ that he has many issues with it. 

Chang recalled that one of his earliest memories of being disappointed with the restaurant industry came about when a restaurant he was working in at the time was waiting for its first newspaper review. The manager told Chang that the most important thing was the service, followed by the room décor. The actual food was a distant third. "I thought, 'Well, that's ridiculous. The food should be first, always.'" 

Chang said that when he first started out, he received push-back from the industry about the lack of décor in his restaurants, and even with his success today, he doesn't always enjoy being a restaurateur. "What I don't enjoy is that there is no room to fail anymore," Chang said. "And not being able to grow from that failure feels so restrictive." 

As far as the business model itself, Chang believes that food is being priced too cheap and because of that, those in the industry are being pushed out to earn a higher wage. Rising rents and labor laws only compound the pressure. "The longer chefs look at restaurant math, the less it adds up for them," he said. 

David Chang was an Olympics correspondent

Raised with hopes he'd become a professional golfer, David Chang has more connections to the world of sports than you might think. In fact, during the 2018 winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, he served as a food and culture correspondent for NBC

Chang had a great gig during the games. He explored the city, trying food from street markets, Michelin-starred fine dining establishments, and Buddhist temples to try to get a feel of the city's culture through its food. He wanted to make sure that viewers at home realized that Korean food goes far beyond the kimchi and barbecue that most of us are familiar with. 

He didn't just eat his way across the country, though. He also visited some of the people who procure the ingredients needed to make classic Korean dishes, like the Haenyeo divers of Jeju, women who deep-dive to gather shellfish and other seafood. 

"I think the best way to learn about a place is to eat your way through it," he said of his endeavors. 

David Chang's wedding cake was from his own restaurant

They say never trust a skinny chef, but we'd be even more wary of one that didn't seem to love the food they're selling. David Chang definitely puts his money where his mouth is in this regard. 

In 2017, Change married Grace Seo Chang. They eloped,  but nevertheless Christina Tosi, the mastermind behind Momofuku Milk Bar, managed to find out where the couple was headed and sent them a wedding cake

It was Milk Bar's famous chocolate chip passion fruit cake. A combination of fluffy chocolate chip cake, chocolate crumbs, passion fruit curd, and clouds of coffee frosting, it's a dessert that at first sounds a little strange. One bite, though, and you're sure to be a convert.

Tosi herself is a huge fan of this particular Milk Bar sweet. Chang says it's because of her that he loves it. "Christina has forced me to also love it, because she's like, 'This is David's favorite cake.'"