David Chang is one of the most talked-about guests at this year's Melbourne Food & Wine Festival but is perhaps also one of the most misunderstood. "What do we do at Momofuku? That's the hardest question ever," says Chang. He's a Korean-American, raised in Virginia, and has worked in Japan, but his food is far from strictly Korean or Japanese or even pan-Asian. "We're just trying to serve good food, regardless of the price range. I'm not averse to the word fusion now. What food culture isn't a fusion of other food cultures?" After working in several notable restaurants in Manhattan, Chang decided to open Momofuku Noodle Bar in the East Village. But though the name of the restaurant is Japanese (it means lucky peach) and its focus is ramen, the palette is broad enough to include Tennessee bacon in the dashi stock, and its northern Chinese-style pork-belly buns have become the stuff of chowhound legend. "Are they good? They are. Are they something that sprang from our collective imagination like Athena out of Zeus's forehead?" Chang writes. "Hell no. They're just our take on a pretty common Asian food formula: steamed bread plus tasty meat equals good eating."
Failure has been the mother of some of Momofuku's success. Though it teetered on the brink of bankruptcy for a while, the Noodle Bar brought Momofuku a modicum of renown. In 2006 Chang decided to open a second restaurant, with the ssäm, a Korean wrap, as its focus. Chang's version of the ssäm, burrito-like in its pork-stuffed tortilla construction, wasn't a hit. "The general take on the Ssäm Bar in its first incarnation was, 'this place sucks, the food is stupid, this guy was a total one-hit wonder'," he writes in the Momofuku cookbook. In dire straits and with nothing else to lose, Chang and fellow chefs Joaquin Baca and Tien Ho decided to let loose, and their no-holds-barred late-night menu, swooping from corn dogs to veal-head terrines, was a near overnight success. It soon became the only menu, placing country hams from Kentucky and Virginia cheek-by-jowl with polished takes on Vietnamese baguettes and Sichuan beef tendon; the burrito-ssäms became history and the restaurant was a hit.
With the Noodle Bar humming along and the Ssäm Bar bagging a three-star review from The New York Times, it was time for something new, and Chang's next restaurant, Momofuku Ko, took things to the next level. Chang had something of an epiphany at L'Astrance in Paris, and decided to open a restaurant as purely focused on cooking as he could manage. Opened in 2008, the small restaurant with sushi bar-style seating was intended to be "an interpretation of kaiseki cuisine" - highly formalised, very seasonal Japanese fine dining over a succession of small courses - "through an American lens." A place where an amuse-bouche of chicharrón, Mexican pork crackling, with Japanese seven-spice, might be followed by English muffins with bay leaf butter or soft-cooked hen's egg with caviar, onions and potato chips. With the focus so squarely on food ("no flowers, no vests and ties, no starched jacket and toques") and on a democratic approach to dining, Ko also featured an online reservation system. While the other two restaurants take no bookings, the only way to score one of Ko's 12 seats is to log on to momofuku.com first thing in the morning six days ahead of when you'd like to dine. With no exceptions to this approach for friends, VIPs, press or anyone else, the restaurant's continued acclaim in the face of such an annoying hurdle stands as testament to its essential qualities.
Following Ko, Momofuku expanded to a Milk Bar in 2009, a place that quickly gained a cult following for its cereal-milk ice-cream and Momofuku-ised Bacon & Egg McMuffin, made with slow-poached eggs, caramelised onions and lardons. The end of the same year saw Chang and journalist Peter Meehan publish Momofuku, one of the few cookbooks to contain the word "motherfer" while also carrying blurbs from both Ferran Adrià and Martha Stewart. This month, meanwhile, should mark the opening of Má Pêche, a new restaurant at The Chambers hotel in Midtown Manhattan, where the Ssäm Bar's Tien Ho will be chef. "It's gonna be French-Vietnamese," Chang says. "Má is Vietnamese for mother and Pêche is French for peach. It's really about giving Tien room to run. I'm not going to bulls and say that I'm the chef at every place because I'm just not."
Dave Chang has never been to Melbourne. Or indeed any part of Australia. "All I know is what Tony Bourdain has told me. You're gonna love it, is what he said. Great chef culture, good people, great produce. Everyone I spoke to who went to the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival last year said they had a blast."
He'd like you to come to his sessions or dinner with an open mind. "Actually, I'm not concerned with how you enter, but I want you to leave thinking, holy s*, that was totally awesome," he says. "I'm looking forward to it."
Catch Momofuku's David Chang at the festival's Langham Melbourne Masterclass, 20 and 21 March, or at his dinner atCumulus Inc, 18 March. For bookings and more information, see melbournefoodandwine.com.au.