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Chef David Chang's uneasy celebrity 

Momofuku chef wines and dines in Chapel Hill

Last December, I attended a dinner party hosted by Atlanta photographer Joel Silverman. The dinner was in celebration of the release of chef David Chang's Momofuku cookbook, and all the food Silverman cooked for the occasion was from the new book. Friends of mine clamored for an invitation, and in the days leading up to the party, the e-mails flying back and forth between attendees hummed with anticipation. This was unusual – every year certain cookbooks get a lot of hype, and some (such as Matt and Ted Lee's 2006 The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook) become cultural touchstones for the foodie movement. But the level of excitement generated by the release of Momofuku was something I hadn't seen before, and it mirrors the passion people feel for the Momofuku restaurants and chef Chang.

On Feb. 9 in Chapel Hill, N.C., a similar dinner party occurred, except instead of happening in someone's home it took place in one of the region's best restaurants. Lantern, owned by chef Andrea Reusing, hosted a nine-course meal made up of dishes from Momofuku. Chang, on the tail end of his tour to promote the cookbook, would be in attendance. At $150 a head (including wine parings but not tax or gratuity), the dinner sold out practically before it was announced. I was lucky to get a seat.

Momofuku provides recipes from Chang's three restaurants. It also chronicles the unlikely tale of the chef and his team and their rise to popularity and critical acclaim that has surprised everyone, Chang in particular. In a March 2008 New Yorker profile of Chang, Larissa MacFarquhar wrote:

"In the past couple of years [Chang] has unexpectedly and, in his mind, accidentally and probably fraudulently, become one of the most celebrated chefs in the country. He is way too neurotic to handle this, however, so he compensates by representing himself as a bumbling idiot."

In his restaurants, Chang cooks a kind of Asian/American super-creative hybrid, food that you might expect if you let a talented cook with an Asian background loose in a well-stocked kitchen at 2 a.m. after he'd had way too much to drink. He calls himself a "mediocre cook," which is both endearing and slightly obnoxious coming from a guy who's won multiple James Beard Foundation awards, including Best Chef in New York City.

While some of Chang's recipes seem like the work of the drunkenly hungry (in all the right ways), many of them reveal an obsession with flavor and technique. Much of the book details Chang's relentless pursuit of learning to make ramen. Many recipes are complex assemblages, requiring multiple broths or pickles or meat preparations. But Chang also talks about how one of his staple dishes, the pork belly he uses in many recipes, came from a mistake: One day, he overcooked his pork belly, rendering out half the fat and leaving the meat super crispy.

Before the dinner, I had a chance to sit and chat with Chang. I asked him about the book's tone, and in particular about the idea of a mistake being central to one of his most iconic recipes.

"For me, making mistakes in the kitchen is crucial to becoming a better cook," he said. "If you ever think you're a great cook, then you're setting yourself up for massive failure."

Reusing is the definition of badass -- she's beautiful, talented, married to a rock star (Merge records founder and Superchunk frontman Mac McCaughan), and dedicated to all the right food fundamentals. Apart from owning and operating Lantern, she's been instrumental in the North Carolina Slow Food chapter, and will be cooking at the Farmer's Feast this Saturday at the Georgia Organics conference in Athens. Lantern is Asian-influenced, but -- unlike Chang -- Reusing has shunned the word "fusion," instead serving dishes that are true to their geographic origins. When she introduced Chang at the dinner, she said his restaurants were "the first we go to as a restaurant family when we arrive in New York City, and the last we eat at on our way to the airport when we come home."

After Reusing introduced Chang, he got up and explained (in characteristically self-effacing style) that he would be eating, not cooking, "As with most things these days it seems that the less I do, the better things get." Even now, on the tail end of a book tour and after years of intense attention, you can see the genuine struggle in Chang to come to terms with his very public position in life. When I had spoken to him earlier, he laughed, saying, "I'd feel more comfortable if I could be in the kitchen and not have to talk to anyone. But that's not going to happen. So I'm going to embrace it."

While many of us were there as much for his presence as for the food (Lantern held the same dinner the previous night but without Chang in attendance; that dinner didn't sell out), the fact that he wasn't cooking barely bothered anyone. In fact, it served as a testament to the cookbook itself. If the staff at Lantern could take his book and turn out a Momofuku-style dinner, then the recipes live up to their promise.

The dinner, like the meals I've had at Chang's restaurants and the meal I ate at Silverman's house, was mind-blowing. Beginning with a raw fluke nestled next to a buttermilk and poppy seed sauce ("What's that tanginess in the sauce?" a woman at the table asked. I whipped out the book and turned to the recipe. "Sriracha," I said. "Of course!" she exclaimed, delighted), and traversing bacon dashi, the famous Momofuku pork buns, and a final savory course of fried chicken, it was amazing how much we were able to eat. I was barely aware of my fullness until well after we'd finished. At one point, a dish of what looked like beige snow was placed in front of us: shaved foie gras, hiding in its downy nether regions fat juicy pieces of lychee and tooth-achingly sweet hunks of pine nut brittle. I wrote on my menu: "Extreme salt, sweet, funk, creamy, feathery crunch!! Outrageous."

On the surface, it's hard to say what's caused the Momofuku frenzy. But for food fanatics, one cookbook, three restaurants, and one chef and his team represent the irresistible convergence of our disparate obsessions: noodles (ramen!), meat (pork belly! Fried chicken!), Asian cuisine (Japanese, Korean and beyond!), cheffy ingredients (foie! Uni!), and one dude who swears too much and would rather be in the kitchen than out in a dining room traversing the strange waters of celebrity. Luckily for us, he's embracing it.


Hear audio excerpts from Besha's interview with David Chang on our Food & Drink blog, Omnivore Atlanta.

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