Why Hello There, and welcome back to Catastrophic Reviews, the series where Kitchen Catastrophe sits in judgment over some product of food culture, and like an impotent Roman Emperor, derives all its kicks from voicing its opinion. I’m your No-Go Nero, Jon O’Guin.
Today’s post is something of an oddity. I try not to do multiple reviews in the same month, but…well, basically, the stars just aligned correctly. Seriously, I made the chicken skin steamed buns from Monday’s post back in January. And then, just over a week before I post the recipe, I ended up reviewing David Chang’s newest show, Ugly Delicious. So I had Chang on the brain (a phrase that would be been infinitely more appropriate if I had reviewed his OTHER Netflix show, Mind of A Chef, but we can’t have everything in life.) As such, I wanted to be done with him, for a minute, and figured “well, if you get a song out of your head by singing the end of it, maybe covering his cookbook will settle my psyche.” I’ve had dumber plans.
Like the time I painted myself Red for a costume party, with make-up that never fully dried.
And covered the inside of my hands with the same make-up.
So, let’s talk about David Chang’s (and Peter Meehan’s) Momofuku cookbook.
Start with a Simple Summary
We’ve talked before about how we review Cookbooks, so let’s not waste time repeating it(a thing I do later in this post, because I have little-to-no internal consistency) , and instead give a solid summary of the book before we tear it apart and analyze it. The book is, of course, a cookbook. But it does actually maintain a narrative as well: see, the chapters of the cookbook are not divided by ingredient or time of meal, or any standard practice. Instead, the chapters conform to David’s first three restaurants. And in between the recipes, they tell the story of David Chang and his relationships with cooking, with his coworkers, and with the restaurants themselves. We don’t hit an actual recipe until page 39. Every chapter starts with 13-15 pages of “So once we were kind of settled with that, we moved on, and started trying this other thing, and ended up opening THIS restaurant.” Each recipe comes with a couple paragraphs of introduction, as is the style these days, but this one tends to feel a little more involved.
Each chapter also starts in a way that is…frankly kind of amazing. Each chapter starts with a recipe that’s…thematically matched to the actual chapter itself, in some amazingly thematic ways. Let me break them all down, because I want to, I can, and you can’t stop me. Only, you know, make that sound less villainous than I did.
Hey, look, double use out of one photo!
So, the Momofuku Noodle Bar chapter's first recipe is Momofuku-style Ramen. Why? Because it’s the chapter about the Ramen bar. The Ramen is what you came for. Except the recipe itself is kind of infuriating to read, because it RELIES on components it tells you how to make later in the book. You’ll need "Ramen Broth (page 40)", "Taré (page 42)", "noodles (see page 48, but know that we spend pages 46-47 talking about how we developed our noodle recipe)", etc. Of the 11 ingredients, 8 of them come with (check these later pages) as a note. That seems…dumb, right? And I believe that’s the point. Because if you read the introduction to the chapter, you know that Momofuku, when they started, was run in some really dumb ways. They gave people what they thought they wanted, up front, even though it wasn’t efficient or what they really wanted to do. The first recipe is a restatement of the theme of the chapter. It also serves as a reminder of how much of proper restaurant work is prep. In order to get 1 bowl of ramen made in about 5-6 minutes, it takes a metric fuck-ton of prep (that’s a technical measurement, you understand.) the first 4 ingredients take a combine 50 HOURS TO PREPARE Sure, a lot of it can be done at the same time, and involves things like “marinate meat for 6 hours”, “simmer 7 hours” or “bake for 4 hours”, but still, think about that: that’s almost 2 days’ worth of cooking you have to condense into, again, about HALF of a dish so you can throw it all together in 5-6 minutes when the time comes.
This is their nine-step, two page, ELEVEN HOUR recipe for their ramen BROTH.
The recipe teaches you about prep work, about trying to meet people’s expectations, and the difficulty of exploring your own techniques in the face of so much information and tradition. The Ssam Bar recipes start with three pages of discussion on Oysters. They talk about David’s personal epiphanies he’s had while cooking them, basic anatomy and service tips, how to shuck them, and so forth. Why? Ssam Bar was intended to be like, a burrito joint, and tied into ssam, a Korean version of lettuce wraps. So why start with three pages about oysters, and then 3 more of toppings for fresh oysters? Well, the Ssam Bar intro is all about how the original idea he had for the restaurant DIDN’T WORK. That he ended up having to go with a completely different take, by exploring ingredients and ideas, and focusing on making them appealing. Again, the theme as illustrated by enactment.
Lastly, Ko starts with a Chicharrón. Why? Because Ko is a fixed menu restaurant, and the chicarrón was the first item on the first menu served there. And it serves as the kind of epitome of David’s journey: he started by making Ramen, at a noodle place. He tried to get high-concept and advanced technique with his second restaurant. And now he’s starting off a $90 tasting menu with a pork rind. He’s finally letting his voice come through, and doing silly things. He also points out how it took him AGES to get the recipe he had working, because he kept trying to shortcut it or save steps, and it would just fuck up the recipe. Until he had the discipline to actually follow the recipe, to the T, he couldn’t get it to work.
Yes, apparently the keys to delicious pork rinds are discipline and patience. I was as surprised as you are.
Reading the book, and watching the show, I see a lot of Peter Meehan’s ‘invisible hand’ in the execution of touches like this: the emphasis of what David preaches by evidence of his practice. It’s pretty deftly done.
Quick Criteria Recap
And now that I’ve spent a THOUSAND GODDAMN WORDS gushing about thematic resonance in a COOKBOOK, let’s actually discuss the work through the criteria we’ve established before. IN case you’ve forgotten, we review cookbooks on 4 criteria: Voice, Production Quality, Unity of Theme, and Catapult Effect. And if you’re saying to yourself, “Jon, those feel like weird qualities to judge a cookbook on. Shouldn’t you judge a cookbook on whether its recipes are good?” then the answer is “Not really.” Sure, to an extent quality of recipe is important. But consider just myself and my brother Nathan. I don’t like most seafood. Basically anything other than the straight up muscle fibers of actual, finned fish is just weird to me. So ANY cookbook that relies on seafood flavors is immediately less valuable to me. Nathan, by contrast, hates the taste of cilantro. And if you didn’t know, there’s a lot of cuisines that use cilantro pretty heavily. So should Nate and I judge cookbooks because of our personal tastes? And if not, then what are we actually judging them BY?
Hence why my criteria don’t touch on the actual content of the recipes themselves. I can’t know what your access to groceries, or personal preferences are. I can only note when things get weird, so you can make informed choices. (A process I normally do in the Voice or Catapult effect sections.) All clear? Good.
This book, I feel, has an unsung quality of voice, in the hands of Peter Meehan, who I know is the co-author, and likely the reason the cookbook exists at all. And that’s because this book is David Chang’s voice, to a T. If you watch his shows, you can hear him saying basically everything in the book. It’s an interesting and exciting voice: David Chang is a Korean American, who trained in Tokyo, and French fine dining. Wolfgang Puck called his cooking style “American”, because where else in the world can you find such a mixture of traditions?
This recipe calls for kimchi, smoked pork jowl, labneh (basically Greek Yogurt), Fuji apples, and maple syrup. Korea, The South, Greece,Japan and Canada all on one plate.
And yes, I know I name-dropped Wolfgang Puck in that last paragraph, because that’s a part of David’s voice as well. David, as shown through the text, has a constant need for…I don’t have the right word for it. “Validation” casts him as too weak, while “Measurement” too neutral. He has a desire to know his place. And he does that by comparison. David Chang will drop the names of 6 different high-end chefs, to tell you “Hey, I know I’m no Corey Lee.” He talks about the awards Momofuku received with an almost disgusted tone of amusement. “Guys, I’m not doing anything that great. It’s just some jack-ass’s take on Tokyo-style Ramen. Please, there are MUCH better chefs than me you are insulting when you nominate me for things.” And to an extent that can come across as a “humble brag”, but his specific word choices lead me to believe that he legitimately believes it. (Or at least, DID back in 2009-2010.)
David’s voice is one of a man driven to succeed in a competitive field, for reasons I don’t think he fully understands. It is the voice of a New Yorker, in my mind, in some of the better ways it can be: A voice that’s eaten a bunch of well-made foods from varying cultures, a voice that confronts questions of “authentic ethnicity”. A voice ready to argue and fight for an idea, only to later realize “oh, I was being dumb. I’m so sorry I made you all listen to me.”
The book is well-made, professionally handled. And maybe that second point should be what I rename this section. I’ve realized that “production quality” is a little vague, and sounds somewhat elitist. When I talk about this, I’m not trying to say “this book is pretty, therefore it’s better”, as if a hard-back glossy paged coffee-table photo gallery of a cookbook is the epitome of the form.
I’m trying to refer to the little touches that make the experience of reading it more enjoyable. I’ve picked up cookbooks with no index, for example. And I think the cost to the user of you not including an index is higher than the cost saved including those pages. Or, like, with this book, there’s a ton of photos in it, including a lot showing the dishes next to their recipes, so you have at least an idea what the finished product should look like. The font is readable, and not tightly packed to fit the book in fewer pages. That sort of stuff.
A pretty common page in the book: ingredients are set in the margin, italics for the intro, then the steps, and then a bolded section for alternative approaches, along with a picture of the product.
What? Not EVERY picture is a joke set-up.
Unity of Theme
I spent a thousand goddamn words on how the precise choice of first recipes for each chapter reinforces the thematic overtones of that chapter’s place in David’s growth as a chef. Trust me, the theme is unified.
This is the lowest scoring category for the book, without question. And it has to do with the Voice and Unity of Theme. David Chang is a Michelin-starred chef working predominantly in New York City, and this cookbook is of the recipes he used in his restaurants. And that can make them off-putting, difficult, or simply foreign to most home cooks. For example, have you ever encountered usukuchi in a recipe before? Yes? Well konnichiwa, because statistically, you’re probably Japanese. To explain for the rest of the class, usukuchi is a variety of soy sauce. What you get with your sushi order is koikuchi, or “dark” soy sauce. Usukuchi is “light” soy sauce, which has a lighter color, but is also more salty, and a little sweeter. It took me 3 grocery stores and 4 minutes of staring at a rack of 60+ varieties of soy sauce just to find one bottle of it. And it’s in half of the recipes here.
As I noted in the opening section, David’s not afraid to write instructions like “roast for 7 hours” in a recipe, or, as in Monday’s post: “fold and steam 50 buns”. The recipes aren’t all inviting for home trial, is my main point.
The first step of this recipe, for instance, is "make sure there's not a lot of hair on your pig's head. You can blowtorch it off, or use a razor." That's...advanced shit for most of middle class America.
But what they do, for me at least, is serve as a pricking point. I searched through 3 grocery stores, and a rack of 60+ soy sauces to find a bottle of this weird soy sauce he kept using, because I wanted to know what the hell the fuss was about. And he talks about inventing dishes, and the ideas that drove them, in ways that make me feel like I can do it too. Much like Justin Warner’s cookbook, it’s not necessarily that Momofuku makes me want to cook recipes from IT, but rather, that it simply makes me more confident about cooking in general. Sometimes, a specific recipe jumps out as something to try: he has a ginger-scallion noodle sauce, and my mother likes cold noodle salad, so let’s do it. He has a recipe of Peas with Horseradish, explicitly because he was in a grocery store, and bitching to himself that he doesn’t get why people love Wasabi Peas as a snack, and then he goes “well, hey, I could make a high-class version of that.” Or he has a recipe for watermelon geleé for topping oysters…because he was going to make consommé, and the tub got put in the fridge instead of the freezer, and the restaurant had to roll with it.
It’s that kind of “make it work” mentality that I really enjoyed.
This is not a cookbook for the beginning home chef, unless they live near some great Asian markets. There’s a bunch of great ideas and stories in it, and I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in high-end restaurants, or influential chefs, with the recipes almost as a bonus element. Now, if you’re willing to put in the time, and want some stellar Asian food, I might recommend it as well. Except, of course, as we already said, this isn’t technically Asian food, at least, not according to one Austrian. But whether Asian or American, it’s some fine eating.
MONDAY: NATE LEARNS IMPORTANT LIFE LESSONS ABOUT BREAKING EGGS. WHICH IS GOOD, BECAUSE WE HAVE WAY TOO GODDAMN MANY.
THURSDAY: JON REFLECTS ON EASTER, AS A DAY OF EATING. I GUESS. LOOK, I DIDN’T HAVE A PLAN, AND KNOW I’M ALMOST CERTAINLY GOING TO HAVE AT LEAST 2.5 EASTERS THIS YEAR, SO I MAY AS WELL TALK ABOUT IT SOME MORE.