I love David Chang as a man and as a cook. His restaurants, cookbooks, and insane workaholic schedule as a television host and publisher of Lucky Peach make him one of the hardest working chefs in American culture right now. His food is gorgeous, his personality is magnetic, and his career as a team leader is unmistakably effective. I also know that he was incredibly close to Anthony Bourdain and that Bourdain was a mentor and huge supporter of his illustrious career of making it big as a triple threat in the culinary world. Chang seems unstoppable, and his work ethic and drive contribute to the tireless company that runs off his name and Momofuku’s success.
I was excited to finally pick up Chang’s book. I mean, I was looking forward to something that reminded me of the momentum of the shows, and I really enjoy these sort of kitchen memoirs in their frankness, danger, excitement, and transparency that reminded me of the many years I spent in the service industry… And also tasting a bit of the magic behind the scenes in Chang’s life – as all chefs in these sorts of tell-alls – is the main charismatic element to reading books such as these.
The book covered the opening of his restaurants and his successes and failures of his career. I really enjoyed the elements of his personal life. I loved learning about his childhood and stable upbringing and the dedication to which he prioritizes his family above all else. I also felt a great deal of compassion with the thread that ran throughout the book regarding his struggles with mental health – and I found the family, personal anecdotes, and personal awakenings to be the strongest parts of the memoir overall. But I would say the majority of the book felt like a laundry list of the successes and failures of his empire, and I left the book feeling like he will never be satisfied with everything he has accomplished because he hasn’t quite come to terms with them being accomplishments.
Overall, the main issue I had with the book is its identity as a book as a whole. Throughout the narrative, Chang tells us that he is not really sure what he is writing – and he is right. We never really have a grasp on what he is doing and where he is going in the book because he doesn’t feel like he did, and I think that in a linear sense that the editor had a lot of work cut out for them in constructing some sort of through-line while maintaining Chang’s voice. He also understood what he was doing and where his shortcomings in the book were, and reminds us of them often. So, the problem I found was that it didn’t really meet my expectations as a narrative with structure (life doesn’t have that, I get it), didn’t meet my expectations as a management book (until you get to the final 33 rules at the end), and didn’t meet my expectations as a memoir (there wasn’t enough of the stuff I liked about his life, and too much of the listing of things he was doing, which I didn’t). There were some great parts of each of those areas, of course. My major enjoyment came from his awakening and exploration of his mental health, his family, the birth of his first child, his successes, and his relationship with Bourdain… But that all felt like it was a footnote in the listing of what he accomplished, and most often his accomplishments were never enough and always on the razor’s edge of failure (and when I say failure, they all teetered on the edge, and he kept adding more, Michelin stars or not).
I feel like this book didn’t meet my expectations even though I love Chang and his work. There were a lot of moments that I felt like it was a bit of a slog to get through. Perhaps this isn’t the best vehicle for his voice, however, since I love every other iteration of his work. I will continue consuming the rest of his words and meals in the ways I already enjoy.
Momofuku Pork Buns Image by By Schellack – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12701692