Eat a Peach (2020) is a candid memoir that follows American chef David Chang’s rise to culinary stardom. It’s a raw and honest account of Chang’s struggles with mental illness, his thoughts on culture and identity, and how he enacted his vision of a new way of eating in America.
What’s in it for me? An intimate chronicle of the life of one of America’s most influential chefs.
In 2004, Momofuku Noodle Bar opened in New York’s East Village. It was a rebellious little ramen shop, owned by a young, unknown chef named David Chang. It was soon considered one of the coolest restaurants in the city. No one could have predicted it would make such an impact – but its success would mark the beginning of a complete reimagining of modern American cuisine.
Chang built an empire after the massive success of his first little project, with eateries all over the world, a cookbook, a Netflix series, and a podcast. He’s always sought to question and disrupt preconceptions of culture and food through Momofuku, which means “lucky peach” in Japanese. But throughout his journey, he contended with a lingering feeling of otherness that both inspired and inhibited him – as well as a mental illness that nearly killed him. These blinks dive into Chang’s inner life: his struggles, his successes, and his inspirations.
In these blinks, you’ll learn
- how depression both hindered Chang and led to periods of enlightenment in his career;
- why Chang’s “Asian Chipotle” didn’t work, but his fried chicken sandwich chain did; and
- why Chang views the story of Sisyphus as an inspirational tale.
Chang’s early years lacked a culinary through-line, but gave him a distinct perspective.
David Chang had a late start as a chef. It took him a while to stumble upon his passion for cooking. When he recalls his childhood in Virginia, he’s wary of shoehorning memories into a neat narrative that explains his rise in the culinary world. But his relationship with his family and his Korean identity certainly shaped his approach.
Growing up, Chang had a fraught relationship with his Korean immigrant parents. Chang’s father was hard on him, scolding and punishing him frequently. The love his parents showed him felt conditional on his success in life. He wanted badly to please them, but as a mediocre student he never felt like he could.
The key message here is: Chang’s early years lacked a culinary through-line, but gave him a distinct perspective.
The one way Chang made his father proud was through golf. He started playing when he was five. At age nine, he won back-to-back Virginia state championships. But even when he was a golf prodigy, his father was hard on him. At one point, his dad told him that he had to stop being ambidextrous – one of Chang’s few natural skills that he was proud of. His father worried it would impede his golf swing. And failure was not an option in their household.
When Chang was a teenager, he had a growth spurt that would ultimately ruin his swing and his golf game for good. From then on, he felt like nothing but a disappointment to his father.
When it came to food, Chang was embarrassed by the Korean meals his mom cooked and by his family’s Koreanness in general. He did have one formative food experience: the times when his grandfather would take him to eat sushi as a kid. Chang’s grandfather had an affinity for Japanese food for a dark reason: during the Japanese occupation of Korea, he was brainwashed to think of himself as Japanese.
In college, Chang studied theology – but only because he found the subject easy, having grown up in a very religious Christian family. After graduating, he floated around, first moving to Japan to teach English, and then working in finance – in a job he considered soul-sucking. Chang wondered what else he could do with his life. Intrigued by the restaurant industry after working as a busser and a bartender’s assistant in college, he quit his finance job and signed up for a six-month program at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. Finally, he found something he actually enjoyed doing.
As Chang began his cooking career, he also battled with depression.
Chang felt way behind. He was 22 and most of his peers had been cooking since they were 16. To catch up, he got a job working full-time at Mercer Kitchen, and on the weekends he answered phones at Craft, Tom Colicchio’s restaurant. Colicchio helped define modern American culinary sensibilities – which Chang preferred to needlessly complicated, Eurocentric fine dining.
Eventually, he convinced the cooks at Craft to let him work in the kitchen for free. He had no idea what he was doing and embarrassed himself often, but he kept showing up and working hard. Chang appreciated the fact that in the kitchen, every day was a new opportunity, a fresh start. After six months, they offered him a paid job.
The key message here is: As Chang began his cooking career, he also battled with depression.
After a couple of years, Chang left Craft for the high-end, Upper East Side restaurant Cafe Boulud – in order to get over his intimidation of French-style kitchens. He remembers his responsibilities there as some of the most labor-intensive of his career. The tuna carpaccio, for example, was a “14 nine-pan pickup,” meaning it required 14 containers of individually, painstakingly pre-prepared components – things like paper-thin circles of bluefin tuna and Nicoise olives cut into perfect ⅛-inch dice for the “confetti.”
Six months into the job, Chang grew disillusioned. This fancy cuisine wasn’t the type of food he wanted to cook or eat, and he had no idea what he was working toward. Meanwhile, his mother was sick with breast cancer and his brother and father were caught up in a business feud. Chang became consumed by a single thought: I want to die.
In hindsight, he was in the middle of the longest depressive state he would ever endure. He was always contemplating suicide, so his attitude toward his life grew increasingly cavalier – especially when it came to substance abuse. During this time, he landed in the ER after falling through a giant glass table at a party.
He asked himself if he really wanted to die. The answer was yes – but he was open to letting a professional try to talk him out of it. Which is when he found Dr. Eliot on the Upper East Side.
In Dr. Eliot’s office, Chang would begin to understand the themes of his depression: inferiority, inadequacy, not fitting in, and the belief that life was dumb and arbitrary. He was angry and felt let down by everyone. But during this time of self-reflection, Chang was determined to cook. He knew he didn’t want to follow the traditional chef’s path –he’d have to find his own way.
Chang took a huge risk when he opened Momofuku in 2004.
Between his stints at Craft and Cafe Boulud, Chang returned to Japan to cook and learn Japanese. He slept on a tatami mat in his dad’s friend’s ministry office and got a job working at the izakaya – an informal Japanese tavern – on the first floor. Later, his old bosses at Craft helped him get a job at the New York Grill on top of the Hyatt Hotel.
But the most eye-opening part of his time in Japan was that, despite being broke all the time, he was still able to eat like a king. Blue-collar workers and billionaires sat side by side in restaurants that were welcoming and relaxed without sacrificing the quality of the food.
He wondered why dining in America was so exclusionary. He suspected that the more egalitarian style of Asia could be a success if it was brought stateside.
The key message here is: Chang took a huge risk when he opened Momofuku in 2004.
In therapy sessions, Chang began to discuss his ideas for the future of American dining out loud for the first time. He told Dr. Eliot, “I think the underground in food can become overground.” This hunch would go on to make Chang’s career.
But nobody could have predicted that when he quit Cafe Boulud and started talking about opening a ramen shop in the East Village. According to what’s customary in the culinary world, he should have worked for another five years under great chefs before opening a restaurant of his own. Plus, in 2004, most Americans only equated ramen with the cheap microwavable kind. Everyone thought his idea was bizarre; nobody wanted to work with him.
On top of all that, Chang had no location and no funds. But he was determined. First, he found the perfect venue: a tiny former fried chicken spot with good foot traffic. But he needed money, so although he was nervous, he approached his father. Headstrong, Chang tried to convince his dad that this was his last chance to invest in him. It was now or never.
Surprisingly, Chang’s father agreed and combined forces with his Korean friends in Virginia to loan $100,000 to his son. Finally, Chang found a cook after putting an ad on Monster.com. His name was Joaquin “Quino” Baca, and he’d just moved to New York for a job at a high-end French restaurant – but ended up disappointed with it. Quino had no other option but to join Chang in opening Momofuku Noodle Bar.
Momofuku Noodle Bar was a surprise, runaway success, but exposed Chang’s temper.
At first, Momofuku Noodle Bar didn’t know what it wanted to be. The first iteration of the menu was a random assortment of snacks and soups; it totally lacked a point of view. But Chang and Quino were alone – they didn’t even have servers. They were so busy that they barely had time to look up and assess what they were doing, or why it wasn’t working.
Right before they ran out of money, they realized that trying to fit in was what had been holding them back. Like when they put dumplings on the menu, assuming that’s what people wanted. But people weren’t ordering them and Chang didn’t want to make them. In fact, nobody was expecting anything; most Americans weren’t even familiar with the concept of a noodle bar at the time.
The key message here is: Momofuku Noodle Bar was a surprise, runaway success, but exposed Chang’s temper.
The only reason Momofuku Noodle Bar was surviving was because their restaurant industry peers visited regularly. On those occasions, Chang and Quino got creative. They would draw from their backgrounds – Quino’s Mexican-American family, Chang’s Korean and Japanese influences – and combine them with anything else they found inspiring. This was their eureka moment: American food can be anything.
So they revamped the menu to offer the kind of food that their chef friends wanted to eat after work: loud, spicy, surprising dishes that drew from all over the culinary universe. Suddenly, there was a line out the door every night. Their pork bun – pork belly, hoisin, pickles, and steamed bread – was one of the stars of the menu; they sold 1,000 of them the first week they were introduced. The media was obsessed with the restaurant. New York was paying attention.
But Chang had stopped going to therapy, was drinking too much, and lashed out regularly at his new kitchen staff. The restaurant had an open kitchen, so when he lambasted the cooks, the customers witnessed it. One blogger even wrote a post denouncing Chang for publicly humiliating his employees.
It can seem puzzling that so many chefs have anger issues. It’s just food. And yet, they put a massive amount of work into creating something every night that will ultimately be flushed down the toilet. Chang noted the precarious balance of taking something so impermanent so seriously – and recognized that chefs must take food seriously to excel. So when a coworker or employee doesn’t seem to care as much as a chef, it amounts to challenging a chef’s entire worldview.
As the Momofuku empire grew, so did Chang’s mental instability.
With Momofuku Noodle Bar’s success, it made sense for Chang to open another location. But he had another concept he wanted to try: Asian Chipotle.
So, Chang opened Ssäm Bar. Ssäm means “wrap” in Korean. His aim was to provide a higher-end fast food experience. On the original menu, a customer chose a wrap, like bibb lettuce, flour pancakes, or toasted nori. Next, they selected fillings like Berkshire pork, red kimchi puree, and whipped tofu.
But the opening menu didn’t resonate with the public. To make matters worse, Chang had a whole roster of talented chefs who’d come on board to work with him after the success of Momofuku. But they were bored scooping shredded meats onto wraps. So Chang overhauled the concept and, once again, built a menu based on food they wanted to cook for their friends – transforming Ssäm Bar into a more refined version of Momofuku Noodle Bar. Their trademark dish was their decadent take on a Korean bo ssäm, in which they served a whole pork shoulder along with lettuce, rice, kimchi, sauces, and fresh oysters.
Eventually, Ssäm would be nominated for two James Beard Awards – and Chang would take home one: Best New Chef.
The key message here is: As the Momofuku empire grew, so did Chang’s mental instability.
As Ssäm grew in popularity, Chang’s emotional state swung between overconfidence and crippling insecurity. But he found stress to be an effective motivator. Chang backed himself and his staff into corners to promote creativity. He urged cooks to start working on new dishes at what would seem to be the worst possible time: in the hour before doors opened. Deadlines forced you to make decisions, he reasoned.
Chang was constantly imagining all the ways in which things could go wrong. Therefore, one of his philosophies was to undersell and overdeliver. Every Momofuku restaurant was decidedly unfancy – the volume was loud, the stools didn’t have backs, there was minimal decor. The food would speak for itself.
By the time they opened Momofuku Ko – a no-frills tasting restaurant – Chang had grown dependent on his mental illness. He equated any failure in the kitchen to a personal failure – so he had no choice but to succeed. It worked: reservations at Momofuku Ko were impossible to get because of the demand, and it won Best New Restaurant at the James Beard Awards.
After years of ignoring his mental health, Chang faced a year of personal and professional turmoil.
The spotlight was now shining directly on 35-year-old David Chang. Momofuku Ssäm was named number 31 of the best 50 restaurants in the world. But more and more staff members were leaving, and Chang was increasingly depressed, paranoid, and angry – viewing each departure as a betrayal. So he left New York to open the first Momofuku outpost outside of Manhattan – 10,000 miles away, in Sydney, Australia.
Momofuku Seiōbo was in an unexpected location: a 20-year-old hotel-casino that was undergoing a revitalization. He chose an awkward venue within the complex, far away from the gaming floor. He liked the idea of giving the public something cool where they’d least expect it. It was another success.
The key message here is: After years of ignoring his mental health, Chang faced a year of personal and professional turmoil.
Meanwhile, back in the States, Chang’s mother developed a brain tumor, his father had liver cancer, one of his friends died of an overdose, and another friend died in childbirth. But Chang rarely flew back. He didn’t know how to deal with everything, except by sequestering himself in Sydney and giving in to his worst impulses.
He was drinking heavily and once woke up in the janitor’s closet of another restaurant. And his anger issues only worsened. One night, he blacked out with rage at a maintenance man, who made the grave mistake of wandering into their serious kitchen, whistling cheerily. Chang doesn’t remember what happened, but was told that he waved his knife at the man in a threatening way. After this incident, he almost got deported.
There was one bright spot during this dark time. Chang took a promising 17-year-old American cook under his wing and became his mentor. His mentee was full of promise; he was bright, he was talented, and he cared so much about the business. Chang wanted him to eventually take over the kitchen at Momofuku Noodle Bar.
But then, the team started complaining about him. Chang called his mentee, and after reprimanding him, said they’d talk when Chang got back to New York. A few days later, the police found him dead in his apartment of an accidental overdose.
Chang felt like it was his fault. He was the boy’s big brother figure, and he and the Momofuku team had failed him.
Following the death of his mentee, Chang began to turn his life around.
For Chang, therapy had previously just been a place to release his pent up anxieties. But after the death of his mentee, his sessions with Dr. Eliot had become mortally necessary. He finally started dismantling the toxic parts of his belief system in therapy.
First, they discussed his mentee’s death. Dr. Eliot helped Chang understand that blaming himself was an egotistical way of looking at things. It suggested that, if he had the power to kill him, he also had the power to save him. But, of course, his mentee’s life was much more than merely his relationship with Chang.
Chang also stopped drinking, which gave him a clear mind so he could finally investigate his depression and his anger. Since childhood, he was ashamed of his Koreanness. He didn’t want to be himself, and drugs and alcohol released him from the shackles of his identity. Momofuku was also a way for him to carve out a new identity for himself.
The key message here is: Following the death of his mentee, Chang began to turn his life around.
Although Dr. Eliot knew Chang had bipolar disorder, he waited to tell him, preferring to avoid cut-and-dry diagnoses during their work together. When he finally did diagnose Chang, he also told him that he had affective dysregulation. This meant that when he’d flip out in the kitchen, it was because his mind was unable to process the event. He’d interpret any employees’ misstep as a sabotage attempt. His rage blackouts were like a temporary state of psychosis in which he couldn’t discern friend from enemy.
In addition to therapy, Chang hired an executive coach. Marshall Goldsmith had a holistic, personal approach, as opposed to merely addressing leadership shortcomings. He gathered comments from everyone closest to Chang at Momofuku – the good and the bad. By the end of reading the good feedback, Chang wondered if maybe he’d been too hard on himself.
But then came the criticism. Goldsmith expressed surprise that so many people had remained loyal to Chang when actually, they couldn’t stand him. Chang felt remorseful, but ready to change. Goldsmith helped Chang learn that his true job was not cooking, or crunching numbers, or commanding people. It was “eating shit.” This meant: listening, acknowledging his mistakes, having uncomfortable discussions, and putting others first.
Before he hired Goldsmith, Chang believed that when employees left the company, they were leaving him. Goldsmith explained that this reaction was evidence of an uncomfortable truth: he narcissistically believed that his staff was there purely to serve him. From then on, Chang dedicated himself to being a better leader.
Chang’s second act was about questioning cultural truths.
Chang was experiencing the mania side of bipolar disorder when he decided to take another crack at the fast food market. One night, he was eating at Chick-fil-A – or the “chicken bigots”, as he called the company whose leaders had publicly opposed same-sex marriage. The sandwiches were so good that he begrudgingly gave them his business – and then he was struck with inspiration. He decided he’d put his own spin on a fried chicken sandwich, and in the process, he’d do the opposite of spreading intolerance. He’d confront the public with their racism toward Asian Americans.
The name of the restaurant came easy: Fuku. It was a riff on Momofuku and a purposeful “fuck you” to anyone who mocked Asian culture or took it for granted. At their first location, he put up posters of offensive, stereotypical Asian villains that had somehow gone unchecked in American pop culture – like Oddjob from Goldfinger and Gogo Yubari from Kill Bill. The packaging was patterned with the misspelled word “Dericious!” to make white people feel awkward – and recognize how they were upholding cultural oppression.
The key message here is: Chang’s second act was about questioning cultural truths.
The chain was successful, even though the cultural commentary went over the public’s heads. But Chang was determined to continue undermining ideas of American identity. He wanted to show that what we hold to be true may only be a matter of perspective.
For example: Why was Italian food considered valuable, and priced accordingly, while Asian food was expected to be cheap? This question was at the heart of his next project, Nishi. Meaning “west” in Japanese, it was a high-end Italian-Korean restaurant. One of the trademark dishes was a riff on a cacio e pepe pasta dish, made with chickpea hozon, a fermented paste with notes of parmesan.
Finally, Chang began to embrace his own Korean heritage in two new restaurants: Majordōmo in LA and Kāwi in New York. For years, the elephant in the room was that his restaurants all had Japanese names even though he was Korean-American. He’d long felt the impulse to “protect” Korean traditions – as Korean culture is warier of outside interpretation than Japanese. But he’s slowly become more comfortable with prominently incorporating Korean cuisine into his menus.
David Chang has long viewed the story of Sisyphus, who was forced by the gods to eternally push a boulder up a hill, as an inspirational tale. At a certain point, living with bipolar disorder required him to make a decision. He could give up and give in to his darker, uglier impulses, and let fear run his life. Or he could live like Sisyphus. He could accept his fate instead of viewing it as a punishment. He could keep going, approaching each day with purpose.
He chose the latter.
The key message in these blinks:
At the beginning of his career, David Chang harnessed his insecurity into intense productivity, ultimately building an empire with fear as his motivation. But his struggles with mental illness and anger issues eventually caught up with him. Once he started to interrogate his feelings of otherness, he was able to channel that back into his work, making valuable statements about cultural identity in America through his food.
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What to read next: How to Eat a Peach, by Diana Henry
If you’ve enjoyed reading how David Chang pushed culinary boundaries with his restaurants, you might be in the mood for some home-cooking inspiration. Look no further than our blinks to How to Eat a Peach, a half-memoir, half-cookbook by well-traveled, adventurous chef Diana Henry.
In these blinks, you’ll learn tips on how to throw the perfect dinner party – from how to pick your produce to what makes a balanced dish. Plus, you’ll walk away with some new food and drink recipes. If you’re ready to get to know the philosophy of another fascinating foodie, check out our blinks to How to Eat a Peach.
About the author
David Chang is a chef, television personality, and founder of the Momofuku restaurant group.