By the book: Momofuku

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

"It is no accident that Momofuku sounds like motherf---er," writes "It" chef David Chang in his first cookbook.

Easily offended types should take note of that sensibility and stay away. Everyone else will be riveted to their reading chairs with the often funny, frequently cerebral and always bluntly written tale of the rise and even higher rise of an unlikely superstar chef.

Apparently doomed to success despite immense self-doubt and hubris, the pull-no-punches and slaughter-every-sacred-cow Chang does garnish his spicy and meaty prose with profanity; but that saucy language is not a cover-up for an undercooked entree, because Chang (along with former New York Times food writer Peter Meehan) has produced the must-have cookbook of the year.

Momofuku - which is Japanese for "lucky peach" - is the name of Chang's just-released book and it's also the moniker he chose for his outrageously popular and insanely critically lauded mini-empire of NYC "anti-restaurants."

Momofuku is also Chang's self-described "indirect nod" to Momofuku Ando, the inventor of ramen-style instant noodle soup. And it's an all-out quest for scratch-made ramen perfection that launches this uniquely entertaining book.

Packed with beautiful zoomed-in color photographs that succinctly depict Chang's ultra-contemporary takes on traditional food and artily convey the shifting moods - from kinetic to meditative, from tense to relaxed - of Chang and his staff at a trio of Chang's restaurants, Momofuku has a near perfect structure.

As much literary memoir as recipe roundup, the captivating Momofuku is broken up into three sections corresponding to the christening of new but vastly different restaurants named Momofuku - Noodle Bar, Ssam Bar and Ko. So each chapter begins with Chang's behind-the-scenes account of the eateries and then each concludes with recipes for their respectively famous dishes.

These recipes - which unfortunately are largely impractical for home cooks - are refreshingly presented with insightful, insidery and conversationally written head notes.

Noodle Bar was the first Momofuku incarnation, and that modest and tiny shop arose only after the young Chang, armed with a degree in religious studies, began wandering throughout Japan after scrapping his half-baked idea of writing a screenplay in which he transposed the Bhagavad-Gita Hindu epic to the American Civil War.

Around that time Chang found a new religious obsession - discovering and deconstructing the ideal bowl of ramen. This search eventually led him to decide to devise the ramen he'd love to eat, and thus gigs in a fancy cooking school and some high-end professional kitchens in New York City followed.

Finally striking out on his own, Chang experimented with noodle soup recipes, eventually highlighting an ingredient you can probably blame Chang for over-popularizing - pork belly. His legion of freshly minted fans, as they say, went hog-wild.

Restless for a new challenge, Chang decided to open Ssam Bar, in which he hoped to create a prototype for an Asian-style Chipotle chain. Summing up this period, Chang writes, "I was Ahab, and the burrito was my white whale."

Hence while the driving inception for Ssam (which is Korean for sandwich "wrap") was a sinking failure, Chang again drifted onto wild success after 86ing the Asian burrito idea for more creative fare (in which pork belly also played a significant role).

But it is with Ko, Chang's third restaurant, where he, his cooking and this book find their fullest expression of brilliance. Ko (which means "son of") Momofuku would epitomize Chang's vision of a great "anti-restaurant." That meant an intense focus on food only, and not, as Chang describes in this book, having to "spend millions on floral arrangements and fancy linens and underpaid illegal busboys."

Furthermore, the gravy train for celebrities was pulling to a stop here, as reservations to the minuscule Ko would be available, without exception, via a daily online lottery on a first-come, first-served basis (a very reliable source told me that Chang's own parents couldn't get in for a year).

To read the highly intellectualized chess-game-like progression of the dozen or so courses that make up the reportedly glorious tasting menu at Ko is to climb inside the mind of a brilliant chef who is currently - as Anthony Bourdain has said - "at the center of the world." I thoroughly recommend you make that motherf---ing climb.