Even if you’ve never heard the name of award-winning chef David Chang, you’re almost certainly familiar with his work. There’s his restaurant empire, Momofuku Group; his Netflix series “Ugly Delicious” (which features more than one location in Japan); and he even became the first celebrity to win $1 million on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Now, thanks to “Eat a Peach: A Memoir,” out from Clarkson Potter last September, the world gets another, more personal, look into Chang’s career. You will walk away from it admiring his achievements and impact on restaurant dining. But how you will feel about the man behind the culinary creativity is far less certain.
by David Chang and Gabe Ulla
There’s a delicate balance when evaluating a memoir, being conscientious of critiquing the book versus an ad hominem attack on the author. To be sure, Chang’s prose is snappy and candid, and he has a knack for setting up engrossing vignettes and keeping you on your toes with quippy footnotes.
It’s hard not to cheer for Chang when still an underdog early in his career, he bluffs his way out of a health code violation by betting that the health inspector would test the minimum 30 seconds of continuous hot water requirement on a certain tap and diverting all the restaurant’s limited supply to that faucet. (Spoiler: It worked.) Or envy his recollection of cooking his way across Europe with Rene Redzepi, whose eatery, Noma, was dubbed The World’s Best Restaurant four times. Or chuckle at the anecdote about how Chang’s criticism of chefs serving plain “figs on a plate” in San Francisco’s Bay Area provoked so many people that “almost a year later, a website published a roundup of restaurants in San Francisco that were serving cheeky variations on the dish.” Hah.
Where Chang struggles is in creating a coherent narrative. From the start, he is self-deprecating about accuracy even while insisting the fundamental story is as true as he can make it. Timelines and chronology are fuzzy. “Perhaps my memory is editing the most hectic moments of my life so they’re easier to digest,” Chang hedges early on. “Or maybe I’m just a bullshitter.”
The first section, “Up the Hill,” opens on Chang’s childhood in Virginia and his ostensibly strained relationship with his dad. It picks up again with his decision to leave corporate America for a culinary career; his struggles through culinary school and early kitchen experiences; and further trials in getting Momofuku Noodle Bar (and every subsequent restaurant) off the ground around 2004.
It’s in this latter portion that Chang’s experience in Japan comes to the fore, inspiring the direction he wanted to take Momofuku (which, not coincidentally, is Japanese for “lucky peach”). “I could eat extraordinarily well in places that weren’t punishingly expensive,” he writes of his second time in Tokyo. “I don’t just mean ‘cheap eats.’ I’m talking about restaurants driven by technique and respect for ingredients and chefs who were just as devoted to their craft as those in the Western fine-dining kitchens that I had come to think represented the only legitimate path.” Japan’s influence shows in his menu at Momofuku, which merges ingredients and techniques from multiple culinary traditions and strives to find dishes with their “tightest and most delicious synthesis.”
“I don’t want to put words in everyone else’s mouths,” he writes about the experience of working at Momofuku in the early days. “But I hope they all look back on this period as fondly as I do.”
Upon hitting the second section, “Down and Back Again,” Chang explicitly says he’s “abandoning the chronological telling of this story to explore subjects I’ve yet to process with (my therapist).” In many ways, despite the disjointed storytelling, it’s where Chang sounds most sincere — jumping around with details of his ongoing struggles with alcohol, drugs, periods of manic highs and depressive lows, therapy and even with success itself. It’s a harsh — though necessary — truth to face if you want to understand Chang (or perhaps, with Anthony Bourdain, Benoit Violier and Bernard Loiseau also coming to mind, of the restaurant industry overall), but one that is made more digestible by the book’s no-frills style.
And yet, Chang’s previous qualifiers — that he’s “sure I’ve also contradicted statements I’ve made in the past, whether it’s because I’ve changed my mind or I was playing fast and loose with the facts” — mean he comes across as an immensely unreliable narrator throughout, and it’s impossible to fully lose yourself in his saga because you can’t help but suspect everything he says is just PR spin.
An essay published on food and dining site Eater by former Momofuku employee, Hannah Selinger, would suggest others certainly don’t agree with his recollections. In response to Chang’s accounts of the explosive rage he would heap upon employees, she writes, “but for all of the hand-wringing, all of the guilt … nowhere in the book does he say ‘I’m sorry’ or apologize — the word ‘sorry’ appears six times, never in the form of an apology — other than to ‘anyone whose role I’ve exaggerated or downplayed in my memory.’”
In what feels like a play to head off the criticism that Chang is rewriting the past, a later chapter, “Thirty-five” is meta-edited, with lines of text crossed out and “corrected” with what Chang wishes he’d said/done/thought in red. He revisits a situation so it now says, “my staff tells me I screamed at the man. Threatened him … I’m not excusing myself — I simply can’t remember.” It’s clear Chang wishes he could walk back his trademark kitchen anger, but it reads more like revisionist history than a heartfelt acknowledgement of his mistakes.
In bite-sized pieces, from certain angles, “Eat a Peach” is an enjoyable read. But despite the celebrity of its author, perhaps it’s best to take its tales with a pinch of salt.
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