"It is no accident that Momofuku sounds like motherfucker," writes Peter Meehan, who deftly captures David Chang's voice in the opening of the Momofuku cookbook. I've just ripped through the book, and can honestly say that I've never read a cookbook quite like it. It's original, inspiring, and real. It was nothing like my first meal at Momofuku. Let me explain.
I was in NYC to see friends in - I think - early 2005. Momofuku was a buzzword in the downtown food world. And then the New York Times wrote an article on the transformative properties of Chang's slow-poached eggs and the tiny place blew up like mashed potatoes in the microwave. "You've got to go!" people told me in emails. I went. I ate. I didn't get it.
And that's because, at that point, there wasn't much to get. Not for a food writer in Shanghai, which is a town with a very decent Japanese ramen and yakitori scene. I can remember the meal clearly: I had Momofuku Ramen with Berkshire pork and a poached egg, a dish of heirloom tomatoes and tofu, and a bottle of sake. It was lunchtime. The sake and the tomatoes tasted great. The ramen tasted like ramen - not a particularly memorable ramen, save for the very succulent pork - but it was good (though not $12 good). I figured that people in New York's culinary spin-cycle were new to Asian noodles, and wrote this off as a passing fad.
But Chang wasn't a passing fad. The roots of his genius weren't in the bowl of ramen but in that Berkshire pork, and those heirloom tomatoes, and the creativity that was starting to spring from a very ordinary idea (a noodle bar). The next time I was in New York, maybe a year and a half later, I ate at Momofuku Ssam, his next restaurant. And that time, he knocked my goddamn socks off.
I, for one, don't much care for Asian fusion (unless it's a deep-fried piece of cheese in an Izakaya). It's usually pretty stupid. But Chang had a knack for it that was more Japanese in execution than American. That is, he took universal comfort foods - cheese, ham, tofu, bacon, whatever - and presented them in a context that wasn't necessarily American, but wasn't really Asian. It was just good and fatty. Delicious like the best crossover Izakaya stuff is.
"Is it fucking dericious?" was the motto of the kitchen. Most everything I ate, from oysters to kimchi consomme to slices of Virginia ham (Virginia Ham?!?!) was fucking dericious. So much so that I approached Chang and tried to tell him how totally dericious it was, and how I wrote about food in Asia but hell I'd never experienced flavors like this, and he sort of scowled at me and walked away. A forgivable offense when you're that busy and that good. I guess.
The most amazing aspect of this cookbook, which everyone who cooks seriously should buy, is how it functions as a compelling coming-of-age story about America's most talked about chef. It's candid and it's funny. It's full of useful information and the sort of hard-edged kitchen wisdom that you encounter in only in the presence of professional cooks that you know well.
I stayed up late, ripping through the pages, unable to sleep because of the possibilities of cooking that this book captures in its pages. It made me want to thrown this laptop out the window, stop ruminating about food and telling other people's stories, and get in a kitchen and cook. And I might just do that.
After reading the first half, I ran to the market, bought a kilogram of chicken livers, and started picking them apart, smashing spices, infusing the chopped livers with Thai ingredients like lime leaves and lemongrass, fish sauce coriander root and bird's eye chilies, until I had a fragrant pate that made a very good banh mi. And that's just the beginning. The best part about cooking, unlike reading a riveting story, is that there is no end.