What is Momofuku? That’s a tough one.
Momofuku is a restaurant group based in the East Village in New York City. The Momofuku restaurants are irrefutably casual places with music blaring at all hours of the day, with the kitchens opened and exposed, with backless stools to sit on, and with framed John McEnroe Nike ads passing as decor. Momofuku is the anti-restaurant.
Momofuku, the name, is Japanese; David Chang, the owner and head chef, is Korean American; the food eludes easy, or really any, classification. There is a focus on good technique, on seasonality and sustainability, on intelligent and informed creativity. But it is deliciousness by any means that they’re really going for. Chang has called it “bad pseudo-fusion cuisine,” by which I take him to mean that anyone who needs to ask probably wouldn’t understand. Using a quote from Wolfgang Puck to describe the restaurant’s cooking, he’s made the argument that Momofuku tries to serve delicious “American” food. Seems like the most useful descriptor to me. Where else would labne and ssämjang and Sichuan peppercorns and poached rhubarb all end up in the same kitchen?
For people living in or attuned to the bubble world that is the post-millennial restaurant scene in America, Momofuku is a kinetic, hypegenerating buzz magnet the likes of which has rarely, if ever, been seen. And few chefs, now or before, have gotten the golden shower of awards, attention, and praise that Chang has, especially at his age, especially while unapologetically pursuing a path that so aggressively flaunts convention.
Momofuku is, from the inside looking out, like a gang, or maybe a pirate crew. A way of life lived under a flag with an orange peach on it instead of a Jolly Roger. A collective, but not some idyllic hippie thing; instead a group of humble, talented, and dedicated people working as a whole to make their restaurants better every day, to revisit and re-create their menus, to always, always be pushing ahead. Complacency and contentedness are scarce commodities at Momofuku.
And me? I hated Momofuku Noodle Bar the first time I went there. Hated it.
It was late 2003. I was new to my job reviewing cheap restaurants for the New York Times; I was more enthralled with the ideal of authenticity than I am now, six years later. But if those were my problems, those were Momofuku’s problems, too: it took the place a while to shake off the newness and settle into a groove, for Chang and Joaquin Baca to loosen themselves from the conceptual shackles they’d opened with, to just start cooking whatever they wanted instead of laboring under the constraints of being a “noodle bar”—propagandist-in-chief Chang’s way of not calling his ramen shop a ramen shop—and becoming Noodle Bar as it exists today.
And did they change it. My editor urged me to go back and check the place out about eight months into its life. And though I didn’t think I’d like it any more than I had the first time around, that’s what the job was all about. And that second meal at Noodle Bar just killed me. It was so fucking good, and not in some lightbulby way, but because it was gutsy. It was honest. It was delicious, that least descriptive of all food words, but it was and it was so in a way that made me want more.
After I reviewed Momofuku, I started eating there regularly, going every Saturday at noon, before the lines formed and the crowds crowded. (Chang still puzzles at the little groups that assemble outside his restaurants in the minutes before they flip over the open sign, protesting that they should go home and order some Chinese food if they’re hungry. But he’s like that.)
Mark Bittman, who wrote How to Cook Everything and was my lord and master before he helped me land the gig at the Times, was my regular lunch companion. Eventually he introduced me to Chang. We said hi and that was about it.
Then, one night in Brooklyn a few weeks later, I was at a club called Warsaw seeing The Hold Steady when I felt this meaty hand slap me on the back. I turned around and there was Chang, probably as toasted as I was, with a beer extended toward me and the question, which he yelled over the music, “Are we going to pretend like we don’t know each other?”
We’re the same age, Chang and I, and we were standing there at the same show, and he had a cold beer in his hand. I took it. That’s how we got to knowing each other.
We’d grab a beer every once in a while in the months after that, bitch about whatever, eat cheap Chinese or Korean food. At some point Dave asked me to help him write this book. I didn’t see how I could say no.
It was those flavors. That pop. The fucking pork buns. The way Chang and company put together combinations that read like muddy dead ends—Brussels sprouts and kimchi, really?—but slapped me awake every time I ate them. Who wouldn’t want to know how to make this stuff? Who wouldn’t want to have the recipes for this food that was upending the hegemony and balance of the New York restaurant world? Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to work with the kitchen there, to try and ferret out what they were doing to make the food so goddamn good?
There was also the unlikely story of Momofuku’s genesis, evolution, and ascension. It’s been told many times, by many good writers—in New York, GQ, The New Yorker, and everywhere—but it was a chance to help Chang tell it himself. Who’d pass on that?
So here it is. The story of how Momofuku happened, or at least Chang’s version of it. It starts in the early years of the twenty-first century, with Dave finding his way into the kitchen, and then out of it, and then into a former chicken-wing joint, where he opens a ramen shop.
After that he opens a burrito shop that turns into something else entirely. Along the way he picks up a band of coconspirators, his chefs and chefs de cuisine, and he meets friendly science-minded chefs and meatmen who help him along the way.
It ends, at least in terms of this book, in March 2008, with the opening menu at Ko, his third restaurant. Ko, which has since been honored with all manner of stars and awards and has propelled Dave onto the international stage (at least in the food world), is actually in the space that was once a five-for-a-dollar chicken-wing spot. Go figure.
There are also the recipes for a bunch of the dishes, lots of Momofuku “classics”—or at least that’s what they feel like. The menus at the Momofuku restaurants change almost daily, so these are, for the most part, dishes that persisted, that wouldn’t leave the menus without an unpleasant bout of kicking and screaming.
There are epic dishes—the bo ssäm you should plan on making for your next Super Bowl party, the rib-eye recipe to end all rib-eye recipes, the masterpiece of minutiae that is the Ko egg dish. But there are also dozens of almost insanely simple recipes that will change your approach to everyday cooking (or at least they did mine): the scores of easy pickles that keep in the fridge for weeks; ginger-scallion sauce, which was synonymous for me with summertime lunch while working on this book; the octo vin and the fish sauce vinaigrette that are as good over plain rice or cubed tofu as they are used as directed in these recipes. I have converted more than one Brussels sprout hater with Tien Ho’s Vietnamese-inflected Brussels sprout recipe in the Ssäm Bar chapter.
There is no attempt herein to answer the how/why conundrum of Momofuku. Of how these restaurants run by this Dave Chang character have succeeded so phenomenally, of why Momofuku went from a plywood-walled diamond in the rough to an undeniable and seemingly unstoppable force in the world of restaurants. Or how or why Dave, when there were so many more likely candidates, turned into an award-mongering poster boy for modern chefdom. Dave is thirty-one and he doesn’t know, so why press the point?
I’m sure there are some clues and signposts between these covers. But this isn’t an autopsy and there’s plenty more to come in the Momofuku story. Maybe the answer lies ahead, but Chang and I both suspect that whatever twists and turns will follow, none will be as improbable as the tale told here.
Koreans are notorious noodle eaters. I am no exception.
I grew up eating noodles. Chinese noodles, Korean noodles, all kinds of noodles in all kinds of places: in Los Angeles, in Seoul, in Virginia. My dad had it perfectly timed with one place near our house in Alexandria, Virginia: he’d call before we drove over to it so that bowls of jjajangmyun—wheat noodles in a black bean sauce—would be hot and waiting on the table as soon as we walked in. I remember being transfixed by the guy making noodles—the way he’d weave and slap a ball of dough into a ropy pile—then being struck by the sting of the white onions and vinegar served with jjajangmyun. On nights when it was just him and me, he’d make me eat sea cucumber along with the noodles, and the weirdness of eating them would be offset by the warm afterglow of pride that came with making him happy.
And when I was fending for myself as a teenager and, later, in college, there was only one answer to hunger if I didn’t have the time or money to go out for some fried chicken: Sapporo Ichiban Original Flavor instant ramen, the kind that comes in the red packet. That was what I ate, sometimes to the exclusion of almost everything else, until I got into Nong Shim’s Gourmet Spicy Shin Bowl noodle soup, which comes in a styrofoam bowl, à la Cup Noodles, making it that much easier to prepare.
As I got older, noodles became a hobby. I noted the difference in preparation and flavoring from restaurant to restaurant. It was innocent enough. My dad had warned me away from giving serious thought to working in a kitchen. He was a busboy at an Irish bar when he and my mom first immigrated here. Though he graduated from busboy to restaurant owner during the years he was getting settled, he’d sold his restaurants and gone into the golf business by the time I was a kid. He didn’t see any point in my following in those footsteps.
After high school, I went to Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and spent four years majoring in religion. I spent a year abroad in London back when there was just a single outpost of Wagamama. It served affordable, tasty bowls of ramen for 10 to 11 quid and I ate there regularly. I spent a bunch of the rest of my time daydreaming about writing a screenplay that told the story of the Bhagavad-Gita through the lens of the Civil War with Robert E. Lee in the hero’s role.
After school, I worked a couple of jobs where I pushed paper and sat at a desk. But I knew there was no way that path was going to pay off. Without a clear idea of what I wanted to do, I parlayed my useless liberal arts degree into a gig teaching English at a school in Wakayama, two hours southeast of Osaka. I decided I’d teach English by day, eat noodles the rest of the time, and maybe at some point figure out what I was going to do with myself.
I lived a few train stops away from the school in a little town called Izumi-Tottori. There wasn’t much there: a maki roll place, a sushi place, a dumpling house, and a ramen shop. The ramen shop was near the train station, and it was always busy, always bustling. It was like the town pub, where every body went to drink and talk shit about each other. The place served tonkotsu-style ramen—it’s the porkiest ramen broth you can get, with the pork fat emulsified into the broth—and there were bowls of hard-boiled eggs everywhere that customers helped themselves to while they waited for their soup.
Rather than try to force my way into the conversation, I’d sit there—first at this place, and later at any ramen or noodle shop I could get a seat in—by myself, shrouded in the sound of slurping noodles and the racket of the kitchen turning out bowl after bowl of soup, and just watch the place work. Watch what people ate. Watch how they ate. Try to figure out this ramen thing for myself.
This was the view out my back window in Izumi-Tottori. I’d spend hours watching these hundred-year-old people picking rice.
This was the street outside my apartment. The ramen shop was just up the block.
But let’s take a break from navel-gazing and get a few things down about what ramen is and isn’t.
At the end of the day, ramen is not much different from any Asian noodle soup. It’s a broth with noodles in it. And while ramen is now Japanese, the Japanese got it from the Chinese. Lo mein is ramen’s Chinese precursor. (If you pronounce ramen properly, “ra-myun,” you’ll hear that they practically have the same name.) It has this mystique—the movie Tampopo did a lot to raise its profile—but it’s soup with noodles in it, topped with stuff. That’s it. I love ramen, but the sanctimony that’s often attached to it is a bit too much.
As I’ve pieced it together, the Japanese started making these lo mein–style noodle soups around the turn of the nineteenth century. As would have been the case in China, the broth could be chicken or beef or seafood or pork; toppings, when added, varied. In the early 1900s, a style of ramen started to become common in Tokyo. Its components were pork broth, boiled noodles, sliced roast pork, scallions, and bamboo shoots. Over time, that became the template, the standard, the definition of ramen.
As ramen grew in popularity, it spread to other regions and islands and it began to evolve. Cooks who opened ramen shops put their stamp on the soups they made. Shoyu ramen—ramen with a heavy dose of soy sauce added to the broth—seems inevitable when you look back on it. Shio ramen—with salt in place of shoyu (and a totally different, cleaner, lighter taste)—followed. Certain styles became synonymous with the places from which they sprung: the Hokkaido Prefecture, for example, is the home of miso ramen.
The most important development in the story of the popularization of ramen—and probably one of the most important events in the history of food—occurred in 1958, when Momofuku Ando, a middle-aged tinkerer, invented instant ramen and unleashed it on the world. His invention introduced millions of people to the world of ramen, myself included.
By the eighties, every ramen shop in Japan had its own distinctive style: rigorous ordering rules, lines that wrapped around the block, how they sliced their pork, how much fat they added to their soup. (There is a type of ramen called abura ramen, which means “fat” ramen: hot noodles tossed in hot pork fat seasoned with things like crushed sesame seeds, soy sauce, scallions, and bonito. It can be so rich it can make you sick. I love it.) Like pizza or barbecue in America, every shop has its own fanatical following. (And, like pizza or barbecue, everyone’s favorite ramen shop tends to be the one they grew up with, regardless of its faults.) I wanted to try all of them. I spent an unhealthy amount of my free time during my stay in Japan eating at ramen shops.
I learned the vocabulary: omori portions had extra noodles. Menma was the name for bamboo shoots. The soy sauce used to season and flavor the soups in Tokyo wasn’t just soy, but taré—a combination of soy, mirin, and sake, often boiled with chicken bones, that has its roots in the yakitori tradition.
I filled up notebooks with notes on ramen and noodle places and, loser (literally) that I am, lost track of all of them over the years. Some industrious night, well before I opened Momofuku and before my notebooks disappeared, I decided I’d type all my notes into the computer. I only did it for one place, for Taishoken, the birthplace of tsukemen—the style of serving the noodles, hot or cold, on a plate and the broth in a bowl next to it for dunking.
Notes from October 20, 2003
Went early Sunday to Taishoken @ Higeshikebukuro, supposed to be the best or top 3 ramen shop in all of Tokyo. Left at 10:30, got there at 11:00 a.m., doors open at 11—waited 1 hour 45 minutes to get around the corner …. Unbelievable that by the time I get to the entrance, the line is even longer. There must be at least 300 people in line.
The place is so small: 6–7 people eat at the bar, 6 people eat at 2 tables, 2 tables outside of door seat 6. A fucking dump. 1 guy taking orders from everyone in line, about 20 people at a time. Amazing ordering system … you sit down, and your food is there.
3–4 cooks, 1 guy cooking noodles, 1 guy cooling noodles for tsukemen/morisoba, another guy prepping mise en place, another guy finishing plates, and what appears to be Mr. Yamagashi, famed owner/chef, cooking noodles and handing out the broth. Everyone has towels wrapped around their heads and is wearing rain boots.
1) soy sauce is placed in bowl, then stock
2) gigantic helping of noodles
3) toppings are placed
4) finished with a touch of stock
Size is outrageously big, biggest bowl ever?—cuts of char siu—not from belly, are ½ inch thick—butt?
Toppings: scallions, hard-boiled egg, menma—it seems that they cook their menma in their own manner, I’m not sure if it’s dried and then rehydrated—a piece of fish cake, and nori
I’m figuring that the soy sauce contains vinegar and chile pepper. The stock I see contains bones, carrots, onions, konbu, dried sardines, and mackerel.
First slurp of soup: surprisingly sharp with white pepper, spicy chile, and a kick of vinegar. After 2–3 minutes, cannot notice heat.
Noodles not made there?
One can tell that they’ve been doing this for a while, serious business back there in the kitchen. Must go back and try regular ramen, not omori size. Flavors are great, not too oily, etc.
Reason for success is flavor is so different.
At the time, I knew I wasn’t going to be holding forth on the conjugation of basic English verbs for Japanese kids for the rest of my life. I decided I wanted to work in a ramen shop. To learn ramen for real. My timid efforts to do so during the time I lived in Izumi-Tottori were fruitless. My Japanese was bad, I had no training, and I had no business working in a kitchen.
It was the via negativa way of figuring out I wanted to do with my life: I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew what I didn’t want. I couldn’t stand wearing a suit or navigating office politics. I wouldn’t have to deal with either in a kitchen. I couldn’t imagine striving to get promoted to associate regional manager. I could imagine that learning to cook and striving to get better at it would be rewarding—I’d been a successful golfer and football player as a kid, and the physicality of kitchen work seemed similar to me in that it was repetitious and rewarded some people’s efforts more than others. I knew I wasn’t going to become an academic and I couldn’t stand office work, so maybe I could pour myself into cooking, to see how far it would take me—maybe, if I worked hard, I’d go back to Japan, to a ramen shop, where I’d be the guy in the rain boots hollering orders. I wanted to see how far I could go. (Though I now know that I had no idea how deep the rabbit hole is.)
I decided if I were serious, I’d need to go to culinary school first. So I closed up shop and moved back to the States, where I enrolled in the French Culinary Institute in New York City. I was going to become a cook. Then I’d go back to Japan and they’d have to hire me.
FCI was quick—six months in and out. I learned enough to get into a kitchen and get yelled at constantly about how little I knew or did right. I started off at Mercer Kitchen, one of the restaurants owned by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, a good starting place for me. I got to work the line, to do some real cooking.
While I was working at Mercer, I caught up one night with Marc Salafia, a friend from college, and he told me he was going to work at Tom Colicchio’s new restaurant, Craft. Craft was massively hyped at the time. Colicchio’s clean flavors and American/French cooking at Gramercy Tavern had earned him a cult following in New York—I was a huge fan—and this was his first post-Gramercy venture. After talking to Marc about Craft, I knew it was the place I wanted to work. I put in a call to the chef de cuisine, Marco Canora, who told me he didn’t have room or a need for my services “unless I wanted to answer the phones.”
So on my days off from Mercer Kitchen, I answered phones at Craft. Craft’s conceit was simple: an all à la carte menu, with sides, proteins, starches, and sauces all offered separately. That meant that every item had to be cooked perfectly and that all the products had to be top quality—there was no extra dash of a delicious sauce to help along a slightly overcooked piece of meat, no imperfect polenta made passable in the presence of a perfectly braised lamb shank. Everything had to be right. The glimpse I got into the kitchen life there—the dedication of the cooks, the talent, the quality of the ingredients—kept me answering the phones and bothering Marco every single day for a chance to peel carrots and clean mushrooms.
I don’t mean to slight the Mercer, but I felt that I would be better served honing my fundamentals under the tutelage of some truly amazing cooks. The crew at Craft was unbelievable: Marco Canora, Karen DeMasco, Jonathan Benno, Damon Wise, Ahktar Nawab, James Tracey, Mack Kern, Dukie, Dan Sauer, Liz Chapman, Ed Higgins—all of them have gone on to become chefs of their own restaurants, chefs of note in their own right.
My determination paid off. I found a way into the kitchen by working for free in the mornings: chopping mirepoix, cleaning morels, doing menial but essential tasks. I loved it. To make ends meet, I quit my job at the Mercer and answered phones full-time for the first month Craft was open. When they opened for lunch, I graduated to paid kitchen slave and, eventually, to cook. I learned about ingredients. I learned about technique. I learned how to work for—or at least how to avoid pissing off—a demanding chef. I learned a lot at Craft.
But I was still a noodle eater. I hit all of the relatively few ramen spots in the city and, in a bit of daydreaming, would regularly write letters, have a friend translate them into Japanese, and mail them off to ramen shops in Tokyo that I’d heard of or eaten at. I knew my chances were slim, but I didn’t stop trying.
I never got a single response.
Toward the end of my second year at Craft, a friend of my father’s caught wind of my situation and passed along word that he could set me up with a kitchen job in a Tokyo ramen shop if I was interested. He even had a place for me to stay.
Me, in a ramen shop in Tokyo. I didn’t ask which one or where or what kind of ramen it served. All I wanted to do was go.
The one stumbling block: I didn’t feel ready to leave Craft and I didn’t feel great about leaving a place and a group of people who had taught me so much and still had more to teach me. But I needed to go to Tokyo.
I was freaked out about giving my notice to Marco. One afternoon, I caught him coming back from jury duty, gave three months’ notice, started to explain about ramen, and … he didn’t need to hear it. Everyone in that kitchen knew I was obsessed and understood what it meant to go to Japan and learn about ramen for real.
When I finally got to Tokyo, the situation I found myself in was stranger than anything I could have anticipated.
I was to live and work in a converted office building in the Kudan-shita district of Tokyo. On the ground floor there was an izakaya, or Japanese pub, and a ramenya, or ramen shop. In Japan, a ramenya serves ramen and almost nothing else. The seventh and top floor was home to a born-again Christian church run by Koreans. The floors between were split between anonymous offices for salarymen and a sort of halfway house for wayward middle-aged men who had fallen out of step with Japanese society. It seemed like many had spent some time on the streets on their way to this place—an odd group to be thrown in with, for sure, but I was thankful that most of them spoke more English than I did Japanese. At night, my room was faintly illuminated red and yellow at night by the McDonald’s across the street.
The ramenya downstairs was where I was going to make my bones. I was ready to wash dishes, ready to slice scallions for months, ready to do whatever it took. The setting was strange and it didn’t seem likely that I’d ended up in the best ramen kitchen ever, but I was ready for the challenge.
Or at least that’s what I thought until my first day in the kitchen.
The restaurant’s ramen was middling. Okay, maybe, but not better than that. Still, I was here in Japan, in a kitchen, going to work. It’s common to work your way up from a weak kitchen to a strong one, I told myself, so I planned to keep my head down and take what I could from the arrangement.
But I could barely take it at all. The problem was the chef, a gray-haired ghost of a man, wrinkled in the way that often begs a description like “wizened” but in his case was closer to withered. He lived in the building on the floor below me. I’d spotted him the first night I was there: wandering through the hallway in saggy, sallow-looking briefs, his concave chest laboring to puff on cigarettes that I would find out were a permanent fixture of his waking life.
When I introduced myself to him in the kitchen on my first day of work, his outfit wasn’t much different. I assume he owned shirts but I rarely if ever saw him wearing one. In the kitchen he added the accessory of greasy folded-over newsprint (he preferred newsprint to towels) tucked into his apron strings or, if he was being more careless than usual, into the elastic waistband of his not-so-tighty not-so-whities.
Even if I could have figured out how to make it work in a pants-optional kitchen, there were too many other things going against the place: the shortcuts in the kitchen meant I wouldn’t be learning as much as I could. During my time at Craft, I’d worked with the best ingredients. Here, the ingredients were substandard to begin with and the chef had some issue with refrigerators, which meant that the meat for the soup would sometimes sit out for hours, seeping blood on the counters and the floor and steeping in the toxic cloud of cheap cigarette smoke that followed him everywhere.
I am not a quitter, so I stuck it out as long as I could—which was days, not weeks. But I couldn’t stand to be there. I thought long and hard about my decision and finally resolved that even if it meant going back to New York and begging my way back into Craft, I had to quit. When I told the chef, he looked at me vacantly, like I was hard to see, and toddled off. I doubt he noticed my absence.
After the ramen shop, I wiggled my way into some work at the izakaya. It wasn’t mind-blowing stuff and it wasn’t ramen, but anything was better than that old man’s kitchen.
My father’s acquaintance who’d arranged to get me to Japan generously set out to find me another opportunity and, much to my surprise—I thought I’d deep-fry kara-age at the izakaya, eat as much ramen as I could, and when I’d blown through the money I brought with me, head back to New York—he did, at a soba shop. Out of politeness I didn’t refuse the connection, but I didn’t uproot my life to cook soba. But soba are noodles, too, I told myself, so I went to Meidae-mae, a residential neighborhood, to meet Akio Hosoda at his restaurant, Soba-ya Fuyu-Rin.
Akio and his restaurant were everything I could have hoped for. The soba shop was on the first floor of his tidy two-story home. The restaurant was simple, elegant, sparse without being minimalist, calm, and serene. Akio and Yuki, his wife, were the only people who worked there and were the only people who had ever worked there. (I have no idea what promises were made or lies constructed to convince Akio to let me train with him, but I am thankful for them all the same.)
I had imagined myself in a busy kitchen having order after order yelled at me, needing to wear rain boots to protect myself from the waves of noodle water and ramen broth that would swell like a tide during service. In contrast, I never, during my time there, saw the restaurant serve more than ten or fifteen diners in a day. In reality, the slow, steady, controlled pace—and Akio’s ability to constantly, constantly be perfecting and honing and refining and fine-tuning every single thing he did—was a monumentally important lesson for me. Akio had been making soba for so long he could have gone on autopilot and still turned out excellent food. But in his kitchen I saw ritual—grinding the flour, mixing the dough, rolling the dough, slicing the noodles, making the taré, every last boring bit of prep work—treated as something important, vital, necessary. There were no shortcuts in Akio’s kitchen or, I’m guessing, in Akio’s world.
He was silent when other chefs I’d cooked for would have been loud. He used amazing ingredients as a matter of course and only talked to me about their provenance when I pestered him. His technique was flawless, but there was no showiness to it: things were done one way, the right way. For weeks, we worked on my noodle dough mixing technique, even though none of my noodles ever ended up in a customer’s bowl. When I graduated to slicing noodles, he made me shred reams of newsprint before I was allowed to cut a single noodle. He did not seek praise or the limelight, just enough customers each day to allow him to keep practicing his craft.
I studied under Akio, helping with menial preparations, washing dishes and watching, quietly, for months. Then one day, a friend, Herman Mao, a young architect who had recently graduated from Washington University, came by for a meal. He talked with Akio during his dinner, and at some point he let it slip that I was hoping to open a ramen shop back in New York.
For most chefs, the daydreams of their helpers are a distant concern if they’re a concern at all. To Akio, the idea that I was at his restaurant dithering in soba when my real goals were tied to a completely different noodle was tantamount to treason.
Akio sat me down that night for the first and only man-to-man talk we ever had and told me, “It’s either soba or not. Soba or nothing.”
He wanted to hear that soba was my life. But it wasn’t. I couched my phrases and evaded the best that I could with my remedial Japanese, but the fact was I was not dedicating my life to soba. “No, no, no,” he said. “You’re either soba or you’re not.”
Apparently I wasn’t. About a week later, he took me out to his childhood ramenya where I remember the ramen sucked. We had a couple beers. Ceremonious and gracious to the end, he gave me a rolling pin as a parting gift.
The subtext was as obvious to me as it was hard for him to disguise: for someone like Akio, who had worked by himself for decades and knew, in his bones, everything about soba, explaining things to some kid who wasn’t dead serious about it was just too much work. I was a waste of time, a pain in his ass, and he didn’t want me around anymore. It was the end of my stage at Soba-ya Fuyu-Rin.
I still had a place to stay and, thanks to the good graces and good connections of Tom and Marco, I lucked into a great situation at the Park Hyatt Hotel, where I worked at the New York Grill, a steakhouse, and then at Kozue, a kaiseki restaurant.
Me with Sous-chef Nakamura at the New York Grill at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo.
The New York Grill has, in retrospect, had an enormous influence on my life—it was the first time I saw sous vide cooking, which made it possible for one guy to cook four hundred proteins a night perfectly and by himself. It was also the first place I saw Japanese ingredients used to replicate American flavors, an idea that stuck with me.
Kozue was equally eye-opening. I remember watching one cook brush the salt and sugar cure off a slab of pork belly, then absolutely burn the belly meat over an open flame. Charred beyond belief. I was like, “What the fuck is he doing?” Then he plunged it into ice water and rubbed off the charcoal-burnt blackness. I thought it was the dumbest thing I’d ever seen—until I tasted it. After they burnt it, they braised it in dashi along with some daikon. It was so good, and that charring process had given the dish an amazing smoky flavor. I knew I’d be stealing that move somewhere down the line.
I visited Akio once before I left because his food was so good. Though I’ve had other soba—lots of other soba—it’s next to impossible for it to be as good as Akio’s. He could coax water, buckwheat flour, and wheat flour into something more than the sum of those ingredients. There was no way to write a recipe or to possibly replicate what he was doing.
I missed America. I knew that when I got back to New York, I wanted to cook in a real kitchen again, but I didn’t know what style of cuisine or restaurant. I made a lot of late-night phone calls to my old crew at Craft, who had plenty of ideas and connections for me.
Through them, I had the opportunity to work as a fish butcher at Sushi Yasuda, one of New York’s best sushi restaurants, but I didn’t want to go back to America and work in a Japanese restaurant. (Though if I were to learn sushi today, I would definitely want to work for Chef Yasuda. The guy’s amazing.)
I was looking for a place that would be a challenge, a place where I could improve and prove myself. I’m sure that if wd~50 had been open at the time, I would have wanted to work there. It came down to working for Alex Lee at Restaurant Daniel or Andrew Carmellini at Café Boulud, restaurants owned by the chef Daniel Boulud, a New York legend who had come up through the old-world French stagiaire system working for titans like Roger Vergé, Georges Blanc, and Michel Guérard. They were (and are) two of the best restaurants in the city, bastions of a kind of fine dining that’s an endangered breed. If you wanted to learn from and cook with the best in New York, those were the kitchens to be in.
I had seen the kitchen at Daniel—a grand space staffed by a small army—but my trail at Café Boulud helped make the decision. The kitchen was cramped and uncomfortable, the cooks were badasses, the pressure was unbelievable: kitchen as crucible. My gig there started a couple days after my trail through the kitchen and within a week of when I flew back from Tokyo.
I had jet lag the day I started there, and I felt as if I still had jet lag when I left. It was the hardest fucking job I’ve ever had. I couldn’t get to work early enough—no matter how I early I got there, I was already behind when I walked through the door.
The kitchen was like the Special Forces: Bertrand Chemel, Scott Quis, Tien Ho, Luke Olstrom, Rich Torrici, Ron Rosselli, Mike Oliver, Ryan Skeen, Matt Greco, Amy Eubanks. There was this ferocious work ethic: get it done and make it the best. Chip-on-your-shoulder cooking. We set out to outcook Restaurant Daniel with a fraction of the staff and inferior equipment, every night. It was the best restaurant crew in New York.
I worked the back garde-manger station, doing cold preparations like terrines and charcuterie and a lot of the canapés that would start the meal. I worked as hard as I could, but I got my ass handed to me nightly. I was struggling, and I wasn’t cooking that well. I had come with a recommendation from the Craft crew, but I felt like a bust free agent—like I was taking up space on the roster with a middling batting average and no chance of helping the team make the postseason.
That didn’t stop me from working as hard as I could, but the stress was eating away at me. Why was I weighing out twenty-five different spices for a Moroccan-themed rub that would go on a hamachi I wouldn’t be cooking—and I wouldn’t cook anyway, because I like hamachi raw? Who was I proving something to? What was the point? Why didn’t I stop pretending and just go make noodles?
After I’d been at Café about five months, my mother got sick, and I was on the phone to Virginia whenever I wasn’t at the restaurant, a mediator between aunts and uncles and my parents over an issue with the family business. It all got to be too much, and my family needed me back down south. One of my biggest regrets is not finishing my year under Carmellini. When you take a job in a good restaurant, you commit to working for a minimum amount of time, an assurance that the time they invest in getting you up to speed isn’t a waste. I was the worst-case scenario—a cook they’d built up, leaving just as I was getting to the point where I wasn’t an albatross. Carmellini was totally understanding and didn’t blacklist me or bitch me out for bailing on him, but I still regret leaving.
After I got down to Virginia, my mom’s health improved and the family business was dealt with. That’s when I started laying the plans to open my own noodle restaurant—looking into the money I’d need, where I could afford to open it, how little space I could get by with. I made ramen and onsen tamago (a kind of slow-poached egg I’d learned about in Japan) and rice cakes at home to keep myself amused. I still hadn’t ever cooked ramen professionally, but I’d eaten as much as I could, and I knew what I liked to eat and how to cook it. My dad and his friends agreed to help me get the start-up money I needed, and I headed back to New York.
I knew I’d call it Momofuku, which translates from Japanese as “lucky peach.” That’s where the logo came from. It’s also an indirect nod to Mr. Ando: I owed him for a thousand meals-in-minutes and besides, it’s a fucking killer name. Maybe the best first name ever. And then there’s the homonymous quality. The restaurant was, for me, a fuck-you to so many things. Me—a Korean American—making Japanese ramen was ridiculous on its face. Me—a passable but not much better cook—opening up a restaurant while my peers, guys I worked with who were so much more talented than me, were still toiling under other regimes, paying their dues, learning. It is no accident that Momofuku sounds like motherfucker.
I found a space. It was cheap and small, a former chicken wingery on First Avenue in the East Village. My plan was simple and traditional: an open kitchen, to save space rather than to tie into or set any trends, lined with as many stools as we could squeeze in. After looking at design options, I went with plywood everywhere: it was cheapest. Plenty of great ramen shops in Japan are total fucking dumps. I aspired to the same.
The concept of Noodle Bar was “to serve food made with integrity at an affordable price.” That line was in the business plan. My decision to do it was influenced by my burnout/realization of my limitations at Café Boulud, by the saturation of the fine dining market in the city in 2003–2004, and by the fact that the great ramenyas of Tokyo prove that food doesn’t have to be served in a fine dining setting to be good.
My biggest fear, once I pitted myself against the world and got myself in a good bit of debt, was that I would have to open Momofuku alone. And it nearly turned into a reality. Everyone I tried to hire said no or backed out: the list of cooks I talked to went on and on. Some didn’t want to leave cushy spots they’d fought for and won. Others didn’t want to come boil noodles with me. Some were trying to get in on the ground floor of any number of good new restaurants opening around the city then—Per Se, Cru Masa, Hearth, Café Gray—and others were trying to open their own places.
I asked every cook I liked and half-liked before moving on to pestering friends of friends with no cooking experience. No one wanted in. Marco Canora thought I was nuts. I remember how he’d chuckle, saying “Dave Chang: an army of one,” in this officious tone and then crack up. It got to the point where I figured all I needed was one person to share the workload with.
Around that time, my brother’s buddy who worked at the Cheesecake Factory told me that they hired all their employees from monster.com. I’d never met anyone in any kitchen who got a job that way—and I didn’t really want chain-restaurant-quality help—but I was beyond desperate. Months of free ads on Craigslist had yielded nothing, so I paid $375 for a thirty-day ad on monster.com. It turned out to be the best money I ever spent.
A guy who had done some cooking down in Sante Fe and wanted to work in New York sent his résumé over. (It was then and still remains the case that most chefs and restaurateurs in New York cannot bring themselves to give a shit about a résumé filled with restaurants that are outside NYC, but I didn’t have the luxury at the time.) We talked, and he told me that the few stages he had scored at restaurants here weren’t getting him any traction. He was pissed off and frustrated. We had something in common.
He came by the space while it was still a construction site. We went and had some beers over at Lucy’s on Avenue A, and we put the same kind of shit on the jukebox—I think it was the combination of the Velvet Under ground’s “Heroin” and a few glasses of Wild Turkey that really sealed the deal. Joaquin Baca—Quino—became my partner and co-chef at Noodle Bar.
Quino and I opened Noodle Bar alone. We had only known each other a few days, and we’d spent most of that time trying to turn the chicken-wing dive into a restaurant where we wanted to spend the rest of our foreseeable waking hours. We spent our days and nights scrubbing and fixing and scrubbing and fixing, all the while trying not to run out of money before we opened.
Between the countless hours of cleaning the stink out of everything and rotating Guns & Roses’ “Lies” and Modest Mouse’s “The Moon and Antarctica” in and out of an old Sony boom box, Quino told me he had dated a stripper at some point in his past.
His story got me thinking that if we could somehow lure the women from this clandestine Japanese strip club in Midtown I knew about to the restaurant, we’d be set. Get hot Japanese girls to eat at Momofuku, and every one else would follow: that was my marketing strategy. The funniest fucking thing is that it made sense to us at the time. The night before we opened for friends-and-family dinners, Quino and I blew most of Noodle Bar’s nearly negligible cash cushion on a night on the town.
Getting into this place isn’t a problem if they know you. The club itself is very small, about the size of a large suburban living room. The walls are lined with floppy black leather couches. No dancing poles, no champagne room.
It’s unspeakably dank: this was back when you could still smoke cigarettes in New York, or at least you could still smoke them there. Everyone did. We waited at the small bar next to the DJ booth and drank Suntory, because when you drink whiskey at a seedy secret Japanese club, you drink Suntory.
Our plan was to give cards to all the dancers. I think it’s the first and last time either of us hoped that telling girls we were chefs would get us somewhere. We didn’t have much to blow, about $800, but that was okay with us. We were there on business.
There was an $80 all-you-can-drink cover charge to get in, and as in most strip clubs there were rules: here you had to get dances. Every night there was a house stripper who’d come around. At some point, it becomes so expensive it doesn’t even matter; you’re drunk ’cause they keep sending you Suntory, and the dancers want champagne—bottles are like $350—plus you’re spending $20 per dance …
And then a man appears out of the darkness and says, “Mr. Chang, your hour is finished. Would you like another hour?”
Of course we did. Opening a restaurant is the worst feeling in the world. When you open a restaurant, you live it, you sleep it. You always have sawdust on your clothes. You can’t shower the smell of the place off you.
And we were there despite not having properly outfitted our kitchen—we’d bought everything from K-Mart, borrowed Quino’s girlfriend’s stand mixer, convinced ourselves we didn’t need more than we had. (“We’re a noodle bar. What would we need all that shit for?”) We dug deep for another hour. We knew we wanted that, even if we didn’t know how to operate a cash register or anything about taxes, how to do payroll, or how to get anybody to work with us.
You couldn’t find two individuals who had less business opening a restaurant than us. But that was the night before we opened the door, and that’s not what we were thinking about.
A couple mornings later, in late July, when we were about to open for real for the first time, I ran to Craft to ask Tom for help with some paperwork, and when I came back, an inspector from the Department of Health was there. We had to pass an inspection minutes before we would have the chance to make our first dollar. I went straight to the bathroom and tried not to be sick. Quino still makes fun of me for pretending that they didn’t hear me give up the goods when I did. We both knew how thin the door on the bathroom was.
Then there was the holy-shit moment. Three beautiful Japanese women strolled in. We couldn’t believe it. They sat down, had some ramen, and we didn’t comp their meal. I don’t think those girls ever pay for anything. I know they didn’t look happy. They were some of our first customers. And they never came back.
The opening menu at Noodle Bar had ten items, with a lot of ingredients doing double or triple duty: this was back before we were even making kimchi. We served dumplings and edamame because we were a noodle bar and I thought we had to—maybe we weren’t the most authentic place, but it was a Japanese-inspired noodle restaurant all the same—and once upon a time, we even had as many as three vegetarian-friendly things on the menu.
After the strippers came and went and the first wave of curious locals started to ebb, we were dead slow for a few weeks. Scary slow. Going out of business slow.
Thank God our friends started coming—kitchen guys we used to work with, guys in the business. Tony DiSalvo and Greg Brainin, Jean-Georges’s right-hand men, started coming by on the late side very early on. After they made us a regular stop on their after-work rounds, a whole bunch of other kitchen crews started coming in.
A month after we opened, Liz Chapman (who I met at Craft, and who is now Liz Benno) arranged for the Per Se crew to take over Noodle Bar on the night before their review came out in the Wednesday food section of the New York Times. Jonathan Benno, Thomas Keller’s chef de cuisine at Per Se, was a mentor to me at Craft. And here he was, in my restaurant, eating my food on the night his got four stars—the highest rating the paper gives, one of the hardest accolades to come by in our business. That night it seemed like every cook and chef in New York was at Momofuku noshing on buns and beer. That support from the Craft crew—from Benno and Marco and the guys I’d come up under—and from other cooks made those first slow months that much more bearable and made the dim future seem less bleak.
I think a lot of them came because the beer was cheap and cold and because Momofuku was like a freak show: let’s watch these guys go up in a ball of fire. I know that’s what my friends were saying, “Check it out, man, Chang’s running a restaurant. He has no idea what he’s doing.”
They were right: I didn’t. We bought what we figured were enough dishes for us to get through service and then would wash them all in a Herculean push at the end of the night. I’d come in at 8 a.m. to do the prep work and work lunch service by myself (cooking, waiting, bussing). Quino came in at one. I knocked off at some point during dinner and left everything to him—and he stayed and washed all the dishes by himself, usually until about two in the morning. Six hours later, I’d be back.
People could see we were working our asses off, and the food was slowly getting better. Eventually reviews and write-ups started trickling in: Joe Dziemianowicz in the Daily News (Momofuku was, in his estimation, worth a trip from anywhere “in the borough,” a step up from the lowest rating, “in the hood”) and from Robin Raisfeld and Rob Patronite, who wrote some nice things about us in New York magazine. I don’t know what triggered it—it might have been that write-up in New York—but there was one Saturday early on when Noodle Bar did $800 in sales at lunch. It was an unthinkable amount for us at the time. And I was there alone. It was the worst day ever.
After a couple months of killing ourselves, and within a couple days of that Saturday that almost did me in, Quino and I started trying to hire servers and to get more cooks. I put an ad in the paper, but it was still the case that almost nobody wanted to work with us. So we tapped Quino’s linguistic abilities and put an ad in El Diario, the Spanish-language newspaper of record in New York City. That first ad landed us a guy who had worked at Menchanko-Tei, a ramen restaurant uptown, and we were convinced he was going to be the best hire ever. He had his own kitchen chopsticks and decent knife skills, and he taught us how to make large quantities of rice properly. We finally had a few people around to help handle the load.
All the bloggers could talk about was my temper and how I’d lose it on people. One of the first posts about Momofuku on one of those Internet food chat rooms, where people will write a searing condemnation of a restaurant fifteen minutes after it opens, was a screed about me. I wore my hat as low as possible and tried not to make eye contact with the customers eighteen inches away from me. I looked at the board and got the food out. If it wasn’t right, I would yell. I would tell the cooks how much they sucked, in pornographic detail. I didn’t care what anyone thought of me. I was doing the books, making bank deposits, going to the Greenmarket, slicing scallions in the morning, working service all day. I had a lot more to worry about than what customers thought. I just kept pushing and pushing everyone. All I knew was how to crack the whip like it had been cracked on me at Craft and Café Boulud. Barely anybody lasted with us for more than a week.
One morning, I walked in and found our new dishwasher mixing hand soap with bleach in the mop tub. It drove me crazy—it makes no sense as a way to wash floors—and I had told him so many times before. So this morning, a couple weeks after we’d actually got the skeleton of a kitchen crew together, there he was, standing over the bucket with a bottle of bleach in one hand and a bottle of hand soap in the other. I lost it.
The cook from Menchanko-Tei watched me blow up. Then he quit. And he told me in no uncertain terms that I was never going to find employees who would work the way I wanted them to work, that our management style sucked, that we had to stop this bullshit fraternity-style hazing process, and that we should just close the restaurant.
I fired four other people that day. He was probably right.
Finally, in December, we made a great hire: Scott Garfinkel, who had worked in a few really good kitchens: Ilo, Palladin, and Barbuto. Kevin Pemoulie, who had been at Craftbar—the second restaurant in the Craft empire—came on board shortly after. Pedro Dominguez, king of a.m. prep and pickle making and keeping good dudes from quitting even when I acted like an asshole, joined the team. We had a nucleus, finally.
We were doing better, but we weren’t doing great. Quino and I weren’t paying ourselves. After a few months in the pressure cooker that was that restaurant (twenty-seven diners and two or three cooks as well as servers in a 600-square-foot space, plus more cooks downstairs in the cramped basement prep kitchen), we were miserable.
At least most of the time. But right around then, on one of our nights off—we closed on Sundays for a while—we were all out at dinner, eating a pretty casual meal, burgers and beers, and making merry at a place that had a great reputation … and then the bill came: $400. That was a Eureka moment. We were sitting there, talking pretty low-level shit about how much better we could cook than this place. But it was packed. Critically adored. Obviously profitable. What the hell were we doing wrong?
Shortly after the New Year, Quino and I were out on the stoop next to the restaurant having a cigarette, and we just decided to screw it all. We had zero money. We were straining to do this “noodle bar” concept, limiting ourselves in the kitchen, limiting what we could cook, and constantly hearing about “authenticity” and how we didn’t embody it. We felt that we had to serve gyoza, because everybody likes to eat dumplings at Asian restaurants. We were listening to too much outside advice.
We figured we had nothing to lose—and we didn’t. So we decided to start cooking whatever we wanted, to start using the Greenmarket like we really should, and, most important, to try to stay in business for one calendar year. “Undersell, overdeliver” became our slogan. If we were going to go out of business anyway, we wanted to go out on our best face.
And when we did start expanding the boundaries of what we served—bowls of tripe, fried veal sweetbreads, all kinds of shellfish, headcheese, a Korean-inspired burrito, and, as the Greenmarket started to blow up in the spring, more riffs on local vegetables—something happened. People started coming to the restaurant more often. We were full a lot. After a while, a little crowd of people waiting outside became the norm. (I always felt bad for the neighborhood folks who had supported us during the early going on those nights.) Insolvency wasn’t as immediate a threat. All of a sudden, the press began paying an undue amount of attention to us.
Momofuku was becoming something more than a shitty noodle bar. It was taking on a life of its own. We started attracting better cooks and waiters and we found people who could handle the business end of the restaurant. Noodle Bar was slowly turning into a success.
By summer, we were packed. I was getting interviewed and getting on television and spending less and less time in the kitchen. I was slowly walking down the path to becoming the sort of chef I had made fun of only a year before—the noncooking variety. The other guys cooked their asses off, and I learned that being a chef demands much more than just being in the kitchen yelling at people, even if that was what I’d rather be doing.
By our second fall, the one-year point we never thought we’d reach in January, things were bordering on the surreal. I was nominated for some big awards—the same awards Andrew Carmellini had won and Marco Canora had unjustifiably been passed over for. None of it made sense to me. But we had money to pay everybody and a restaurant full of customers from the moment we opened until the moment we closed every day.
I don’t think it could have happened if we had been more successful at the get-go. The way we operate now is because of all that ridiculous shit we went through on the way.
momofuku ramen FOR EACH SERVING
Ramen = broth + noodles + meat + toppings and garnishes. It’s that simple and that complex, because the variations are endless.
Ramen broth is usually made with pig bones and seaweed. Most places add seafood. We add bacon.
The noodles are most often freshly made alkaline noodles, though within that subcategory of noodles there are a billion variations. For a long time, we served the fresh flour-and-water lo mein noodles you can buy at most Asian grocery stores. Now we make our own.
The meat is usually pork. Belly is the best. The toppings and garnishes can vary, but nori, bamboo shoots, eggs, and scallions are all commonplace.
Here’s how we put together a bowl of our Momofuku ramen. Scale this up—double or triple or more—as desired to feed the number in your crew. And don’t freak out if you can’t find fish cakes or bamboo shoots: Everyone says ramen is rigid; that it has to be one exact thing. It isn’t, and it doesn’t. Yes, this is what we put into our ramen, but the most important thing is that you make it delicious, not that you make it exact: bean sprouts, chicken, tofu—there’s a world of stuff you can put in the broth. Make it taste good.
2 cups Ramen Broth
Taré, kosher salt, and/or mirin if needed
5 to 6 ounces fresh ramen noodles (but trust me, you don’t need to make these)
2 to 3 slices Pork Belly
½ cup Pork Shoulder for Ramen
Two 3-by-3-inch sheets nori (cut from larger sheets)
¼ cup thinly sliced scallions (greens and whites)
2 thin slices store-bought fish cake
4 or 5 pieces Bamboo Shoots
¼ cup Seasonal Vegetables
1 Slow-Poached Egg
First, get everything ready. The broth should be hot, just shy of boiling. Taste it one last time and make any adjustments (taré for depth? salt for roundness? mirin for sweetness? water to dilute it?). The large pot of boiling water for the noodles should be well salted. Any meat you are adding should be hot. Nori should be cut into squares, scallions and fish cakes sliced, bamboo shoots stewed, seasonal vegetables prepared, eggs cooked. Have a strainer (or colander, whatever, something to drain the noodles in), ladle, chopsticks, and spoon (or measuring cup, if you’re that anal) at the ready. Bonus points for heating up your ramen bowls (which should comfortably hold about 3 cups) in a low oven. If you’re attempting to make more than a few portions at a time, you may want to enlist a helper.
Next, boil the noodles according to the recipe you’ve used or according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Portion them out into your ramen bowls. Top with hot broth.
Dress the soup: Arrange the meat (shoulder and belly) and other garnishes (scallions, bamboo shoots, fish cake, vegetables) around the edges of each bowl. Plop the egg, if using, into the middle of the bowl. Finish by tucking a couple pieces of nori about one-third of the way into one side of the soup, so they lean against the side of the bowl and stand up above the rim. Serve hot.
ramen broth MAKES 5 QUARTS
This makes enough broth for about 10 portions of ramen, more than you’ll need for one sitting. But it freezes nicely and you’ll see it in a lot of the recipes in this chapter. Making less seems like a waste of time when you’ve got a pot on the stove.
“Meaty pork bones” should be just that: pork bones with some meat on them. Neck bones are the best, but they’ll be hard to find. Bones from the shoulder or leg are very good. Ribs can be used to supplement a supply of other more desirable bones, but used alone, they will yield an anemic broth.
Note that the konbu and shiitakes can all be used for other purposes after contributing their flavors to the broth. See Grilled Octopus Salad and Pickled Shiitakes.
Two 3-by-6-inch pieces konbu
6 quarts water
2 cups dried shiitakes, rinsed
4 pounds chicken, either a whole bird or legs
5 pounds meaty pork bones
1 pound smoky bacon, preferably Benton’s
1 bunch scallions
1 medium onion, cut in half
2 large carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
Taré, preferably, or kosher salt, soy sauce, and mirin
1. Rinse the konbu under running water, then combine it with the water in an 8-quart stockpot. Bring the water to a simmer over high heat and turn off the heat. Let steep for 10 minutes.
2. Remove the konbu from the pot and add the shiitakes. Turn the heat back up to high and bring the water to a boil, then turn the heat down so the liquid simmers gently. Simmer for 30 minutes, until the mushrooms are plumped and rehydrated and have lent the broth their color and aroma.
3. Heat the oven to 400°F.
4. Remove the mushrooms from the pot with a spider or slotted spoon. Add the chicken to the pot. Keep the liquid at a gentle simmer, with bubbles lazily and occasionally breaking the surface. Skim and discard any froth, foam, or fat that rises to the surface of the broth while the chicken is simmering, and replenish the water as necessary to keep the chicken covered. After about 1 hour, test the chicken: the meat should pull away from the bones easily. If it doesn’t, simmer until that’s the case and then remove the chicken from the pot with a spider or slotted spoon.
5. While the chicken is simmering, put the pork bones on a baking sheet or in a roasting pan and slide them into the oven to brown for an hour; turn them over after about 30 minutes to ensure even browning.
6. Remove the chicken from the pot and add the roasted bones to the broth, along with the bacon. Adjust the heat as necessary to keep the broth at a steady simmer; skim the scum and replenish the water as needed. After 45 minutes, fish out the bacon and discard it. Then gently simmer the pork bones for 6 to 7 hours—as much time as your schedule allows. Stop adding water to replenish the pot after hour 5 or so.
7. Add the scallions, onion, and carrots to the pot and simmer for the final 45 minutes.
8. Remove and discard the spent bones and vegetables. Pass the broth through a strainer lined with cheesecloth. You can use the broth at this point, or, if you’re making it in advance and want to save on storage space, you can do what we do: return it to the pot, and reduce it by half over high heat, then portion out the concentrated broth into containers. It keeps for a couple of days in the refrigerator and up to a few months in the freezer. When you want to use it, dilute it with an equal measure of water and reheat it on the stove.
9. In either case, finish the broth by seasoning it to taste with taré. Some days the salt of the bacon, or the seaweed, or whatever, comes out more than others. Only your taste buds can guide you as to the right amount of seasoning; start with 2 or 3 tablespoons per quart. Taste it and get it right. I like it so it’s not quite too salty but almost. Very seasoned. Under-seasoned broth is a crime.
taré MAKES ABOUT 2½ CUPS
The meaning of the term taré isn’t consistent up and down Japan, but in Tokyo, where I learned about it, it is essentially Japanese barbecue sauce. At yakitori restaurants, places where they grill skewers of chicken over clean-burning bincho-tan charcoal, they brush the chicken with a slick of taré just as it finishes cooking. One of the coolest taré-making systems I’ve ever seen was at a yakitori joint in Japan where there was a channel underneath the grill funneling all the chicken drippings into a stone jar full of taré that was constantly being infused with grilled chicken drippings. (I imagine they replenished it with fresh soy, mirin, and sake the next day, boiled it, and returned it to its station.)
But in addition to its place of honor in the yakitori tradition, taré is the main seasoning—the primary “salt” component—in ramen shops, at least in Tokyo. Ramenyas have their own formulas for broth and their own recipes for taré. Broths are usually easy to figure out, because there’s always a big pot bubbling away in plain view, with apples or leeks or whatever secret-ish ingredients a shop adds to it, but taré recipes are more mysterious because you rarely see them being made. Some places add dried scallops, others leave out the chicken bones.
Ours is robust if simple, and it’s a good way to put chicken trimmings or bones to use. Most ramen shops add the taré to the bowl when the soup is being assembled to be served, but that always struck me as a Russian roulette way of seasoning a soup—too much, too little, too easy to screw up. So we season our broth with it beforehand, tasting carefully with each addition to strike the right balance.
2 to 3 chicken backs, or the bones and their immediately attendant flesh and skin reserved from butchering 1 chicken
1 cup sake
1 cup mirin
2 cups usukuchi (light soy sauce)
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Heat the oven to 450°F.
2. Cut chicken back into 3 pieces, split rib cages in half, and separate thigh from leg bones. (More surface area = more browning area = deeper better flavor, as long as you don’t burn the bones.)
3. Spread the bones out in a wide (12- to 14-inch) ovenproof sauté pan or skillet and put it in the oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour: check on the bones after about 40 minutes to make sure they’re just browning, not burning. You want deeply browned bones, and you want the fond—the fatty liquid caramelizing on the bottom of the pan—to be very dark but not blackened. (A fleck of black here and there, or at the edges of the pool, is fine, but charred fond is useless; it will only add bitterness and should be discarded.) Watch as the bones color, and pull them out when they’re perfectly browned.
4. When the bones are browned, remove the pan from the oven and put it on a stovetop. Pour a splash of the sake onto the pan and put the pan over a burner and turn the heat to medium-high. Once the sake starts to bubble, scrape the fond up off the bottom of the pan.
5. Once the fond is free from the bottom of the pan, add the remaining sake, mirin, and soy to the pan and turn the heat under it to high. Bring the liquid to a boil, then lower the heat so that it barely simmers. Cook for 1 hour. It will reduce somewhat, the flavors will meld, and the taré will thicken ever so slightly.
6. Strain the bones out of the taré and season the liquid with 5 or 6 turns of black pepper. The taré can be used right away or cooled and then stored, covered, in the refrigerator for 3 or 4 days.
Ramen broth is traditionally built on a foundation of dashi, the seaweed-and-dried fish broth that is the cornerstone of Japanese cooking. It’s amazing stuff: smoky, a little fishy, loaded with natural MSG.
But when we first opened Noodle Bar and for years afterward, it was impossible for me to find katsuo-bushi (the traditional dried fish flakes) of a quality I was happy with. (I’ve mellowed on that point over the years.) So I got to thinking about how else to get that smoky flavor, that meaty MSG that katsuo-bushi adds. And what’s the smoky meat most common to American kitchens and cooking? One you can get a good-quality version of almost anywhere? Bacon.
So that was the thought process that prompted my substituting bacon for katsuo-bushi in the Momofuku ramen broth and, later, in the dashi we use. The results are awesome. Bacon dashi smells almost exactly like traditional dashi but the flavor is completely different—smoky but not fishy.
Even if bacon dashi is my favorite, and traditional dashi is a close second, there’s no reason in the world not to have a jar of instant dashi powder on hand: it’s cheap, it has some flavor, and it really is instant. Sometimes it’s a lifesaver.
traditional dashi MAKES 2 QUARTS
Stir ¼ cup miso into this, throw in some tofu and/or mushrooms or shredded nori or whatever you’ve got around, and you’ve got miso soup. Katsuo-bushi is dried smoked bonito; it’s available shredded in bags at every Japanese market on the planet.
One 3-by-6-inch piece konbu
8 cups water
2 handfuls of katsuo-bushi (see headnote)
1. Rinse the konbu under running water, then combine it with the water in a medium saucepan. Bring the water to a simmer over medium heat and turn off the stove. Let steep for 10 minutes.
2. Remove the pan from the heat and add the katsuo-bushi. Cover and let steep for 7 minutes.
3. Strain the dashi (discard the katsuo-bushi; if you like, keep the konbu to use as directed here) and use immediately, or cover and refrigerate for up to a couple days.
bacon dashi MAKES 2 QUARTS
I can’t overstate the significance of bacon dashi to us at Momofuku. It’s not the dashi itself—though it is delicious—but the thought process that went into it. The successful transposition of bacon from Tennessee for Japanese dried and smoked fish was an important early success for us, and it continues to be a driving inspiration of how we cook.
We respect tradition and we revere many traditional flavor profiles, but we do not subscribe to the idea that there’s one set of blueprints that everyone should follow. I think that in the questioning of basic assumptions—about how we cook and why we cook with what we do—is when a lot of the coolest cooking happens.
You can use this anywhere you’d use regular dashi. We like to pour it, hot, over shaved raw or blanched or pickled vegetables (usually a mix) and shaved raw mushrooms (like porcini or lobster mushrooms) in a small bowl, for an elegant first-course/amuse-bouche-type thing. And it’s excellent with clams; see the recipe here.
Two 3-by-6-inch pieces konbu
8 cups water
½ pound smoky bacon, preferably Benton’s
1. Rinse the konbu under running water, then combine it with the water in a medium saucepan. Bring the water to a simmer over medium heat and turn off the stove. Let steep for 10 minutes.
2. Remove the konbu from the pot and add the bacon. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down so the water simmers gently. Simmer for 30 minutes.
3. Strain the bacon from the dashi, and chill the broth until the fat separates and hardens into a solid cap on top of it. Remove and discard the fat and use the dashi or store it. Bacon dashi will keep, covered, for a few days in the refrigerator.
Of all the challenges making ramen poses, getting the noodles right might be the toughest. It was for us at Noodle Bar.
Ramen noodles are traditionally fresh flour-and-water noodles made with alkaline salts (sodium carbonate and potassium carbonate, mixed and sold as “kansui” in some Asian supermarkets). They are firm and chewy and, because of the way the salts and flour interact, an oxidized yellowish color that makes them look as if they’re made with eggs, though they aren’t and shouldn’t be. Some ramen shops—especially shops that are part of a chain—make their own using a noodle machine that works kind of like those doughnut machines at Krispy Kreme: dough in one end, noodles (or doughnuts) out the other. Fewer shops make them by hand, and most purchase their noodles.
For the first few years Noodle Bar was open, we bought our noodles—lo mein, not ramen, and not made with alkaline salts—from Canton Noodle Company, an amazing family-owned noodle-making operation down on Mott Street in Chinatown. Canton would be a third-generation business, except that the third generation, the kids my age, isn’t in the noodle business—they’re all doctors or Indian chiefs or whatever. So it’s Grandma and Grandpa and a couple of uncles who make the noodles—covered in flour, pushing around huge amounts of dough through industrial-sized noodle mixers and kneaders and cutters.
They’re about as friendly and genuine as people get, and the funny thing is, with kids who are future leaders of tomorrow and with their own considerable holding of Chinatown real estate, they have no reason to still be making noodles. They always say they’re going to close up shop and take it easy, but they’re still at it today.
Our first problem with the lo mein we were buying was our problem: boiling them to shit and back, which we did for months. We were as guilty of overcooking our noodles as people said we were. (It’s more of a challenge at an understaffed and tiny restaurant than it should be at home, but don’t hesitate to test a noodle every minute or so to familiarize yourself with the arc of doneness any kind of noodle travels.)
Once we got the noodle-cooking thing down, the difference between our lo mein and traditional ramen noodles started becoming more of an issue, especially for me. We needed chewier, firmer noodles—the two qualities those alkaline salts add. But the folks at Canton were not down with changing their program. They said alkaline salts would ruin their machines, that their previous attempts at kansui-noodle making hadn’t been great, that they would do it if that was the only style of noodle they made, but that they couldn’t because they made so many lo mein noodles. In short, they said no.
So I relented on my demands that they experiment with alkaline salts, and we turned our attention to getting the lo mein right. We lengthened the kneading time and added more passes through the roller, trying to get the lo mein to cook and taste like ramen. After three years of tinkering (and listening to people bitch about Noodle Bar’s noodles), it became clear that I was never going to be quite satisfied with the lo mein. At that point, we might have bought the same ramen noodles used at almost every other ramen shop in the city, but then we would have had the same product as everyone else, and that’s not what we wanted.
It was a bummer, but we moved on from Canton and started buying ramen noodles from a supplier, George Kao, who helped us get noodles manufactured to our specs. We also started researching what we’d need to do to make our own. Harold McGee, whose book On Food and Cooking should be on your shelf or your nightstand or your kitchen counter (if it isn’t, you should probably put this book down and go and purchase it posthaste), helped us put the pieces together. A reading from the Book of Harold:
Salted white noodles arose in northern China and are now most widely known in their Japanese version, udon. Yellow noodles, which are made with alkaline salts, appear to have originated in southeast China sometime before 1600, and then spread with Chinese migrants to Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. The yellowness of the traditional noodles (modern ones are sometimes colored with egg yolks) is caused by phenolic compounds in the flour called flavones, which are normally colorless but become yellow in alkaline conditions. The flavones are especially concentrated in the bran and germ, so less refined flours develop a deeper color. Because they’re based on harder wheats, southern yellow noodles have a firmer texture than white salted noodles, and alkalinity (pH 9–11, the equivalent of old egg whites) increases this firmness. The alkaline salts (sodium and potassium carbonate at 0.5–1% of noodle weight) also cause the noodles to take longer to cook and absorb more water, and they contribute a characteristic aroma and taste …. Ra-men noodles are light yellow and somewhat stiff, and are made from hard wheat flour, water, and alkaline salts (kansui).
With that knowledge, Harold’s guidance, and the hard work of Christina Tosi, Momofuku’s pastry chef/everything expert/sole bastion of sanity, we developed the recipe for alkaline noodles, the recipe for the noodles we use at Noodle Bar. We’ve found that if your noodles are really oxidizing—that your flavones are overreacting to their alkaline environment and coloring the noodles to a gray-green—a pinch of citric acid (like the amount of cocaine a movie cop would taste off the tip of his switchblade to confirm that the bust was going to stick) will help.
But, and this is a big but, I really don’t think you need to track down alkaline salts or kansui and make these noodles. Finding the ingredients is a pain in the ass. Of course, if you want to do it, do it, kudos to you. Otherwise, substitute any other homemade pasta you like, or fresh lo mein, which you can buy in any half-respectable Asian food store or super market (a superstocked Japanese grocery might have fresh ramen noodles if you’re lucky), or even rice noodles, which are really great at holding their shape and texture in a bowl of hot soup.
alkaline noodles (aka ramen) MAKES 6 TO 8 PORTIONS OF NOODLES
Using a precise amount of alkaline salts is important when making these noodles, hence the metric measurements. If you’ve got a scale, use it. For information on where to score alkaline salts, see Sources.
5⅓ cups (800 grams) bread flour or “00” pasta flour, plus additional flour for rolling out the noodles
1⅓ cups (300 grams) water, at room temperature, or more if needed
2 teaspoons (7.2 grams) sodium carbonate
Scant ¼ teaspoon (0.8 gram) potassium carbonate
1. Combine the flour, water, sodium carbonate, and potassium carbonate in the bowl of a stand mixer outfitted with the dough hook. Knead on medium-low speed for 10 minutes; the dough should come together into a ball after just a couple minutes—if it doesn’t, add additional water by the tablespoon until it does. After 10 minutes of kneading, you should have fairly elastic, smooth dough on your hands. Wrap the dough in plastic and put it in the refrigerator to rest for 30 minutes.
2. Set up a pasta machine on your counter or work surface. Cut off a ball of dough about 1 cup in size, and keep the rest of the dough wrapped and in the refrigerator. Dust the ball of dough with flour and use a rolling pin to help flatten it out into a rectangular shape that will go through your pasta machine. Roll the pasta through twice on the widest setting, then reduce the width by a setting or two with each pass through the machine, dusting the dough with flour as necessary to keep it from sticking to itself or the machine, until the dough is as thin as the machine can roll it. Cut the noodles using the narrowest cutter for your machine, then use a scale to divide the noodles into 6-ounce bundles. (If you don’t have a scale, a 6-ounce bundle of noodles will probably be slightly larger than 1 cup. Consider buying a scale.) Wrap individual bundles in plastic wrap. Repeat for the remaining dough. You can hold the noodles in the refrigerator for up to a day or so, or freeze them if you’re going to use them down the road.
3. Cook the noodles in a large pot of salted water at a rolling boil for about 5 minutes, until tender but still toothsome (slightly longer if they were frozen). Drain well and deploy as directed.
Our Momofuku ramen is garnished with two types of pork: sliced pork belly and pulled shoulder meat. Pork belly and shoulder are two of the cheapest and most flavorful pieces of the hog, discounting all the goodness you can wring out of the head and the tail.
When we opened we were braising our pork in a mixture of pork stock and soy. It was slow and time-consuming, and the results weren’t ideal. It was an accident that spurred us down a new path: One day I put a pan of bellies into the oven and accidentally cranked it to 500°F. After about an hour, I stumbled across my mistake.
The good: the belly was a beautiful golden brown. The bad: it had rendered out about half its weight in fat. In a restaurant, turning a 10-pound pork belly into a 5-pound pork belly is not good for the bottom line; at home, it’s less of a concern. I chose to look at the upside—I certainly wasn’t going to waste that pork—and to call what I was doing confit. I turned the heat down to 200°F or so and let the belly mellow out in its pork fat bath until it was tender and ready to go.
The results were good. Easy. And quick, in that it didn’t require much shepherding. The high-heat/low-heat method became our de facto way for cooking belly for buns, ramen, everything.
If there was a downside, it was the sheer volume of pork fat we were generating, but we dealt with that by cooking everything in pork fat: we doused our kimchi stew with it to add body and temper the spicy heat, we confited chicken legs in it, we deep-fried in it. Pork fat is amazing, versatile stuff. And while newspapers and the like made a lot out of how “pork-centric” our restaurant was early on—and we are pork-centric, I don’t reject the label—it was really more a function of using up what we were producing as a by-product, not some crusade on behalf of the pig.
pork belly for ramen, pork buns & just about anything else
MAKES ENOUGH PORK FOR 6 TO 8 BOWLS OF RAMEN OR ABOUT 12 PORK BUNS
The best part of this belly, besides the unctuous, fatty meat itself, which we use in two of our most popular dishes at the restaurants—ramen and pork buns—is the layer that settles at the bottom of the pan after you chill it. Most cooks who are familiar with it know it from making duck confit, and they know it’s liquid gold (or jellied gold, if you want to get technical). We label containers of it “pork jelly.” I add it to broths, to taré, to vegetable sautés—anything that would benefit from a hit of meaty flavor and the glossier mouthfeel the gelatin adds.
To harvest it, decant the fat and juices from the pan you cooked the belly in into a glass measuring cup or other clear container. Let it cool until the fat separates from the meat juices, which will settle to the bottom. Pour or scoop off the fat and reserve it for cooking. Save the juices, which will turn to a ready-to-use meat jelly after a couple of hours in the fridge. The meat jelly will keep for 1 week in the refrigerator or indefinitely in the freezer.
We get pork belly without the skin. If you can only find skin-on belly, don’t fret. If the meat is cold and your knife is sharp, the skin is a cinch to slice off. And you can save it to make the Chicharrón we serve as a first bite at Momofuku Ko.
One 3-pound slab skinless pork belly
¼ cup kosher salt
¼ cup sugar
1. Nestle the belly into a roasting pan or other oven-safe vessel that holds it snugly. Mix together the salt and sugar in a small bowl and rub the mix all over the meat; discard any excess salt-and-sugar mixture. Cover the container with plastic wrap and put it into the fridge for at least 6 hours, but no longer than 24.
2. Heat the oven to 450°F.
3. Discard any liquid that accumulated in the container. Put the belly in the oven, fat side up, and cook for 1 hour, basting it with the rendered fat at the halfway point, until it’s an appetizing golden brown.
4. Turn the oven temperature down to 250°F and cook for another 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes, until the belly is tender—it shouldn’t be falling apart, but it should have a down pillow–like yield to a firm finger poke. Remove the pan from the oven and transfer the belly to a plate. Decant the fat and the meat juices from the pan and reserve (see the headnote). Allow the belly to cool slightly.
5. When it’s cool enough to handle, wrap the belly in plastic wrap or aluminum foil and put it in the fridge until it’s thoroughly chilled and firm. (You can skip this step if you’re pressed for time, but the only way to get neat, nice-looking slices is to chill the belly thoroughly before slicing it.)
6. Cut the pork belly into ½-inch-thick slices that are about 2 inches long. Warm them for serving in a pan over medium heat, just for a minute or two, until they are jiggly soft and heated through. Use at once.