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The Bookshelf: Momofuku

Anna Mowry

Anna Mowry

December 17, 2009


David Chang and Peter Meehan discussed the Momofuku cookbook at the James Beard House

Arguably the decade’s most thrilling American chef, David Chang is the guy everyone else wants to emulate. But like his fluid, fast-and-loose menus, the guy’s formula for success is elusive—even to himself. Nevertheless, Chang and his buddy, writer Peter Meehan, dropped by yesterday’s Beard on Books to try to shed a little light on the making of the Momofuku cookbook and the cookbooks they dream of owning.

“I have this neurotic fear that our restaurants are all going to close tomorrow,” Chang confessed. “That’s sort of why we wrote Momofuku—we just wanted to chronicle everything that’s happened.”

Indeed, the book is decidedly Chang’s vision, slamming doors in the faces of convention and compromise. “I didn’t want to include a glossary of ingredients and where to get them,” the chef said. “We don’t spoonfeed.”

“The glossary of the book is ‘Google it,’” Meehan chimed in. (He explained that he actually fought for a glossary, but couldn’t make Chang budge.)

“Also, for example, every cookbook has a softshell crab recipe,” said Chang. “Every cookbook has that. I put my foot down on that one.”

“This book is his campaign against softshell crab,” Meehan joked.

Both men are cookbook hounds, and an audience member asked them if there’s a rare, “holy grail” cookbook for which they are always on the lookout. “I really want the English translation of Essential Cuisine by Michel Bras,” said Meehan. “But whenever I ask about it in a bookstore, it’s like they always sold their only copy the day before.”

“I have two copies,” smirked Chang. “But what I really, really want is Bras’s first cookbook.”

That would be Le Livre de Michel Bras. Tragically for Chang, it's been out of print for years. “As far as I know, the only people who have that book are the guys at Kitchen Arts & Letters (Manhattan’s cookbook treasure trove on the Upper East Side), Jeffrey Steingarten, and Wylie Dufresne, although I think he actually just has photocopies of all the pages. That book is why I’m ever on Ebay. I’m never going to find that book,” he said with a defeated sigh.

We also heard the schizophrenic and serendipitous story behind the naming of his restaurant empire. “When I lived in Japan, I loved to eat chicken thigh at yakitori bars—chicken thigh is ‘momo’ in Japanese. ‘Momo’ is also Japanese slang for a person who messes stuff up all the time. It also means peach. And after we opened Noodle Bar, I found out that a dude named Momofuku invented instant ramen,” Chang recited. “Plus, I just really love the Allman Brothers, and Eat a Peach is one of the best albums ever.” And fuku? “‘Fuku’ means lucky. It also sort of sounds like….” Chang trailed off, eyeing the audience knowingly.

Yeah, we know.