A Non-Foodie's Guide to Momofuku




A Non-Foodie’s Guide to Momofuku

Momofuku’s fabled pork buns. Photo by Mikey V, licensed under Creative Commons.

Late last week, the world learned that chef and restaurateur David Chang is planning to open two branches of his Momofuku dining empire in Toronto; both are expected in 2012, near University Avenue and Adelaide Street. These two restaurants (and another branch expected to open in Sydney, Australia, in 2011) will be Chang’s first forays beyond his home base of operations in Manhattan.
To the subset of humanity that cares intensely about food for purposes other than just eating it, the flurry of excitement attending this announcement is totally understandable. But to everyone else it may be puzzling. Allow Torontoist to explain why news about this will continue to pile up in your Twitter and RSS feeds in months to come.

REASON #1: David Chang is a superstar.
Chang, who is of Korean heritage, has made a reputation for himself as an innovator in the realm of a kind of Asian-influenced cuisine that defies easy categorization. His first success under the Momofuku banner was Momofuku Noodle Bar, in New York’s East Village, which served his take on Japanese ramen. (Momofuku means “lucky peach,” in Japanese.) He’s since opened three more restaurants in New York, one initially specializing in a kind of Korean wrap called a ssäm, but that now serves a wider variety of Korean-esque dishes; another offering Asian-inflected fine dining; and the last specializing in Vietnamese-influenced food. There’s also a Momofuku bakery. Each successive opening has earned positive, sometimes glowing reviews, not only from establishment critics, but also from food-nerd bloggers. Chang has won three James Beard Foundation awards. He also famously told foodies who take pictures of their restaurant meals to get lives (not in those words, though), which just made some of them love him more. And he’s still in his mid-thirties.
REASON #2: The perfect blend of exclusivity and democracy.
The Momofuku brand is known for its complicated attitude toward reservations. Only one of the existing four restaurants accepts them on what could be called a normal basis. Two only accept reservations for special group-oriented prix-fixe meals, and one, Momofuku Ko, which opened in 2008, has only twelve seats, all of which are available only by reservation on Momofuku’s website. Reservations open at 10 a.m., and are reportedly (usually) gone in seconds. Even Frank Bruni, the New York Times‘s food critic at the time of Ko’s opening, wrote of needing to beg readers and friends for help getting his ass on one of the restaurant’s coveted backless bar stools. Food bloggers report surly service at Ko, possibly related to Chang’s above-mentioned mistrust of foodiedom.
Even though these policies are implemented in a pretty egalitarian way (even at Momofuku Ko, where space is extremely limited, anyone can get a reservation if they’re lucky), they’re still premised on the assumption that people will put themselves through ordeals of waiting on lines and/or refreshing web pages just to get seated, leading to situations where everyone eating Chang’s nosh is grateful just to have found a spot in the room. It’s a kind of exclusivity, but it only lasts as long as it takes to eat a meal, and everyone gets to play.
REASON #3: The pork buns.
Chang’s pork buns are rapidly becoming the stuff of legend. Rather than going the Spadina-Avenue dim sum route and filling the white spongy dough with neon-pink pork product, Chang stuffs his with giant chunks of pork belly. Especially now that the venerable Yung Sing Pastry Shop, in Baldwin Village, is closed (or at least on a very long hiatus), this town needs a source of quality bunnage. If Momofuku’s reputation is anything to go by, they will deliver.
REASON #4: The pork everything else.
Chang likes pork, and has been known to include it, or at any rate its byproducts, in unexpected places. At one point in time, Momofuku Ko was serving guests (those who managed to reserve its few seats) appetizers of house-made pork rinds, and English muffins fried in lard; and at Noodle Bar, the broth is made with pork bones and bacon. In swine-mad Toronto—where we now have a restaurant whose whole MO is serving pig, wrapped in pig, wrapped in pig, on a bun—going heavy on the porcine flavouring is probably a good business plan.
REASON #5: The coverage itself.
The rich tend to get richer in any smoothly functioning information economy, which the world of food news certainly is. Chang and Momofuku have been media darlings in the past, and to some extent, that’s its own justification for further attention from the public. Even here.