Tuesday, May 13, 2014

How David Chang’s Take on Food Relates to Identity

With the rise and triumph of Momofuku Ko, Ssäm Bar, and Milk Bar, along with his many other projects (including the quarterly magazine Lucky Peach and the PBS documentary series The Mind of a Chef, David Chang has staked a claim in the food world, and people are paying close attention. “Innovative” and “rebel” are buzz words that people commonly attribute to Chang; but, with more interviews and profiles, the most prominent qualities that emerge are his dedication and honesty.

David Chang

Chef David Chang prepares roasted rice cakes at Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York

(Photo: AP/Diane Bondareff)

And it’s not just honesty about his tastes on food. It’s honesty with things ranging from his views on failure and religion to his personal fears for the future. What caught my attention was his openness of expressing his struggles with grasping an identity rooted in heritage.

In an interview with Big Think, Chang was asked how his Korean heritage changed his world view. He responded:

I didn’t fit in when I lived in Korea because I wasn’t “Korean” Korean. I’m what they call a “gyopo“, which is an American-born Korean. And I didn’t fit in with the kids I went to school with because I wasn’t white. And I didn’t fit in with the Korean Americans because I hung out with the white kids. So it created awkward situations for me, but I had to adjust.

Chang’s answer reflects on what some people from immigrant and second-, third-, etc. generation homes experience. They can’t identify with others of their national origin since they were born and/or raised in the US, but they also can’t relate to the particular hybrid “hyphen American” culture they encounter around them. Instead, they are caught in a limbo between these two kinds of identities, struggling to find a footing within a cultural or heritage group.


Grits with fried farm eggs, pickled scallions, red ball radish, and salted ham scraps

(Photo: Hans Gissinger)

One of the struggles of living in this limbo is that others don’t recognize it. It is common to assume that if you are of a specific ethnicity or heritage living in the US, you fit the criteria of being part of the “hyphen American” experience. However, as the years pass and the diversity of immigrant families grow, more people discover themselves in a group that defies categorization; they are, essentially, outside of the “hyphen American” culture. As a result, they, like Chang, learn to adjust.

For Chang, part of that adjustment is reflected in his food. While ethnically Korean, Chang serves and cooks food that is insipired by many cuisines and influences.

The food that we have our restaurants, at Momofuku, is a little bit eclectic, it’s all over the place. Obviously there’s an Asian bent, but not really… the menus have country hams from Tennessee, North Carolina, and Kentucky. We have crudo, roast ducks that are stuffed in a very Chinese/French way… I think that most people are stuck in the realm of having to categorize stuff, and I think that limits your ability to make delicious food. So that’s what I try to say: we try to make delicious food.

Like many artists, chefs face questions of the “authenticity” of their work. But, is a chef’s ethnicity a directive of his or her cuisine? Does one have an obligation to respect and keep the purity of the flavors of his or her heritage?

With the rise of food fads and trendsetting yet soon-to-be-forgotten ingredients and cooking techniques, these questions are nevertheless relevant because more and more people want food that has some sort of significance. Heritage and ethnicity can, at times, guarantee the authenticity that diners crave.


A selection of pies from Milk Bar; don’t worry, “crack pie” is not “authentic”

For Chang, these questions do not disturb him. He still pulls flavors from Korea and other parts of Asia, but his fare doesn’t fit into any Asian cuisine – not that, it seems, he wants it to. Chang takes his preferences, inspirations, and spontaneous impulses to make food what it is supposed to be in the first place: delicious.

In some ways, one can draw parallels between Chang’s take on food and his and many others’ adjustment to living in a cultural limbo. While there is something deeply meaningful of being part of an established or specific group, food and one’s personal identity don’t have to be categorizable. Instead of sticking to “authentic” foods, Chang’s creations are straight-up good. Taste surpasses any sort of obligation to ethnicity or culture, which could reflect Chang’s own personal story of not fitting in anywhere.


Make your own group

(Photo: Hans Gissinger)

Similarly, people in “limbo” can find or form a foundation that surpasses heritage and culture. It’s not to say that heritage is forgotten, but heritage no longer needs to strictly dictate so many components of one’s identity.

For each person, that foundation or rooting certainly varies in shape and form, and may even change a lot as time progresses; it could also be a conglomeration of many different experiences. Whatever that foundation may be, it is personal and can be free of restrictions due to categorizations. Instead of being authentic with respect to heritage, it will be real with respect to the individual.

Main image: AP/Diane Bondareff

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