15 Facts About “Ugly Delicious” Creator David Chang’s Rise From Star Chef to Multimedia Mogul
The person who may be most surprised by David Chang’s success as a chef, restaurateur and food innovator is David Chang.
“I spend most of my days trying to keep my shit together,” Chang said in a 2007 GQ profile. “The guys I worked for would say David Chang would be the last to succeed and have a successful restaurant. My DNA has nothing to do with success.”
These days, Chang is arguably the most recognizable American chef that doesn’t have a regular spot on Food Network. And with the recent success of “Ugly Delicious,” the Netflix series he produced, created and hosted, he’s transcended the world of food to become a multimedia star
Here’s how Chang overcame his success-averse DNA and developed a notable career.
Chang is a first generation American; his father emigrated from North Korea and his mother from South Korea as adults in the 1960s. He has two older brothers and an older sister.
Chang grew up in Arlington, Virginia, where his family ran a golfing equipment supply company and two restaurants.
Before he started working in kitchens, Chang hit the links. As a kid, he was a golfing prodigy who twice won the Virginia state championship in his age group.
“If he had kept playing golf, he would have beaten Tiger Woods,” his father told GQ in a 2007 profile. Chang, in the same profile, told the magazine that his father was “deluded” when he said he could have beaten Woods.
Noodles Over Nine Irons
It’s no secret that Chang’s father wanted him to be a professional golfer, which is why Chang spent hours every week perfecting his game. But his father may had inadvertently done in that dream by frequently taking Chang to a noodle restaurant near the family’s home.
Chang said he instantly was “transfixed by the guy making noodles — the way he’d weave and slap a ball of dough into a ropy pile.”
Getting an Education
Chang went to Georgetown Prep and then Trinity College, where he majored in religious studies. He held a number of jobs after graduation, including teaching English in Japan and low-level positions in the financial services industry in New York City.
In 2000, when he was 24, Chang enrolled in the French Culinary Institute while working part-time at Mercer Kitchen. He also picked up work answering phones at Tom Colicchio's Craft restaurant.
After two years at Craft, Chang moved back to Japan where he worked in restaurants ranging from a small, hole-in-the-wall soba shop to Tokyo's Park Hyatt Hotel.
9/11 as Catalyst
Chang started dreaming early of owning his own restaurant, but the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when he was still working at Craft, gave those dreams a sense of urgency.
Chang told Fortune he knew people killed in the World Trade Center. He said opening a restaurant and possibly failing suddenly seemed less scary than it had been.
Chang eventually pooled together $130,000 in startup capital from his father and his father’s friends to open Momofuku.
His First Restaurant: Momofuku
Chang returned to the U.S. and worked at Café Boulud in New York — in large part because one of his early culinary idols, Alex Lee, had worked there. Chang, however, would say he had grown "completely dissatisfied with the whole fine dining scene," prompting him to open his own restaurant.
Momofuku Noodle Bar opened in the East Village in 2004.
The restaurant’s name translates to “lucky peach,” but Momofuku is also the name of the inventor of instant noodles, Momofuku Ando. By 2006, Chang had opened his second restaurant, Momofuku Ssam Bar, a few blocks away from the original location.
Growing the Momofuku Empire
Chang opened his third restaurant, Momofuku Ko, in March 2008. The 12-seat restaurant takes reservations 10 days in advance on a first-come, first-served basis. Also in 2008, Chang expanded Ssam into an adjacent space and renamed it Momofuku Milk Bar, where he served his signature soft serve ice cream as well as a line of baked goods and deserts.
“Momofuku,” a cookbook by Chang and former New York Times food writer Peter Meehan, was released in October 2009. The following spring he opened Má Pêche in midtown Manhattan.
While Chang says he has worked to curb his notorious temper in recent years, the early years of his career were marked with outbursts that were legendary in New York kitchen circles.
Joaquin Baca, Chang’s right-hand man in his early restaurants, had the job of patching up holes the chef punched into walls.
"We refer to them as Korean termites," Baca told GQ in 2007.
Chef as Publisher: Lucky Peach, the Magazine
Chang launched Lucky Peach, a food magazine that aimed to break down barriers between food writers and chefs in 2011. With the feel of a highly-polished ‘zine, the magazine drew an instant and loyal audience, not to mention big-name writers (Anthony Bourdain was a contributor). The magazine closed abruptly in 2017.
“Dave and I have had a difficult but successful partnership for years, like two objects that both have intense gravitational pull,” Meehan, who co-founded Lucky Peach with Chang and Chris Ying, told the New York Times. “It made interesting friction for a while, but I think we just kind of collided in the last six months.”
International Expansion for International Cuisine
Chang’s first restaurant outside of the U.S., Momofuku Seiobo, opened in Sydney in October 2011.
“I've just fallen in love with Australia,” Chang told the Sydney Morning Herald at the time the restaurant opened. “I'm just fascinated by the food scene in Sydney and Melbourne. People are excited about food in Australia. It's fresh and it's energetic.”
That was followed by the opening of Momofuku Toronto in March 2011, which was essentially three restaurants in one: Noodle Bar, Daisho and Shoto; as well as a bar Nikai. Following the closure of Daisho and Shoto in late 2017, the space was refurbished and reopened as Kojin earlier this year.
Fuku, a fast-food chain specializing in fried chicken sandwiches, launched in 2015. In addition to providing concessions at sports stadiums and arenas, the chain has three locations following its October 2018 opening in Boston.
Chang opened Majordomo in Los Angeles in January 2018, as well as a restaurant in Las Vegas, which had been courting him for at least five years. Majordomo was his first West Coast restaurant.
In 2009 he started a minor controversy with dismissive comments about California chefs to Anthony Bourdain.
"They don’t manipulate food,” Chang said. “They just put figs on a plate.”
With Success Comes Critics
The higher Chang’s profile, the more vocal his critics.
Much of the criticism targets his unusual resume. Unlike most big names in the food industry, Chang didn’t spend years as a line cook or fight his way up the ranks of the cutthroat culinary world. Others point to the rapid expansion and liken his empire to a high-end fast food chain.
“His CV from before his rise is not like most guys who have insane records … Dave came out of cooking school, did a little bit of working in New York, and had an idea and ran with it,” David McMillan, co-chef of Montreal's Joe Beef, told Fortune. “But at the end of the day, everything he makes is delicious.”
And it’s not like the restaurants are pretentious. Just super-delicious food at restaurants with different price points.
With Criticism Comes Self Doubt
Chang said he feared Majordomo would be “the biggest joke in L.A.” in an early episode of his podcast. In the same episode, he talked about a brutal review of Momofuku Nishi, which opened in January 2016, by New York Times critic Pete Wells that left him feeling “completely broken.”
When “the kitchen reaches for the throttle, the results can be muddled or muted,” Wells wrote. “Too much of the cooking at Nishi is self-referential, inward looking and so concerned with technique that you can’t help being conscious of it. In his early days, Mr. Chang served the kind of food chefs like to eat: intense, animalistic, O.K. with messiness, indifferent to prettiness. Nishi serves the kind of food chefs cook to impress one another.”
Whatever caused the fallout between Chang and Meehan that led to the demise of Lucky Peach was short-lived. Meehan appeared in and was one of the producers of “Ugly Delicious,” an eight-part Netflix series where Chang combined travel, cooking and history for a documentary-like show. Each episode was centered around a single dish, like fried chicken or tacos.
The series premiered in February 2018. Netflix has not said whether there will be a second season.
Chef and Media Mogul
Continuing his push to be the Chef of All Media, Chang launched a podcast in April 2018.
“The Dave Chang Show” was part of his bigger ambition, which was the launch of Majordomo Media, his very own multimedia company. Part talk show and part confessional (in one early episode he talked about being “depressed” and “unsure of himself”), the podcast has gotten mostly positive reviews.