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Inside Momofuku Nishi

David Chang isn’t opening an Italian-Korean restaurant. Or is he?

By Lucky Peach January 8, 2016
Photograph by Gabriele Stabile

Editor and teen heartthrob David Chang is opening a new restaurant called Nishi in Manhattan today. It’s in Chelsea, and it’s, um, different than the other Momofuku outlets around at the moment. He was feeling chatty, so we sat him and Joshua Pinsky down and asked them some questions about what everybody on Snapchat is already calling “the Neesh.” —Lucky Peach

Why didn’t you open another Noodle Bar? I thought that’s what you were going to do? I thought that’s how you become a mogul?

David Chang: Nishi is what Noodle Bar would be if I opened it up as a thirty-eight-year-old, not a twenty-six-year-old. We know how to play all our instruments now. The skill level here is higher.

Aren’t you also rolling out a fast-food enterprise? How does this fit into the plan?

DC: None of this was part of the plan. We never have a strategic vision. Up until two months ago, this was going to be Fuku++. Everybody hated that name except for me. After that I wanted to call whatever we opened in this space Momofuku Chelsea. But then people told me we couldn’t call it that so we called it Nishi, for West, because it was west of wherever the fuck we were.

Sean Gray, chef of Momofuku Ko, said, “Why don’t you take the opportunity to do something new? You haven’t done something new in New York in quite a long time.” Ko had moved and we opened Fuku, but we hadn’t done a new full-on restaurant in New York in five years.

I wanted to do something new—whether people outside believe it or not, I don’t know—but I literally don’t care. We’ve done it in Toronto, D.C., and Australia, but the core team of Momofuku is based here in New York, and they haven’t gotten to be hands-on with that. How can we make this extremely different for ourselves so those people know what it’s like to do something? I wanted us to feel like we don’t know what we’re doing with this restaurant, even though we do. We’re nauseous—and that’s good, because we haven’t felt like that in a long time. I’m terrified of this restaurant. Every opening feels like shit, but we don’t even know how this going to be perceived.

Part of what is going to make the restaurant exciting is that Josh Pinsky has come back to the company to run it, along with Carey Hynes. Josh was at Ko for six years and Carey was there for three. I got to work with Josh over the past year at Ko, and I saw what a super talented cook he was. That’s lame to say but he is a genuinely nice guy to boot.

I’m going to be here for the opening, but this is Josh’s restaurant. I want him to have all the success in the world. I worry about my stupid ego getting in there and fucking it up. I get all the credit but these guys know that I want it to be their space.

What is it that you’re doing here?

DC: We just want to make tasty food.

There are Italian words on the menu but we’re not trying to make Italian food. We’re not trying to make a Korean restaurant. We’re trying to do something that we’ve never done at Momofuku. We’re inspired by Italy but we’re not using any Italian ingredients. Things are moving at light speed here.

Josh Pinsky: We’re looking at what Italy has done and walking away from it at the same time. We’re looking at classic Italian dishes and thinking about what makes them great. Then we say, “What if this didn’t have parmesan? Would it be the same?”

DC: This is like writing a paper. Our thesis right now is: How do we find certain patterns in food through cultures?

Take su jae bi. It’s the same thing as malfati, which is essentially the same thing as chicken and dumplings. The best version of chicken and dumplings is not made with a home broth but with chicken bullion loaded with MSG. The chicken broth for su jae bi is made with seaweed and dried anchovies—which add MSG—and the “noodles” are roughly-made flour dumplings. Malfati is basically dumplings cooked in chicken soup with a ton of parmesan—which adds MSG—on top. What if we took the best of each dish and merged them into one? That’s what we’re doing here. It’s all three dishes at the same time.

There are all these parallels, and our best dishes at Momofuku have been a merger of these disparate cultural things. If people want to call it fusion, well fuck you. It is fusion. Tell me what food isn’t fusion?

What if we only use Asian ingredients to make food that tastes like it’s from other places? Braising a meat and putting it on a plate and cooking down the sauce—if I do that with chicken, it doesn’t mean that it’s chicken Marsala. I assure you that the Shandong chicken was made way before that. There’s a whole Eurocentric view in cooking that I don’t jive with. It’s too expensive? Fuck that.

I’m done with people telling me that I can’t charge what I want to charge for things. Nishi_2
The only difference between these dishes is price point and regionality. Most people don’t know what su jae bi is. Most people do know what chicken and dumplings is. But there’s a weird cost association that if it’s Asian, it has to be cheap. But we’re making our own chicken broth. We’re making our own noodles. It’s a labor-intensive dish.

It pisses me off that Asian food has to be cheaper. Why? Not one person has given me a reason why. All the ingredients that we’re getting are top quality, and just as expensive as any other restaurant. Look at the version of cacio e pepe we’re serving here. The only expensive ingredient we’re not using is parmesan—and guess what parmesan is? MSG. We’re replacing the parmesan with our own fermented chickpea paste that took us six to nine months to make. So fuck you guys. I’m not getting on the phone and ordering a wheel of parmesan. Don’t tell me that I can’t charge like Italian food.

Josh is a weird guy but extraordinarily gifted as a cook. He made this grilled sweet potato that I didn’t even try until yesterday because I was like, who would want that?

JP: It’s sweet potato vinegar, burned garlic, and hoisin sauce for this kind of candy glaze. Then we scatter raw chilies and crispy fish all over it.

DC: And when I ate it I had a Ratatouille moment. I immediately was like, Oh my God this is like eating with my grandmother. She loves sweet potatoes. That was her number one. She would start fires in the middle of the summer to cook sweet potatoes in aluminum foil. She would always cook dried fish of some sort with it. She would eat the sweet potatoes with bites of fish. And if she didn’t have a sweet potato, she would put sugar and butter on a regular potato and eat it like that. In one bite, I was back there. We’re going to fail more often than we’re going to hit those notes, but we hope to do that.

This restaurant is inspired by so many things. Almost all of the meats are inspired by Chinatown. Cantonese stuff, barbecue. The desserts are inspired by our moms. We’re using all these references, but we really just want to make food that is tasty to us.

Let’s talk about the tipping, or lack thereof.

DC: We have a restaurant in Australia where tipping is not like it is here. I got to see just how much our cooks and servers make. It’s a considerable amount, and there is greater parity between the front and back of house. I don’t know if anyone has a restaurant in Australia who can say that, but we can. It is crazy how much money a cook can make relative to NYC—still not enough, but a lot. It was an idea that we want to try.

Bottom line is we want to pay sous chefs, cooks, and dishwashers a living wage.

People say, “Why don’t you just charge more money?” They’re idiots. Margins are slim to none. Restaurants are not a very profitable business. This is an opportunity to pay our cooks more.

The real cost of selling food is not accurately reflecting the labor that’s going into it. In 2000, I got paid maybe $10 an hour. Inflation has definitely risen, but cooks’ wages haven’t. That’s one of our biggest issues. We want to be able to grow as a company so we can provide for more people. This is a way we might be able to do that. And if it doesn’t work, we can always go back to the old way.

Does this neighborhood need this restaurant?

DC: It needs something. I live here and fuck it needs a neighborhood restaurant. But this isn’t really a neighborhood restaurant either. Hopefully we’ll draw people from all over the place.