David Chang has done it all. He exploded to the scene in 2004 with his first Momfuku Noodle bar in East Village. Since then he has turned street food into haute cuisine winning all type of accolades in the process. He won the Outstanding Chef of the year at the James Beard award, opened one restaurant after another in different cities and countries becoming a highly successful restauranteur in the process. He’s written best selling books, reinvented how a culinary magazine should look like with Lucky Peach (now defunct) and is also a television personality. In a few words, he is a big figure in the world of gastronomy and that is not just in a literal sense.
So why take part in events like GELINAZ! which are bound to cause him lots of stress? Why head to Austria for the GELINAZ! DOES UPPER AUSTRIA event when he does not even know most of the chefs that are taking part in the event?
“I have not done a GELINAZ! event for some time because I have been busy. But there are two reasons why I do it. One is that Andrea Petrini (one of the co-curators of GELINAZ!) has been one of my biggest supporters since I opened Momofuku for almost 11 years. He has been unconditional in his support. However, I can repay the favour, I will always do it.”
That he respects Andrea Petrini is an understatement. “Our world needs more Andrea Petrini’s which is a crazy statement, if you really think about how crazy that statement is. Andrea has followed the careers of many chefs. He is a fan of food and has been able to curate the modern day chef from Marco Pierre White to René Redzepi To find someone who has this sense of palate and taste and style and essence of time and place is really rare. He is a close friend and he has supported me even when I made stupid decisions,” says David.
But there is also another reason why David and others like him drop everything to take part in an event like GELINAZ!. “In this business, you rarely if ever work with people who are your friends. We have been doing this for over 10 years and some of us are approaching 40 or are over 40.”
He can count the established chefs like René, Mauro and Magnus among his friends but this is the only opportunity he has of being able to work with them. “We are like a Roman band of people who you can always count on with fresh faces in every event.”
He says that this is the best and freshest GELINAZ! because to be honest ‘it has always been a bit of a dude show in my opinion’. “It is nice to have the opposite sex properly represented. This is a good development. But it is also about being able to meet new people. Quite frankly doing these dinners is incredibly stressful. Often, they can be crappy but that is a small price to pay to be able to hang out with your friends and exchange new ideas,” he says.
“These are relationships that are going to last. There are kids here who are just 23-25 years old and I told them that this is how Magnus and I, Mauro and I or René and I met and we have become very close friends over the years. This is really important.”
As an accomplished chef and a successful restauranteur at 40 he knows what it takes to reach the top and be successful. So what is his advice for young chefs coming up today. “I was talking with one of them and they were saying how difficult it was to leave their mark because we are in their way. I said this was really short-sighted and stupid. The reason why all of us are here is that we choose to do what we did despite the fact that our mentors were in the way and we did the opposite of what they did. You need to have more solidarity among you, you need to talk about your vision and most importantly you want to talk about what type of change you want to make in the world. I gave them the example of the former head chef of Noms Dan Giusti. He could have chosen to go and work in another restaurant but that was not going to be number 1 in the world. He wanted to do something different and he chose to make public school food better. There is a whole section of food that does not have to be high end gastronomy waiting to be changed. The younger generation could create huge impact but they need to be open to this. In some ways, that is what I would do if I had to start now, I would probably go and make school lunches,” he said.
David had been stressed from the first hours I met him in Vienna. At first I thought that it was the jet lag but he was genuinely worried and he told his team that whatever happened over the next days, they needed to do something which worked. It didn’t need to be brilliant but it just couldn’t be the worse. He has the experience and knows people tend to make comparisons and also remember something that was exceptional or something that was bad.
I ask him why there is stress in an event like this when GELINAZ! is all about removing stress. “I always find you have to take Petrini with a grain of salt,” he says with a smile. “He says one thing but he wants to effect another. Of course he does not want you to be stressed out but he knows we are all stress balls anyway so what is he going to say? He does not want to stress us out, to get nervous. But Petrini wants a performance, he wants the anxiety, the adrenaline. And what he is trying to say ultimately is that you should not be stressed to the extent that it effects your performance. What he is trying to do is create a safe haven for you to be able to fuck up,” he says.
The beauty of GELINAZ! is that there is no hierarchy, no number 1, number 2, number 5, number 10. Is this the future of food I ask him? “I am very grateful for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list because it has been good for me. I think I stopped caring a little too much about it but that’s me. Of course, my chefs want to be placed high and I think that it is really good for business. But ultimately, the world would be better off if it wasn’t around.”
He tells me the beauty of GELINAZ! is the diversity. “Here you have chefs from a variety of backgrounds, from different metropolitan cities, some from places which are not even cities like Colombe St-Pierre who had to drive 6 hours to get to Montreal. You do not want a homogeneous mix but you want people from all kinds of backgrounds and see what happens when this diversity collides.”
Working in a group with people you do not know is hard. “This time it was different. Most of the times we knew the majority of people who were there and the question was who you would be working with. This time, it was more like I do not know anything about this person. It is a bit like a date, you need to be patient. Working in a team of three to four chefs and having to collaborate is very hard. If you are a chef, you are normally a narcissist and have a big ego. Often if you are the head chef in your own restaurant you can do whatever you want. But now, all of a sudden you need to take a backseat and this is hard,” he says.
You could say that David Chang has been a visionary since he started Momofuku. But ask him where he thinks gastronomy will be in three to five years time and he tells you simply “I don’t know. Maybe we will all be cooking at home. Who knows? But for sure, millennials don’t care about food as much as our generation did and to assume that they are going to care about the things we did is stupid. What I know is that what worked in the past will not work in future but usually when I predict the future I am wrong.”
He is of course worried about the impact that politics is having on restaurants in the United States. “At the end of the day, restaurants are not a necessity. It is as simple as that. If people have other stuff to worry about, restaurants will be impacted,” he said. But that is another story.