Culture of the Kitchen: David Chang

Earlier this week René Redzepi wrote an article for Lucky Peach about his “Fantasies of a Happier Kitchen”, in which he spoke openly about the legacy of abuse and fear in professional kitchens. Since its publishing, MAD and Lucky Peach have been on the lookout for responses from other cooks and chefs to hear what they think might change or improve in the industry. Here are some thoughts from Momofuku / Lucky Peach’s David Chang.

Rene brought up a lot of big and small issues that chefs are grappling with as we try to figure out how to do our jobs in the modern world. I’m not trying to trivialize the idea of looking critically at the difficulties facing the culture of the kitchen—I just think it’s hard for anyone that’s on the outside looking in to understand the absurdity of it all, or the choices we encounter as young cooks.

I live in a world of terrible analogies. If they’re not sports references, then they’re usually about Star Wars, so please bear with me.

Much like the force, in the culinary arts you’ve got the dark side and the light side. The dark side is vicious and single-minded—it employs fear to command and control cooks. The light side is empathetic, compassionate.

The thing is, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, when you’re looking at a list of the “best” restaurants, you’re looking at places that practice on the dark side: it produces refined, artistic cooking. It makes for fierce kitchens that can bend time and matter and people to achieve what they want and make it look graceful by the time the food makes it out to the dining room.

You get immediate results. That’s why the dark side, for all its brutality, draws in the most chefs. Everybody wants to look like and live like they’re in the pages of White Heat. It’s sexier. It’s cooler. It’s the reason why cooks want to work with that young chef that has two Michelin stars and wants a third at any cost.

Whether you’re a Sith lord (chef, in this analogy, again, apologies) or apprentice, the dark side has an amazing ability to convince you that your decisions are not only best for you, but best for everyone. You rationalize sacrificing everyone around you—your wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend, family, best friends, and especially your cooks—to achieve your goals.

As a cook, you come out of it cold-hearted and alone, but invincible. Your light-saber technique is unstoppable. You go on to open your own place and you draw new blood into your circle, into the way you’ve been raised.

But when you finally get to where you want, there’s no one left to celebrate it with. You realize that you’ve sacrificed all these people for your own selfish gain. You have not built cooks, you’ve burnt through them, and in the long run you’ve screwed yourself over. You are alone with your stars and your perfect plates.

Ten years ago, I would have said that chefs from the light side are a bunch of fucking losers.

But now, from inside the black mask, I realize that the light side is a much more difficult path to follow. Think about it. In Star Wars, they always talk about “giving in” to the dark side. The dark side is the easier path. To curb your anger and fear and base instincts, to go against your default settings as a cook, it’s extraordinarily hard.

Those on the light side, whether they were always on that side or came to it later by traveling the dark side first, choose not to sacrifice life or the celebration of it, of food, of farmers, of the joyous occasion eating should be.

As my years in the profession stack up, I find myself caring less about cutting-edge cooking and more about the well-being of my employees and how my customers feel. It’s something Jeremy Fox spoke out in the profile Rachel Khong wrote for Lucky Peach. For Jeremy, leaving his high-profile position at Ubuntu—where he was burning through everything around him—to cook simpler food, even if it meant that people wouldn’t care as much about it, was okay with him. Necessary for him.

I was blown away at the time. Honestly, I thought about Jeremy’s choice for years after he left Ubuntu. I couldn’t understand how he could leave the position he’d fought so hard to occupy, to walk away from the insane and well-deserved accolades and his truly international influence over cuisine and gastronomy.

But now I am beginning to understand. I’m learning that any Jedi can turn to the dark side. They have to be vigilant and choose not to go down that road. I’m sure there are going to be people who work for me who say, “This is bullshit. Dave is full of fucking shit.” They’re probably right, but it’s only now that I’m truly appreciating an approach to cooking that’s the opposite of what I was raised with. In every kitchen I worked in as a young cook, success was achieved through force, through pressure, through putting the cooking above all else—above life itself.

But if my ultimate goal is to make the best food possible for my guests, then how can it be to my benefit to have a kitchen full of terrified cooks? I see now—which is not say to I live the example—that when you manage using fear, cooks are going to do whatever they can to lie about their mistakes, to blame other people, to avoid accountability. They will, just like you, believe something that’s not true, and in the end, they will know how to imitate what they’re shown, but not know how to cook.

Look, I’ve been one of the most vocal whiners about the current pool of talented cooks being diluted, about cooking becoming white-collar and corporate. But the reality is that if times are changing, we chefs have to find a way to change with them.

I don’t know exactly what needs to change or even what I need to do. As it is, I’m in the kitchen less than ever before. Plus, everyone’s lives and kitchens are different. But nested within that statement is the idea of empathy, and empathy is the tool of the light side. When we chefs lose our shit and scream at somebody who makes a mistake, what’s going through our heads? That this person is somehow happy to have fucked up? Nobody is happy about fucking up. Nobody is happy about burning the most beautiful piece of lamb or messing up a brunoise. Nobody, whether you’re on the light or dark side, likes that.

I still maintain that cooking and cooks are not as good as they used to be. When Star Wars begins, the dark side is in control—that’s where we are now. In the old school, the dark side, there was only one way you could be successful: you had to be an asshole. The dark side is moral absolutism. I don’t want to live in a world ruled by moral absolutes. The light side says that many paths are true.

I think we’re just beginning to embrace the light side, and that a hundred years from now, cooking will be better than ever before. I truly believe that. I think we’re sacrificing a ten- or twenty-year period to rethink how we’ve cooked. Whenever you overhaul something, shit gets fucked up for a while. We understand that, but if we want to get better, we have to be smarter, we have to invest more in the profession.


Rene Redzepi’s Fantasies of a Happier Kitchen
Reader responses to Fantasies of a Happier Kitchen

Iliana Regan on the power of leading by example

Illustration by Paul Windle

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